One of the most frequently misused forms of punctuation is the exclamation point or the exclamation mark. As an editor, I have frequently told authors with whom I work that I am going to remove the exclamation point from their keyboard. Don’t get me wrong here, the exclamation point has its place in writing, but it is frequently overused or misused. When the exclamation point is misused or over used, it lowers its power.
The exclamation point is most frequently used in dialog, and it is usually used to denote a strong command:
An exclamation point almost always comes at the end of a sentence, but occasionally, it can come in the middle when using dialog that has text tags behind it, such as:
He said, “Stop!” before he reached out to grab the file from her hand.
An exclamation point can also be used to indicate shouting.
He yelled, “I’m so angry!”
This makes a stronger impact than without the exclamation point, and clearly indicates that the person was shouting, emphasizing the point.
Exclamation points are also used to denote a surprise or a shock or something that is in some way astonishing or amazing, even when the person is not shouting.
He said quietly, a shocked expression on his face, “I can’t believe he actually jumped out of the airplane!”
When used this way, exclamation points are a very important part of punctuation. However, there are two consistently misused instances of exclamation point abuse regularly seen on the internet that should be avoided in professional fiction writing:
Multiple Exclamation Points and the Exclamation / Question Combo
Let’s look at multiple exclamation points first:
The window on his car was broken. “I can’t believe this happened!!!!”
Many writers believe that multiple exclamation points will indicate that the comment preceding the exclamation point was very important, very loud, or had a lot of emotion behind it.
Unfortunately, this is a sign of an amateur writer, and a big tip off to editors in the publishing field that the author is inexperienced. We see multiple exclamation points all the time in blogs and personal writings, and I even use them on my own blogs, but multiple exclamation points are not acceptable in professional writing.
A good fiction writer can convey the additional emotion or loudness of the exclamation in their writing along with ONE exclamation point, and multiple exclamation points are simply not acceptable.
That sentence above could be rewritten to say:
He was completely shocked and dismayed to discover the window on his car was broken. He screamed, “I can’t believe this happened!”
Not only have you drawn a better word picture of the scene to your reader this way, but you no longer need the multiple exclamation points. Of course, you may come up with even better descriptive than the example here, but it makes the point.
The other problem exclamation point usage is the question/exclamation combo.
“What?!” he asked. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen?!”
This is a NO-NO for professional fiction writing. If you need to let the reader know the person is yelling or astonished, then do it in the dialog tags and descriptive text, and then only use the question mark in the actual dialog.
“What?” he screamed. His voice rang out in clear shock and disbelief. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen?”
In a novel, the only time you should use an exclamation point is in dialog, unless it is written in such a way that the novel has a narrator speaking to the reader or the novel is written in first person, present tense (sometimes past tense works too), memoir style, and this is not the traditional, common writing style and a very hard one to sell to a publisher, not impossible, but hard. Placing an exclamation point in the text of a fiction novel that is not dialog is one example of something known as ‘author intrusion’, where the author is trying to lead the reader to what they should be able to clearly see by the words and description.
In a professional articles or writing other than fiction, you simply should not use an exclamation point, ever!
Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. When the writing is technical, professional, newsprint, non fiction, you should not use an exclamation point. However, when writing with a more casual style, such as web content or opinion pieces, an occasional exclamation point to emphasize a specific point in the writing is acceptable, but you want to limit their use, never use more than one exclamation point in the same paragraph, and never use the question mark / exclamation point combo.
When an exclamation point is overused, the meaning of the exclamation point, what its purpose is, gets lost. Save you exclamation points for casual writing or dialog and only when you really need it to make a point, and the power of the exclamation point in writing will not be lost.
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