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)
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.
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.