Abusing the Exclamation Point

As a writer, the exclamation point is a lot like jalapeños. One or two in a dish is delightful for it adds spice and flavor. However, if you drown the entire dish in them, it overwhelms and potentially ruins the whole thing.

They do have a purpose, however. Exclamation points indicate emotion, an outcry, or a forceful comment. The Associated Press Stylebook suggests we use them “to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion.” Let’s examine this paragraph:

The sun creeps up over the horizon. It glimmers and shimmers with waves of hope! It’s a new dawn! What will I do with this day?! Where will I go? What will I see? I cannot wait to experience this glorious day!

The meaning of this paragraph is lost in the exclamation points. It’s as if the writer is shouting out each sentence. Somewhere in this paragraph is a subtle message of joyfully greeting a day. Overusing the exclamation point overwhelmed that message.

In today’s Tuesday Tip, we explore three reasons we abuse the exclamation point.

1. We want the reader to “get it.”

Overusing the exclamation point reveals a lack of confidence in our words. It’s also an underestimation of our readers.

Overusing exclamation points is like saying, “You should be excited here. You should feel a sense of urgency here.” We fail to understand that the reader’s imagination will set fire to the words as the story emerges.

Your job is to write with skill, and the reader’s imagination will do the rest.

2. It’s a bad habit

We communicate all day long through email, social media, and texting. This can produce bad habits. We may use all kinds of emojis and exclamation points as we talk. While that’s fine for friends and family, it can be annoying to an editor or a reader.

If you overuse the exclamation point in a query, proposal, or article, an editor or agent will notice.

They receive hundreds of pieces of communication weekly. While they are looking for well-written queries and proposals, there are also triggers that help them narrow their search. If a proposal is perfect, but the cover letter or email is overrun with exclamation points, it might offer a reason to pass without having read the proposal.

3. We just don’t know. . .

Perhaps it’s been 20 years since your last grammar class. Maybe using a ton of exclamation points is what you’ve always done.

Regardless of the reason, once you know better you can do better. Just remember this: If everything is emphasized, then nothing is.

Use the exclamation point, but make it count. Let it add flavor to a well-written query, blog post, article, or chapter. When used sparingly, it will bring life to your writing rather than overwhelm your words.

Your Turn

Take a moment and share on the COMPEL blog about a recent piece of writing. Do you tend to overuse exclamation points? If so, rewrite that piece and share why it’s stronger.

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  1. My early drafts have too many exclamation points. Really? When the editing is over and done, the !’s are few and far between–the way they should be. Making them disappear is the calm after a storm.

  2. Pamela strong Strong: December 18, 2018 at 11:48 am

    I am guilty of over using exclamation points. I do love the exclamation point, but you confirm what my 2 editor friends have told me. As I have been writing since summer, I am more aware and carefully choosing my sentence ending. Your points above give other ways to express my great emotions: with words! I love Compel Training motto: “Write words that move people.” Thank you!

    • Calvonia Radford Radford: December 19, 2018 at 9:53 am

      I will give myself a B on exclamation points. I use them sparingly now due to some previous compel training. I misunderstood it intent. I thought if it was exciting or important, use an exclamation point. Not so.