To Exclamation Point or Not To Exclamation Point?

Do you remember in grade school when you learned about the impact of the exclamation point? Teachers told us to use it when someone shouts. Over the years, the exclamation point has danced across pages and texts and emails with interesting patterns, but there are rules to using this stand out punctuation.

When I teach business or email writing, I stress the need to steer clear of the exclamation point. Why? People feel yelled at when you use it in business correspondence. Yes, an emoji can soften the blow, but emojis in business? Not a great idea, although even that is changing.

I learned a few years ago that exclamation points are accepted, in fact expected, in text messages. They don't convey the negative tone that happens in an email. Take a quick gander at your text messages. Odds are they don't include punctuation, unless you're texting with someone from my generation. We tend to use proper structure and punctuation. But you will find ! instead of periods or commas. It conveys excitement.

But what about fiction? If a character yells or speaks strongly, can you use this lovely punctuation? 

No.

Yes, that's what I said. No.

Why?

Just like adverbs, using an exclamation point comes across as weak writing. The current expectation is to show the emphasis of the speaker through their actions instead.

Check this out:

Deborah said, "It's purple!"

The exclamation point tells me she emphasized this sentence, but with some more descriptive action, the volume becomes obvious.

She tore the cape off her shoulders and tossed it on the chair. “It’s purple. Purple.”

How do I know she spoke louder? Let's break it down.

  • Tearing a cape off of her shoulders implies frustration.
  • Tossing the cape on the chair shows agitation. 
  • Speaking in two abrupt sentences creates emphasis.

We understand the exclamation point without using it AND paint a more vivid picture of what's happening.

You may be wondering if you can use an exclamation point. Yes, but not a lot. Some people claim you should keep it to no more than one exclamation point per book. You might get away with a few more but use caution.

If you like exclamation points, do a search for them in your manuscript. If you've used several, try to write actions and choose words that show the emphasis instead of relying on our childhood friend, the exclamation point.

Your writing will improve, and your readers will enjoy your stories more.


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