Friday, September 25, 2009

Exclamation Points

I am teaching again, this time in Seattle at Hugo House. It's a critique class, and several of my students are (unlike my Rochester students) new to critiquing. This can be a traumatic situation. Today I start reading the first batch of three manuscripts. At the first class session we had no critiquing, since as yet we had read no stories, so I talked about the basics: plot, characterization, structure, etc. I did not talk about punctuation.

And yet punctuation is important. It's also misunderstood. For instance, everyone knows -- or should know -- that the exclamation point usually does more harm than good. Ed Truitt, a science writer at the Weizmann Institute of Science, has a lovely little ditty about this:

"The exclamation point is greatly overused!
One could even say it is frequently abused!
In advertising copy, it repeatedly resounds!
And in breathless prose, it literally abounds!
The poorer the writer, the more frequently the case!
The exclamation point, they readily embrace!
To give a little emphasis! To make a little point!
This punctuation mark they will appoint!
But, to make emphasis perfectly clear,
Good writers generally appear
to make little use of exclamations
and other such typographic affectations."

And yet the exclamation point has its uses. Unless you write for COSMOPOLITAN, these are mostly in dialogue. The copy editor on my novel BEGGARS IN SPAIN did not understand this. She removed all exclamation points everywhere, undoubtedly having been told the "rule" in college. The result was that a six-year-old watching her parents have a vicious fight says, "Mommy. Daddy. Stop it." -- thereby sounding more like a detached cop than a frightened child.

Everything has its legitimate place!


King Rat said...

Do you have a house here in addition to Rochester? You seem to be in Seattle a lot!

Mike Flynn said...

Definitely! The exclamation point is seriously overused!

Daniel said...

I rarely use exclamation marks, but I do use them once in a while (I prefer them to all caps in emails). What bothers me more is the use of multiple exclamation marks after one sentence... and what's even worse than that is when said collection of exclamation marks are in a corporate environment. I think I can count on two fingers the number of times I've used more than one, in my entire life. :)