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Jan's Writing Basics #4: Overusing Exclamation Points

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's Writing Basics #4: Overusing Exclamation Points

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 7:38 am

Welcome to week 4 of Writing Basics. It’s been wonderful to get to know some new FaithWriters here, and to exchange writing tips with you. Here are the first three classes in a nutshell:

1. Choose interesting words, especially nouns and verbs.
2. Trim unnecessary adjectives and adverbs
3. Pick a tense that works best for your entry, and stick to it.

This is a good place for a plug: I hope you’ll pop over to Ann Grover’s class here, where she’s been teaching grammar basics. We can all benefit from a refresher in commas and gerunds every now and then (and some of us *cough* me *cough* think there’s nothing more fun than a review of possessive personal pronouns. Makes me grin all day).

Today’s Quick Take:

Avoid using clichés. In this case, I’m talking about phrases that have been used before—anything not original to you. Take a look at my first paragraph—did you see that I used the phrase in a nutshell? That’s not mine, and I should have been more original.

There are times when the cliché is just the best way of saying something—maybe it’s the way your character speaks, or it’s just such a good cliché that nothing else will do. But I read lots of Beginner and Intermediate entries that are full of them—it’s as if the writer doesn’t stop to consider her words, or to think of ways to make her writing fresh and original.

Looking through just a few entries from several weeks ago, I found these phrases:

nearly jumped out of my skin
with eyes blazing
their world got turned upside down
couldn’t believe my eyes
her wildest dreams


That’s the sort of thing I mean, and I found those in about one minute of looking. Do one edit where you examine your work specifically for these kinds of clichés, and ditch ‘em.


Now—on to today’s lesson: overuse of exclamation points. My previous classes have been directed primarily at fiction writers; this one will apply equally to writers of non-fiction and devotionals.

When we were first introduced to exclamation points in elementary school, we were told that they indicate strong emotion:

Ben, that cat urped on the new carpet!
I can’t stand lumpy oatmeal!
Stop! In the name of love! Before you break my heart!
Look! A monster is trampling through the petunias!


And this is true, but way too often, beginning writers use the exclamation point when a simple period would do. The bestselling author Elmore Leonard says, in his “Rules of Writing”: Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. I’ve done the math—that translates to one exclamation point for every 133 Writing Challenge entries.

FaithWriters’ own Dub Wright, who teaches college-level writing, subtracts one point per exclamation mark. They flag one’s writing as immature and overly-emotional. Take at look at any handy newspaper or magazine; you’ll find few, if any, exclamation points. In journalism, they’re reserved for things like declarations of war or political assassinations. Pick up a non-fiction book by an established author: no exclamation points.

Exclamation points have a way of making a serious passage sound breathless and slightly hysterical.

The problem of petunia-stomping monsters is getting out of control! If the politicians will not take action, we will do so! Our petunias are far too precious to be trampled underfoot by unscrupulous green meanies!

On the other hand:

The problem of petunia-stomping monsters is getting out of control. If the politicians will not take action, we will do so. Our petunias are far too precious to be trampled underfoot by unscrupulous green meanies.

The second paragraph is calmer, so it is far more likely to be taken seriously as an urgent call to action.

Here’s an example of unnecessary exclamation points in fiction:

I’d just nestled under an afghan with a cup of coffee and a book. A constant wind caused the branches outside my window to beat a steady tattoo on the glass. Suddenly, I heard an eerie, unearthly howl! My heart thumped in my throat, and I lurched up, knocking my steaming coffee to the floor! A brown stain spread across the floorboards as the howling outside continued!

The same passage now, without the gratuitous punctuation:

I’d just nestled under an afghan with a cup of coffee and a book. A constant wind caused the branches outside my window to beat a steady tattoo on the glass. Suddenly, I heard an eerie, unearthly howl. My heart thumped in my throat, and I lurched up, knocking my steaming coffee to the floor. A brown stain spread across the floorboards as the howling outside continued.

Do you see why the second passage is better? The words suddenly, thumped, lurched, knocking (and others) do a fine job of setting the mood of mystery. I’d far rather have my words establish the atmosphere of a story than a little bit of punctuation. Let me say that again: I’d far rather have my words establish the atmosphere of a story than a little bit of punctuation. Using the exclamation point there is like jabbing the reader with your elbow and saying “There—do you get it? That was important! See that? See? See?”

Under no circumstances should you use two exclamation points (or more) in a row. If what you have to say is that shocking, important, or urgent, find the words to say so.

It seems that in all of my lessons, I’ve had to note the exception, and that’s true here, too. Sometimes you just need an exclamation point. After all, sometimes the cat urps on the new carpet. If you’re writing fiction, restrict your exclamation points to within the dialog (not in the narrative), and then only sparingly. If you’re writing non-fiction, it’s almost certainly not necessary—but then again, who am I to argue with this:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! (Romans 6:1 NIV)

Or this…

Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob! (Psalm 81:1 NIV)

Homework: Write a short passage (no more than 50 words) with at least one unnecessary exclamation point. Tell why you might be tempted to put it there, and how that passage would be improved without it.

OR

Write a short passage that you really think needs an exclamation point (and be prepared to defend it).


If you do either of the homeword suggestions, please add a sentence or two with your reaction to the lesson, or a comment on your homework. The most valuable part of this class is the give-and-take of class members.
Last edited by glorybee on Mon Feb 08, 2010 11:39 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby OldManRivers » Mon Feb 08, 2010 8:34 am

The phone rang. It is simply a part of life in the parsonage. The rings and you answer it, not knowing what awaits you in the words that will come. But this phone call brought news I would never have expected.

"Hello, Reverend McWhinnie."

"Sir, we are glad to inform you that you have just won the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes."

"Whoa!"

My wife said that it took five minutes to revive me after I had passed out.
May God's gentle grace be with you.

Jim McWhinnie

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 10:05 am

OldManRivers wrote:The phone rang. It is simply a part of life in the parsonage. The rings and you answer it, not knowing what awaits you in the words that will come. But this phone call brought news I would never have expected.

"Hello, Reverend McWhinnie."

"Sir, we are glad to inform you that you have just won the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes."

"Whoa!"

My wife said that it took five minutes to revive me after I had passed out.


Congratulations on your win, Jim!

A beginning writer might be tempted to put an exclamation point after '...never would have expected', and another one after '...passed out'. The lone exclamation point that you used is perfect.
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Postby dub » Mon Feb 08, 2010 10:55 am

kewl :D
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Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon Feb 08, 2010 11:01 am

When I first met Niagara Falls, I was filled with awe! The sight was so majestic and overwhelming. All I could do was stare,frozen in my steps! The mist rose high into the sky and blended with the heavy storm clouds that hung above me. The wind was shooting the mist into the air, and then back to the earth, appearing like a fine rain.

When I first met Niagara Falls, I was filled with awe. The sight was so majestic and overwhelming, all I could do was stare. The mist rose high into the sky and blended with the heavy storm clouds that hung above me. The wind was shooting the mist into the air, and then back to the earth, appearing like a fine rain.

Removed "frozen in my steps" as a cliche
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 11:35 am

Dub, do you have anything further to add? What reasons do you give your students for leaving the exclamation points out?
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 11:36 am

Thanks, Barb--

You really didn't need to write two versions, but since you did--why do you think the second one is better than the first?

Are there times when you think you'd want to use an exclamation point?
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Yikes

Postby kellielh » Mon Feb 08, 2010 12:35 pm

I just counted how many exclamation marks I used in my entry for "Huh?" and there were 21 of them! Yes, I think that deserves an exclamation as I had no idea I used so many. Yet, they do seem fitting. I will have to edit it and take some out and reread it to feel the change it brings.

Thanks for making me think more. I might do your homework challenge later when I have more time.

Kellie

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 1:09 pm

Kellie, I just popped over and read your "Huh?" entry. Nearly all of your exclamation points are within dialog, and the story is about a time of great agitation. Although you might want to trim some of them, certainly many of them are appropriate.

I'd get rid of the ones in the narrative, for sure.

This quarter's topics sort of lend themselves to excited utterances, don't they?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PamDavis » Mon Feb 08, 2010 1:26 pm

The East Coast is shoveling out after a three foot snow fall! Airports are deserted. Government offices remain closed; and children celebrate the announcement of another day out of school. Highway departments are simply not equipped to deal with rapid snow accumulations of two- three inches per hour.

I have really been trying to use less explanation points; because you pointed out the error in a challenge I wrote. It is not easy. (Yes, I wanted to use at least two explanation points there.) I always believed exclamation points showed strong emotion. So… when I write with emotion I want to use them. I do agree with your reasoning. Stronger words make them unnecessary.
OK, now I’ll try to change the first sentence in the assignment.

The East Coast is shoveling out after an unprecedented blizzard drops three feet of fresh snow.

Pam
With God All things are Possible!

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 1:36 pm

Pam, I absolutely prefer your rewritten sentence, with the addition of the words unprecedented, drops, and fresh. It's a far more objective and mature sentence, without that "Looky!" quality.
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Postby Green Leaves » Mon Feb 08, 2010 3:12 pm

You were pointing your fingers right at me, Jan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Dub, knows I do this all the time. I'll do my homework a little bit later, okay?

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Postby Verna » Mon Feb 08, 2010 3:17 pm

I think some of us exuberant beings tend to speak in exclamations more. I have to watch it, but in personal writing, when I want to use them, I think that's different. Recently, I was doing some editing (not faithwriters'), and some used exclamation marks for every sentence. I thought Where's Dub when you need him?
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Postby Green Leaves » Mon Feb 08, 2010 3:26 pm

Thanks, Verna, that makes me feel better. I try not to use them in my writing overmuch....

Does that get me off the hook? :lol:
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 3:42 pm

Green Leaves wrote:Thanks, Verna, that makes me feel better. I try not to use them in my writing overmuch....

Does that get me off the hook? :lol:


Ummmm...where else would you use them, then? :D
Jan Ackerson

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