Is this how people talk, Google?! Really excited?!! Like they’re always on the brink of an orgasm?!!!
Yesterday I sent a query to a literary agent.
‘Hi, thanks for this,’ he replied. ‘I’ll give it a read and get back to you within a week.’
Gmail presented me with some instant responses:
‘Thank you for getting back to me!’
‘No problem, thank you for letting me know!’
I couldn’t bring myself to use any of them.
They all sounded like a desperate millennial.
And it’s a shame because, were it not for the exclamation marks, I’d have probably picked one.
‘No problem.’ I wrote back. ‘Thanks for letting me know.’
Exclamation marks are the literal worst.
They remind me of when I was in school, and my hand would stick to chewing gum under the desk. “Urgh. Get it off me.”
In business they make you look needy.
In other writing they seem…I don’t know…unimaginative?
I’m not saying: ‘don’t use exclamation marks.’ Heck, I’ve used them a good few times myself. I’m just saying: ‘Use them sparingly. Use them consciously. Don’t use them as a crutch.’
Laziness is a writer’s deadliest enemy.
If you need to convey excitement, why not do it with words?
Exclamation marks can easily make you lazy.
They get weaker as you use them too
I don’t know about you, but I’m from a typically blue-collar background.
I’ve done all sorts of jobs.
I’ve brushed pheasants out the forest for rich blokes to shoot. I’ve fixed bicycles. I’ve landscaped peoples’ gardens and driveways.
If you’ve done anything like this you’ll know swearing is ridiculously common.
“Got fuckin’ rain tomorrow – fuck,” my landscaping foreman once said. “If it rains, I’m gonna clear the fuckin’ truck, because there’s a fuckin crap load of shit back there.’
Here, amongst polite society, those words stand out.
But sitting in that truck, they flew right over my head. I didn’t even notice them.
It’s the same with exclamation marks – or anything used for emphasis. The more you use these devices, the less power they have. In copywriting we have an expression:
“Emphasise everything and you emphasis nothing.”
You’ll know this if you’ve ever landed on a sketchy sales page – full of red arrows, flashing banners and excessive BLOCK CAPS.
Everything’s crying for attention – so your immediate reaction is: “Jesus, wtf. Get me outta here.’
So it is with exclamation marks.
The great crime novelist, Elmore Leonard, was so against exclamation marks he dedicated an entire section to them in his 10 Rules of Writing.
If I remember right, he said: ‘Use no more than one exclamation mark per 100,000 words.’ That allows you just one exclamation mark across an entire medium-length novel.
I don’t think you necessarily have to follow this lesson.
But I do think it’s a good idea to think about whenever you consider using an exclamation mark.
Stop. Pause. Look again at your sentence.
I’ll bet you can re-write it – and make that nasty punctuation redundant.