The exclamation point. Get attention! It’s urgent! Show excitement! Scream! Shout!
The exclamation point or mark serves a useful purpose in writing. It helps us express emotion or raise the volume on the written word. But too much excitement or shouting could leave your readers plugging their ears, or worse, setting aside your story in favor of a more craftily written piece.
Most of us use exclamation points with abandon in our emails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts. And we use not one, but two!! sometimes three!!! and even more!!!!!
I’m going to make a strong statement here: In writing your novel or nonfiction book, you should never, and I mean never, use more than one exclamation mark. I’ll go a step further and say that you should rarely use even one. Did you notice that I did not use an exclamation mark to punctuation either of the two previous sentences?
The following video is a sketch of an exchange between editor and publisher on the use of exclamation marks. It really made me laugh. It’s funny to me because it’s all too familiar, and the publisher’s verbal expression of the over-used exclamation mark makes a valid, and hilarious, point. After watching it, you may never type another exclamation mark again.
Use your words to create excitement
If you’ve written a well-crafted sentence or paragraph that incites rage, excitement, or pure joy, you probably don’t need an exclamation mark. The language you choose helps the reader feel the emotions you wish to convey. In many cases, an exclamation mark detracts from the emotion of your story. It draws attention to itself, the punctuation, and away from the mood of the scene or description.
This quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald gets straight to the point:
“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
Use exclamation marks primarily in dialogue
An exclamation mark follows an interjection or exclamation. It is used appropriately in fiction and informal writing to express strong or urgent feelings, astonishment, or to issue a command. Most often, exclamation marks are appropriate in dialogue.
The following situations call for an exclamation mark. Notice, “an” exclamation mark is singular–use only one.
- To show raised voice, a shout, or loud noise.
Boom! The bomb exploded less than 10 yards from them.
- To issue a command.
“Stop!” cried the police officer.
- To express amazement or surprise.
Wow! I can’t believe you said that!
- To indicate urgency.
Help! I need help.
Use exclamation marks rarely in formal writing
One of the most abused uses of exclamation marks that I see appears in non-fiction and formal writing. Writers seem to think they can make a point more valid, credible, or important by adding that all too abused exclamation mark.
You can lose 10 pounds in five days just by drinking lots of water!
The previous sentence does not call for an exclamation mark. And I wish I could punctuate the former statement with an exclamation mark. But I won’t, because you get the point.
Your writing should be interesting. You can’t make it more interesting with an exclamation mark.
Your writing should be exciting. You can’t make it more exciting with punctuation.
Try this instead:
Studies show that drinking water before meals helps you feel more full and eat less. Drinking two liters of water every day can increase your total energy expenditure by up to 96 calories per day. (Use research and citations to back up statements.)
If you want to call your readers to action, your writing should be persuasive. You can’t goad readers into doing what you want them to do with a few extra punctuation marks (!!!!!!) Think of overused exclamation marks like the boy who cried wolf: when he legitimately needed help, he had already used up all of his urgent cries for help, and his real need was ignored.
Edit your writing to remove excess exclamation marks
Using too many exclamation marks in writing indicates lazy writing and implies readers are ignorant or lack discernment. Punctuation should never take the place of words.
Here’s your call to action; no exclamation needed: Do a complete edit of your work to find excessive exclamation marks. You can do this easily by using this quick editing trick using Find and Replace in Microsoft Word. Just use the exclamation mark in the Find field.
Check out this punctuation flowchart created by Beth Dunn and Tyler Littwin to help you determine when you could use an exclamation mark and when you should just use words.
Use exclamation marks sparingly. Use your words, instead.