That Pesky Exclamation Point!!!

(And Other Annoying Devices)

When I’m editing manuscripts, I somehow turn into the cruel and heartless eliminator of… exclamation points!!! Seriously, I’ve developed a hatred for them! People tend to WAY overuse them! Not to mention italics and bold, and that oh-so-effective use of ALL CAPS!!!!!!!

Here’s a hint to avoid coming across as amateur: Use the above devices sparingly in any writing intended for publication. (I’m being specific here, because in blogs, emails, social networking and text messaging, you’re free to go crazy.)

If you tend to use a plethora of exclamation points, do a search-and-replace in your manuscript and put a period in place of every single one of them. Yep, every one. Then you can go back and add an exclamation point here and there if you really must. But I’m not kidding: V E R Y . . . S P A R I N G L Y.

Same with other means of artificial emphasis: italics and ALL CAPS. Your writing should be so effective by itself that the emphasis isn’t necessary.

As for bold, don’t ever use it in running text! (It’s OKAY for headers!)

Isn’t THIS irritating!!!!


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  • C.W. LaSart

    >I often get in trouble for using these tools when my editor gets my stories, but I prefer to make her cut them out :) How do you feel about italics for inner dialogue-thoughts and such?

  • Laurinda

    >Extra exclamation points don't bother me as much as all-caps. You can't help feel that someone is yelling at you.

    You are right in regards to email & texting, the devices you mentioned are overused.

  • ellengregory

    >And how do you feel about the interrobang?
    (OK, I'm being a tad flippant, but I love this punctuation mark and occasionally insert it into a blog post to see whether anyone notices…) (An interrobang is a hybrid exclamation point/question mark: ‽)

    On a more serious note, I often wonder if I use ellipses too frequently. How many times is too often, do you think?

  • Keli Gwyn

    >FANTASTIC! POST! RACHELLE!

    I really enjoyed it!!!

    I learned a lot, too!

    In all seriousness, I get it. I've seen new writers' work when I've served as a contest judge that included several paragraphs of italicized text in a row and an epidemic of exclamation points. I help educate the entrants as gently as I can.

    I can relate, though. I did the same thing when I started writing my first manuscript and had to search and destroy those enticing exclamation points. I'm in recovery now and am making progress–or so my punctuation therapist tells me. =)

  • J.C. (Chy)

    >Looking back over some of my older stories, I've noticed that I overused all of these. Thankfully, I've gotten better. :) I've noticed that quite a few books have all-caps in them, but they only seemed to work if it was once or twice throughout the book. I agree that most didn't need them though.

    Just curious though: what about an exclamation point in narrative, not just dialogue? Is this okay? (Very sparingly used, of course. I've just read several different opinions on them.)

    ~ Chy

  • Alex Laybourne

    >I am not a victim of the exclamation mark craze thankfully. However, I used to be big on Italics to bring acorss emphasis. I did (several months ago now) what you have just advised. I removed all italic text from my novel, and in the re-right I realized that none of it was needed. The writing, with some very minor tweaking was good enough to make it obvious what emotion I was trying to portray.

    As mentioned by C.W. LaStart, I do use italics to differentiate between the oral and internal dialogue of a character. If I have a scene combining them. Talking to themselves or debating a decision that must make with both themselves and their companions. This isn't every page, and normally only for a few lines at a time. This is fine right? You're saying its all fine just in moderation.

  • Melissa

    >Exclamation marks make me twitch. I think I used two in my manuscript. Not sure there's an appropriate time to use all caps unless someone's trying to devise their own style. Italics? I can deal with those in small doses. :)

  • Jenny Sulpizio

    >OOPS! I mean-oops. :)

  • Patsy

    >You've cheered me up as this is one mistake I don't make.

  • Dianne Dykstra

    >oh boy, this may present a problem for me. I use italics to indicate thought and telepathy. I do use this sparingly though.

  • Kate Larkindale

    >I'm guilty of this too, but luckily usually only in first drafts. But I do serially abuse the ellipses. How many of these can you use in a book without it being overkill? I just can't think of any other way for characters to trail off when they're talking, or have their speech interrupted by another character. Suggestions?

  • Manon Eileen

    >Rofl! You certainly got the point across (not that I ever use bold or italics or exclamation points… Well, rarely ;p).

    This made me laugh so thanks! :D

  • Tonya

    >I now have the strong urge to read my manuscript and see how many of those pesky things I have. Thank you for this post. :)

  • otin

    >I need to go edit now!!!!!!!

    LOL!!!!! haha

  • Timothy Fish

    >WHAT!!! CAN'T YOU SEE THAT IT IS SO MUCH EASIER TO READ WHEN WE TYPE LIKE THIS?! YOU JUST WANT TO SILENCE OUR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION! SHAME ON YOU!!!!

  • Em-Musing

    >It's so hard to keep the exclamation points down when the characters in your head are using them. But, of course, one must to abide by the rules of what's expected.

  • Joyce Magnin

    >Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • Lance Albury

    >I'm fine with stressing sparing use of exclamation points, but the problem with these types of posts is they give the impression writers should ignore all rules of proper grammar.

    Rather than just discourage their use, it would be more helpful to know when editors think they're appropriate. For shouting, interjections, expressions of intense emotion, they're necessary.

    Just as the frivolous use of the exclamation point can be bothersome, the absence of needed punctuation is equally so.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Thanks Rachelle.

  • Heather Sunseri

    >Yeah, but what about the semicolon? I'm not a fan of that thing. And that very well could be because I'm not sure how to use it. So, I NEVER do!!

  • sarah

    >I like what you said…."Your writing should be so effective by itself that the emphasis isn’t necessary." Good advice…

  • Sue Harrison

    >Thank you, Rachelle. It's good to have rules on this stuff. I'm always wondering.

  • Pat

    >I SOOOO don't get this!!!! :)

    Thank you SOOOO much for the freedom to EXCLAIM and CAP LIKE CRAZY in my BLOG POST!!!

    Love you!,
    p

  • Katie Ganshert

    >No kidding – exclamation points in manuscripts bug the crap out of me. It's like my lip starts to curl and everything.

  • Shawn Smucker

    >I've noticed many business books tend to use more variety in fonts, bold, italics, etc. Why is this? Is it more acceptable in that genre?

  • Cossette

    >Oh my goodness, yes. I’ve judged writing contests and exclamation points are so annoying. They are so jarring in narratives, and to have any meaning at all in dialogue they need to be used lightly, like cayenne.

  • Kristi

    >I immediately went back and am doing a global search and to my embarrassment have too many exclamation points … replace, replace, replace.kristi

  • Richard Mabry

    >Rachelle, the only time you’re entitled to use an exclamation point is when you send me an email that a publisher is offering me the standard “rich and famous” contract. Never mind, for that you’d call.You’re right, of course, about exclamation points. And I’ve heard that one semicolon per book is the norm. As for commas, after a professional editor got through with my first (unpublished) book, I could have taken the commas he removed, sold them on eBay, and bought a yacht.One of the best books I’ve read on punctuation in writing is Noah Lukeman’s A Dash Of Style. It’s excellent, yet not widely read or recommended among writers.

  • Olivia Newport

    >I’ve been anti-exclamation point for years. I think I used one in the manuscript I just finished. But I am still unsettled about whether it will make the cut.

  • Rachelle

    >The best advice I ever heard about exclamation points was: Never use an exclamation point unless the sentence is actually an exclamation.It forces you to think through whether the character or narrator is actually exclaiming, or if you’re trying to add emphasis artificially.

  • Sarah Ketley

    >Love your last comment about only using exclamation points when someone is actually exclaiming.Love your blog,Many thanks from an over-user of all types of artificial emphasis.Sarah

  • bobbie

    >Hi. Would love to hear your views on the semi-colon. Two related sentences should not be divided by a comma, but a full stop (UK) period (US) ignores their interdependence.

  • A3Writer

    >As a composition teacher, I have seen all of these put into regular practice by my students, and it drives me up the wall. I’ve actually eased up on the exclamation points as long as they can reduce their usage down to one per sentence. The use of multiple exclamations to denote the level of excitement gives me a headache.Of course, worse than the artificial emphases are the prolific ellipses used to separate sentences, used to denote a change of topic (what should really be a new paragraph) and the belief that more periods indicates a longer pause.Oh, and can someone please tell me when the apostrophe became so difficult to use? I have seen them used to indicate plurals, but most confusingly they end up tacked onto verbs.

  • Melissa K Norris

    >Is it not kosher to use itallics when a character is thinking/praying? Not all the time of course, but little snippets.

  • Marla Taviano

    >Amen. Smiley/winky faces are cool though, right? ;)

  • Michael Offutt

    >Suzanne Collins uses buckets of exclamation points in “The Hunger Games”. She uses seven on page 22 alone of my copy of her ebook (and believe me…there’s a ton more where that came from). She even uses sentences that end in exclamation points and follows up with “so and so hollered” because it’s not enough that the exclamation means someone is yelling. And she’s made millions.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Suzanne Collins is not my mentor. I am happy for her success, though.

  • Maril Hazlett

    >Thank you, I needed this giggle today. I overuse dashes and parentheses horribly myself.But I think I might qualify your point about feeling free to go crazy with exclamation points on social media. I re-read my Twitter stream one day and realized to my horror that five out of seven recent tweets used exclamation points. Copiously. Yes, there were good reasons and I used them mostly in separate conversations – but the end result looked baaaaad. Like, high school note passing/ texting about last night and did he call tee hee hee level of interacting kind of bad. So I’m trying not to do that anymore. !!!!

  • Rebecca Stroud

    >So I won’t get in trouble for naming a specific person, there is a very famous author with the initials of J.P. who lost me as a reader because of his incessant use of the exclamation point. I mean, it got so that an innocuous statement such as “I ate dinner.” turned into a major accomplishment (as in “I ate dinner!!!”). ‘Nuff said.

  • Rachelle

    >I hope my post made clear that I was referring to italics used for emphasis. I didn’t address any other uses.And just so you know, CMS now says it’s NOT correct to use italics for thoughts, but it’s a subjective style decision and many editors still allow it.

  • Jeanne T

    >Fun post, Rachelle. As a “writer-in-learning” I hear the fun, but also take heed of the points you make. I’m going to have to go back through my wip and look at exclamation points, and more closely at the italicized words. Thanks for the challenge to make my writing good enough that I won’t need them.

  • Marji Laine

    >Thanks so much for your wisdom and insight. I had no idea I was waving the “I’m a newbie” flag with my exclamation points.

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >The formatting in this post made me laugh so hard.I agree exclamation points should be rare, only used when a character is making a very loud or sudden or excited exclamation. In line to line prose, I can’t imagine it ever being completely necessary. (Well, at least in third person. If the story’s in first, see the first line of this paragraph.)I tend to use italics to show a character’s thoughts. Old manuscript guides I’ve seen say to underline these passages so they’ll be more visible to the copyeditor, and they’ll be converted to italics in the final print, but the newer ones seem to think that since everything is electronic these days, using just the italics is fine. What are your thoughts on this? Which would you prefer to see in a manuscript.

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >Never mind that last point, then. I see you’ve addressed it a few comments above mine. I swear I didn’t see it the first time through. To make up for it, I have not used any exclamation points in this paragraph.

  • Elena

    >This post reminded me of the “Seinfeld” episode when Elaine gets bent out of shape because her boyfriend did not use an exclamation point at the end of a note, and broke up with him because of it!

  • Sara Grambusch

    >It’s so true. I get used to writing like that when I blog and then have to transition when I start my WIP.

  • Beth K. Vogt

    >As an editor, I thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. (I used repetition to emphasize my thanks instead of an exclamation point or italics or bold or all caps.Won’t do it again.)My pet peeve is ALL CAPS because it equals yelling–and who wants to be yelled at? (Unless, of course, your character is yelling for some reason. Like maybe they’re falling off a cliff.)

  • Nairam

    >This drives me crazy too!!! I’m the exclamation point slayer when I critique peers’ novels…

  • Robert Michael

    >Punctuation is so much fun. I laugh out loud when I read EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES. It helps that she has a British sense of humor.Good punctuation coversation here would be fun, I am sure. Especially the comma. I’m with Mr. Mabry. I over-use or under-use the comma so much. And dashes. Heck, I would put poor Emily Dickinson to shame. I am having my manuscript edited before I send it out and I am dreading all the red.

  • Kelly Combs

    >I had to grin through this whole post because I love a good exclamation point! But it’s because I am so enthusiastic, everything I say is an exclamation! Woo-hoo!I noticed this habit of mine before this post, and have tried to weed them out of my writing for publication. I am still guilty of this in my emails. But my friends know it’s just me being me. YAY!

  • The Pen and Ink Blog

    >Thank God for find and replace. I have identified two of my favorite (and over used) words. I have used that function to eliminate most of them form may manuscript. My two favorites seem to be “just” and “even” I will now go back and do a search for “!”

  • Mary Kate Leahy

    >How do you feel about italics for dreams, inner thoughts, etc? Exclamation points don’t really bug me, but I hate all caps. I try to only use exclamation points when someone is actually exclaiming :)

  • readgreatfiction

    >What is your suggestion for differentiating inner dialogue since italics are losing favor?

  • LV Cabbie

    >Darn!Another one of these writing rules founded in cement!Can’t one do ANYTHING original?My goodness!What if I use dialogue of someone who always speaks in exclamation points!?I _really_ am going to have to think about this!

  • Kathi Oram Peterson

    >So true! And I love !!!! Sad, but you’re right.

  • Jan Cline

    >But I love the exclamation point…I think it’s the performer in me, you know drama, drama, drama. Seriously, I have tamed my expression over the last few years. That and unnecessary words are out of style. At least I hope. http://www.jancline.net

  • Heather Marsten

    >OH DARN !!!!!!Guess it’s back to dry prose :PStill, wonder in a first person novel how does one handle inner dialogue without italics?Thanks.Heather

  • Flower Patch Farmgirl

    >I will sleep fitfully tonight over my zealous instinct to italicize.

  • Taz

    >I’ve improved dramatically concerning use of !!! And when I go back and re-read my MS and hit upon places where I used italics, I generally remove them for of a number of reasons. The main one is that no matter what I was thinking at the time of writing, I’m not thinking with that same intensity anymore and the written novel is now guiding me through the story as a reader, not the writer.One question I have, because I’ve seen it done often (and therefore considered it fit to copy and have to admit I like it when I see it) is very minor use of sentence-case bold italics to show the voice of God. The instances in which it is used conveys ‘conversation’ between the character and God. It made perfect sense as I read it. Do you (personally) see using this method acceptable when conveying a character’s thoughts and the voice of God? I’m talking like three lines at best, not humungous, great big diatribes on every page in every chapter.I also see plenty of instances where a character’s internal thoughts are italicised and love it. I love knowing the person I’m following through anybody’s story has a brain constantly at work and those often cheeky moments can be hard to beat sometimes. For me, a character’s thoughts in italics are show not tell.

  • Lyndieb

    >The exception to the exclamation rule is, of course, when you are Tweeting about your team wining like the Mavericks did on Thursday.

  • Ruth A. Taylor

    >I always question the use of exclamation points when writing and try not to use them. That being said, I still find too many in my manuscript every time I go back over it.

    After I finish my most recent edit (I can't seem to stop going back to it) I'll do a find and remove some of them, even though they're sparse.

    As I continue on with my writing journey, I deem that I will use less as time goes on. It's one of those learn as you go processes.

  • patti.mallett_pp

    >Warning taken (and needed). THANKS!!!!!! ; )

  • Peter DeHaan

    >In my day job, I see way too much of all the devices you mentioned — and it does look amateurish. In one severe instance, a press release contained more caps, bold, and italics then "normal" text.

    I need to put forth extra effort with submissions containing these irritants, so they are more likely to be summarily deleted — especially if I am near a deadline.

  • Susan Flett Swiderski

    >I couldn't agree more with your stance on exclamation points. There is a magazine, which shall remain nameless, that floods every single page of every single issue with them. To this magazine's editors, everything, I tell you everything, is exclamation-worthy. Nothing is too trivial. Makes what should be simple statements come across as juvenile as a convention for hysterical teenaged girls.

  • friendtoyourself.com

    >This is tangibly helpful to me. Thank you.

  • Tina Moss

    >Guilty as charged with the exclamation points. Working on it.

    Your advice on inner dialogue:
    "And just so you know, CMS now says it's NOT correct to use italics for thoughts, but it's a subjective style decision and many editors still allow it."

    If not italics, what would be the standard?

  • Mike Koch – Protect The Risen

    >I'm not a big fan of exclamation marks either, but I do use them sparingly. Italics I like to use for dream scenes mainly. I think it helps the reader to understand that they are reading an aside from the main story line. One thing I hate more than anything as a reader myself is to not know when I'm in a dream sequence. So I make sure it is obvious in my writing.

    *******

    What about the use of a bunch of asterisks across the page to separate thoughts or transitions from one character to another? They are like a page breaks or internal chapters. I've seen them used to show simultaneous events, or opposing movements of the protagonist vs antagonist.

  • J.L. Murphey

    >I'm more a fan of exclamation points than all caps. Although when writing dialogue it is easy to add a line of tension to replace the exclamation point so the reader knows the urgency.

    I hate bold other than chapter headings. the same thing goes for ellipses and emdash overuse.

    As an editor, I find a lot of good uses for these punctuations, but as with anything in life, extreme is bad. I'll red line them all.

    I find five or six POV separations in one chapter irritating. These should be limited to three at most. Two is better. The symbols used for these POV shifts can vary in the advent of e-publishing the standard two line spacing is not visible. These symbols should in my mind be limited to four of five asterisks at most.

  • ok media man

    >So what you are saying is the people should sound in writing the way a boring professor sounds during a lecture on a moth. Never emphasize a point, never raise your inflection, never do anything but drone on, and on. Boring.

  • Mike Koch – Protect The Risen

    >Media man, I believe what we are all agreeing with is that if our writing skills are developed enough, we won't need the exclamation point very often. As with all things, moderation is key. If you had a slice of cheese cake you wouldn't douse it with chocolate, rather you would drizzle a small bit on top. It looks better, and does not distract or over-power the flavor of the cake itself. The cake afterall is the main part of the dessert, and the chocolate is just an eccentuation.

  • Paul

    >I'm with Lance: these punctuation forms are there for a reason and used intelligently are useful.

    People do exclaim, and they do emphasise; and I might use CAPS for something like a loud speaker announcement or an urgent, screamed warning.

    Readers should not always have to decide what these emphases might be for themselves, no matter how expert the writing. Clarity sometimes works.

    Rather than a rant like this (sure, it gets us going), a better approach would be to describe where they can be useful and in what context.

    BTW, as well as Hunger Games, take another read of Harry Potter. Doesn't bother these authors or their editors and publishers it seems. Depends on whether you want to sell hundreds of millions of books I guess.

  • Kat

    Guilty!

    I use exclamation points so frequently I even annoy myself. I’ve been concentrating on not using them, but they seem to ! sneak into my ! text when I’m not ! looking!

    Seriously – thanks for the post. It helps to hear it from someone else. I’d hate to correct a problem that no one else thought was a problem. ;)

  • http://www.safkhetpublishing.com KimatSafkhet

    I have just finished a manuscript myself and had plenty ALL CAPS!!! Bold italics and boring dreadful double spaces.
    I thought I got rid of it all when my colleague said “check for triple spaces, with this author, you never know”!
    I thought – ah, no, nobody would do that! Right?
    Wrong.
    I searched for triple spaces and found 68. I then went for quadruple spaces and found 19. I thought surely nobody uses 5? I found 5. And there even was one 6 spaces thing in the manuscript!!!
    Why ?!!!

  • http://autosmssystem.com/cmd.php?af=1436111 Andrew Pelt

    The guy in this video just basically came out of nowhere and turned the entire Web Marketing and advertising community upside down. I’m serious. Folks are entirely flipping out over this (and for excellent reason). It is possible to see the video here: Crazy Marketing Method Video

  • angela clarence

    And there’s no getting round it, I can’t take sentences ending in a preposition – it’s more and more common and it feels old fashioned when you try to get round it…but it still drives me crazy!

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