Why overindulging in the exclamation mark is bad for your writing's health

For my recent 50th birthday my wife gave me (at my request) an electronic drum kit. My daughters rolled their eyes. "Mid-life crisis" they said loudly, without having to say anything at all. (There was general acknowledgement that alternative mid-life crisis choices could have been far worse.)

Anyway, to come to the point. As I work my way through a couple of drumming books and numerous YouTube clips, there's one message that comes through time and time again. It's that good drumming isn't about lots of fancy stuff. It's about keeping a good steady beat most of the time and stepping it up with a flourish once in a while. The art is less about complexity and more about timing – knowing precisely when to break out for maximum impact.

All of this came to mind when I was chatting to editor Heather Kelly the other day. Heather has years of editing experience and has always been an advocate for very sparse use of exclamation marks (or 'exclamation points' as they are called in the US). It is a very lucky exclamation mark indeed that survives Heather's red pen.

Heather's view has always been that exclamation marks should not be used in place of good descriptive writing. In other words, rather than creating emphasis with punctuation, it should be created with words:

'James opened the door. He couldn't believe what he saw!' is not as strong as 'James opened the door then stopped. His eyes widened in disbelief.'

This is a view shared by all the style and writing guides on my bookshelves.

However, Heather has noticed that the exclamation mark is becoming much more common in a lot of today's writing. It runs rife on social media and seems to have jumped the fence from there into emails, web copy and other forms of more 'serious' writing. It has made Heather wonder whether she should move with the times and be a little more lenient in her culling of the mark.

It was while practising my drumming (it really is good for the ageing mind – all that left/right brain stuff) that I realised Heather needs to hold her ground. There is no need to give the exclamation mark a reprieve. It's not just about quality of writing. It's also about allowing the exclamation mark to make its mark, so to speak.

When the exclamation mark is used too frequently, it becomes just another punctuation mark. It loses the element of surprise; it no longer stands out. Just like using the crash cymbal too often on the drum kit, the impact is lost.

Worse still is when the exclamation mark is used in multiples: "Look out!!!" Emphasising emphasis doesn't work, and in this case just makes writing look a bit amateurish. This is even more important in a business context.

So rather than Heather changing her ways, the change needs to come from those for whom 'Shift + 1' on the keyboard has become a ready impulse. Do the mark a favour and tone it down.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Image used under Creative Commons licence: Freebird on Flickr.com

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