From the title, you might gather that something exciting is going on. Something really exciting. Something really really really exciting. Something really really really really… Doesn’t it strike you as a bit of overkill? That’s my roundabout way of bringing us to our next subject, the exclamation point.
I see it over and over again, especially with new writers. For some reason, it seems to be more prevalent with young adult writers. These young whippersnappers like to use the exclamation point to the point of making it meaningless.
Linda walked to the edge of the cliff. It was so far down! She was going to fall! I’d better back up before I slip!
Margie beeped the horn. “Linda! What are you doing? Come on! It’s getting late! Let’s go!”
There are so many exclamation marks that they lose their impact and become meaningless. My great friend and mentor, Carol Davis Luce is the person that kicked me in the butt on this one. She told me that exclamation marks should be used sparingly. That advice has been pounded into my head by many agents and editors. One name I’ll throw at you is Jim McCarthy, a literary agent from the big house, Dystel and Goderich. I had lunch with him one year at a Las Vegas Writer’s Conference and exclamation marks were one of the subjects. He echoed Carol’s words to me. “Exclamation points scream melodrama and exaggeration. Kill them!”
Uh oh. Did I just use one?
There is no specific grammatical rule, per se. However, there is a generally accepted rule of good writing that it is best to kill exclamation marks so that there are no more than one or two per chapter, at the most. If you can get away without using any for several chapters, so much the better. Instead of using an exclamation mark, write the narrative or dialogue to convey the exclamation without using it. Show it instead of tell it. Those are two words I hate (show and tell) because I have the most trouble with those two concepts. However, for this example, I’m able to grasp them well enough to show you how to do it.
Linda walked to the edge of the cliff. The extreme height made her dizzy. She grabbed a nearby tree to keep her balance. I’d better back up before I slip.
Margie beeped the horn and yelled through the window. “Linda, what are you doing? Come on. It’s getting late. Let’s go.”
Notice the difference? Those two paragraphs went from seven exclamation marks down to none. In the first one, I eliminated all of them by describing her feelings instead of plastering a bunch of those marks around some telling sentences. In the second sentence, I cured them by adding a yelling tag.
That was just one example of how you can eliminate exclamation marks by changing how you write your exposition and dialogue. Improve your word pictures and you won’t need them.
I have a bad habit of overusing exclamation marks in personal e-mails. In fact, I always have to go back through every e-mail and eliminate them. I do it every time. I’m very diligent about cutting them from my formal writing but when it comes to personal e-mails, watch out.
Exclamation marks are another habit I’ve noticed in Brit and Australian writers. They tend to use them a lot more. The biggest offender I know of is Australian and one I would call a favorite of mine. I won’t mention his name but he likes to overuse them as well as write passive and head hop. He would never get past a first read with an American agent.
Do yourself a favor. Perform a word search and look for exclamation marks. Dump 99% of them. You will find that most of them you don’t need and if you do, restructure the sentence to say it another way so you don’t need to use them. On the rare occasion where they are unavoidable, of course use one. Try to keep down to no more than say… one per chapter. They’ll have more impact and you’ll be better off if you can stick with that.