Without punctuation writing would be most difficult to read we would never know when to pause take a breath or what phrases go with what words the entire meaning of our writing could be corrupted when you don’t have commas periods exclamation points questions marks and the like to tell us how we should read something
As you can see from that paragraph above, without punctuation, we would have a hard time reading. Sometimes our mind fills in the gaps for us, but we would have to read it several times to truly understand. Punctuation marks are those little clues that give direction to the reader so we know how read something.
One of the most frequently misused forms of punctuation is the exclamation point or the exclamation mark as some people will call it. As an editor, I have frequently told the 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.
The exclamation point is most frequently used in dialogue, and it is usually used to denote a strong command, “Stop!” An exclamation point almost always comes at the end of a sentence, but occasional it can come in the middle when using dialogue 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, “Don’t do that!” 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. “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, I have seen two ways or misusing exclamation points in professional fiction writing that one should not do: Multiple Exclamation Points and the Exclamation / Question Combo.
Let’s look at multiple exclamation points first:
“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 probably 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 writer will be able to convey the additional emotion or loudness of the exclamation in their writing along with the 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.
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 dialogue tags, and then only use the question mark in the actual dialogue.
“What?” he screamed. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen?”
In a novel, the only time you should use an exclamation point is in dialogue, 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 a very rare writing style and a very hard one to sell to publisher, not impossible, but hard. Placing an exclamation point in the text of a fiction novel that is not dialogue is something known as ‘author intrusion.’
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 dialogue and only when you really need it to make a point, and the power of the exclamation point in writing will not be lost.