One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is “The Sniffling Accountant” in which Jerry worries his accountant is a coke-head and will blow through his investments, literally. The subplot involves Elaine breaking up with a boyfriend over his failure to use an exclamation point.
Seems pretty petty? Well, maybe not.
See, the use of the exclamation point is how you separate real writers from everyone else.
A professional writer knows exclamation points are the literary equivalent of Tabasco Sauce. Use sparingly…
No really–stop throwing it all over the place… It’s drowning your prose.
This reads like the flames of hell…
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what the some of the masters say:
The above quote is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, but it was Fitzgerald after all.
Twain did weigh in on the matter of exclamation points in his 1895 essay “How to Tell a Story“‡
“But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you—every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.”
And then there’s British writer, Terry Pratchett:
Elmore Leonard is even more specific on using the mark of the hack:
For those non-writers, 100K of prose is a thick novel.
You get the point…if you think you need to end a sentence with an exclamation point, go back and rewrite your sentence with more vivacious verbs and knockout nouns.
But even if you’re not a writer, this advice should serve you well. After all, you don’t want to be like a certain environmental science teacher:
Linda was a Paper Nazi. She loved recycling. And she loved exclamation points. Big, militaristic exclamation points.
Every recycling email she sent had upwards of twenty or more exclamation points. Even multiple exclamation points standing together at attention like toy soldiers.
Then one day, Linda found Sam’s paycheck stub in the regular garbage Dumpster. (She crawled around the various school Dumpsters and sent nasty-grams via email whenever an irregularity was detected.)
She issued a scathing email to the entire faculty and staff about putting paper in the regular Dumpster.
And she used forty-two, yep, forty-two exclamation points in her email. A record even for Linda.
The English department had a running joke about Linda and her exclamation points. After all, we knew what British author Terry Pratchett had said on the matter, and Linda was a strong case in point:
Anyway, something to keep in mind as you write the great American novel or just an email complaining about a coworker’s lack of regard for Mother Earth. Lay off the exclamation points–
Write on, Friends.
Susan J. Anderson
Foxy Writer Chick
‡ How to Tell a Story, and Other Essays by Mark Twain, How to Tell a Story, (Originally appeared in “The Youth’s Companion”) Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. 1898.