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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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Postby Tricia » Mon Feb 08, 2010 4:01 pm

Sue returned to her hometown in Cleveland after living in South Africa for more than 20 years. As she stepped from the plane, a middle aged man approached, grabbed her bag, and ran to a waiting car. Sue exclaimed, "I hope he likes Macadamian nuts because that's what's in the bag!"

I can see why an exclamation point could be appropriate here, but I rarely use them. I think it could be used in the sentence, "Hey you, come back here with my bag!"

Tricia
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Postby Verna » Mon Feb 08, 2010 4:18 pm

I use too many exclamations in e-mails--forum threads--personal letters to FAMILY and Close friends--Just not formal writing of any kind, hopefully.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 4:42 pm

Tricia wrote:Sue returned to her hometown in Cleveland after living in South Africa for more than 20 years. As she stepped from the plane, a middle aged man approached, grabbed her bag, and ran to a waiting car. Sue exclaimed, "I hope he likes Macadamian nuts because that's what's in the bag!"

I can see why an exclamation point could be appropriate here, but I rarely use them. I think it could be used in the sentence, "Hey you, come back here with my bag!"

Tricia


Tricia, in this case, I think I'd use 'muttered' instead of 'exclaimed', and change the exclamation point to a period. "I hope he likes...." seems too long to be an exclamation.

However, if Sue said the "Hey you..." bit, the exclamation point would definitely work.

I hope she gets the Macadamia nuts back. Yummmmm.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Cajunluvie » Mon Feb 08, 2010 4:47 pm

Today was the last day for Maribel at Wilscot Glen Elementary as a fifth-grader! She was too excited to wait patiently until the closing bell rang! Mrs. Lewison scolded her for her impatience!

This example shows how redundant the exclamation marks are in the sentences. We already know that the character is likely a young child who is excited to get out of school so we can imagine that without being told.

Maribel was so excited because today was her last day at Wilscot Glen Elementary as a fifth-grader. She wriggled in her seat and craned her neck so she could check the minutes on the clock until the closing bell would ring. Mrs. Lewison gave her a warning glare and shushed her with a lift of her finger to her lips.

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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:05 pm

Verna wrote:I use too many exclamations in e-mails--forum threads--personal letters to FAMILY and Close friends--Just not formal writing of any kind, hopefully.


Interesting point. It's all about genres and their conventions.

After leaving the law school where I had taught for 10 years, I sent a fundraising packet to my former colleagues asking for support for the National Legal Foundation, the public interest law firm I run ("public interest = charity--we don't charge our clients and live off of donation from the public). I was worried that they would be put off by the writing style of our fund raising letters, so I sent them a "pre-package" to warn them about this very issue (with a segue back to asking for donations).

This part of the letter says this:

As you read these letters, you will notice that the techniques used for writing a good fund raising letter are considerably different from the techniques used for good legal writing.

You will notice many paragraphs that contain only one sentence.

Or maybe just a fragment.

Many sentences will contain such exciting content that I need to end them with an exclamation point!

Or two!!

BUT . . . even that may not be enough! I may need to do an all caps outburst—maybe even in bold—or insert ellipses for no good reason, or underline OR DOUBLE UNDERLINE!

Once you’ve enjoyed analyzing fundraising techniques, I hope you will pray about supporting the NLF. To that end, I’ve attached a form at the bottom of this letter for you to fill out if you would like to donate to the NLF.


I can't double underline in this post, but you get the idea--there was some doubl underlining in the original.

Anyway, Verna's comment jogged in my mind a very important rule of writing: Each genre has its own rules, rules of thumb, and conventions; and we need to master them individually. This is true not just of family emails, fund raising letters, and Challenge entries, but also of novels vs. short stories; genre fiction vs. literary fiction (and one genre vs. another); one type of non-fiction vs. another type (e.g. newspapers vs. academic vs. trade journals); etc; etc.

I know this class is geared towards basics, but as beginning, intermediate, and even advanced writers search for advice, read "how to" books, or attend seminars; we need to remember to keep this in the back of our minds. In what field or fields do the advice givers have experience? Are they properly limiting their advice to appropriate confines? If not, we need to figure out where their advice can be applied and where it can't.
Last edited by swfdoc1 on Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Symphonic » Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:08 pm

Wow, Jan! A lesson on overuse of exclamation points! That’s great!!

Seriously, I think that our media/internet-obsessed culture encourages textual screaming. Just a few days ago, I realized I had written a Facebook message that said something like:

Hi, Sue! Wow, it’s great to hear from you again! Your kids are SO cute, and I can’t believe little Timmy is already eight! Hope we’ll be able to get together soon!

Eek!! It’s horrible, and so easy to do. You’re right–-writers should be able to express themselves without artificial histrionics.

I agree that exclamation points have little place in non-fiction–except, perhaps, when you’re writing for children. Here’s an excerpt of something I once wrote to prepare kids for an orchestra concert (with a circus theme):

The “Sabre Dance” is a fast and fiery dance composed in the style of Russian folk music. Like a well-rehearsed circus act, the “sabre dancers” must have perfect coordination and timing... because they’re dancing with swords! (Don’t try this at home!)

Now, if I were writing a program note for adults, I might say something like:

Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” captures the thrill of watching a Russian folk dance, superbly executed, with flashing swords...

Well, that’s not very good. But I've used exclamation points quite a bit in writing for children-–perhaps to make the educational content sound more exciting, or to emphasize some piece of information.

In fiction, the use of exclamation points sometimes depends upon the narrator. Some characters-–small children, excitable or melodramatic adults-–seem to need exclamation points. One of my first EC stories was written partially from the POV of a small child:

It’s Christmas morning!

I run out to the living room. The tree is all sparkly and bright, and there’s a big pile of presents. Mommy says most of them are for me!

I tear the wrapping off the first present. It’s a huge box of crayons, one that has all the colors! And the next box has a whole bunch of coloring books. I count them: one, two, three, four. Wow!


For an adult or even a slightly older child, it would have looked ludicrous. For my four- or five-year-old MC, I think it worked.

It’s not hinting time yet, so I can’t say much about my “Grrr!” entry. But I’ve been concerned that it may be a little too understated. I’ve actually wondered if it could've use a few more exclamation points... but now I feel better about it!

And since I've used up my quota of exclamation points for the next month, I'll stop there...
Carol S.

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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:40 pm

I know this class is geared towards basics, but as beginning, intermediate, and even advanced writers search for advice, read "how to" books, or attend seminars; we need to remember to keep this in the back of our minds. In what field or fields do the advice givers have experience? Are they properly limiting their advice to appropriate confines? If not, we need to figure out where their advice can be applied and where it can't.


P.S. I'm not talking here about you, Jan. You always give context, usually about challenge entries or fiction generally, sometimes with specific sub-sets. Once in a while non-fiction. I was just thinking of 3 things: 1) comments I've read on various writing websites from post-ers who seem confused by feedback they've gotten on a piece they've posted, usually in the form of "Well so-and-so says to do what I've done" and 2) students whom I've had who did a fair amount of writing in undergrad and could not adjust to the LEGAL writing style; and 3) similarly, students who have gone to the university writing lab and gotten advice that is good for some academic fields but not for legal writing and been upset when their grades reflected the incorporation of that advice instead of their legal writing profs' instruction.
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby Cajunluvie » Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:48 pm

Thanks for sharing. It is something to think about with the genres of writing. I hadn't thought of that.

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Postby Green Leaves » Mon Feb 08, 2010 5:54 pm

Let me lead off by first saying, I, more than anyone else, NEED this lesson (and here I would place an exclamation point) normally. It's like Verna has said, I use them in my correspondence on a regular basis...all the time.

Here is my homework. It is actually an example of both of your assignments from a poet's perspective:

From my children's poem, "Daniel and the Lions' Den:

"My God sent an angel and I am unhurt,
I didn't become the lions' dessert!"
The king, overjoyed, then set Daniel free,
No blood was found on him, no wounds...not a flea!


Now, looking back on it, I believe the first exclamation point, after "dessert", should be eliminated, but I still think the one after "flea" should be kept...especially in a poem for children. Am I wrong? I think it emphasizes the miracle of being unharmed by the lions.

Carol Penhorwood

Now I need to go back and read the others' homework.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 6:22 pm

Cajunluvie wrote:This example shows how redundant the exclamation marks are in the sentences. We already know that the character is likely a young child who is excited to get out of school so we can imagine that without being told.


Exactly--and your second one is far better at "showing, not telling".
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 6:28 pm

Steve and Carol S., thanks so much for pointing out that it's all about the genre.

Steve, you're right that my classes are directed primarily at Beginning and Intermediate writers of the Weekly Challenge, and I hope that they'll be able to generalize what they learn here to other writing, eventually. Fundraising and legal writing are so far under my radar, they're practically subterranean, so I really appreciate your insight into the norms there.

And Carol, you're absolutely right about writing for children. I think one reason for using exclamation points in children's writing--especially for quite young children--is that it's meant to be read aloud to them. Children respond well to exaggerated emotion; indeed, it's one of the ways that they learn appropriate emotions.

Again, I've written very little for children (by that, I mean nothing at all), so it didn't occur to me. Thanks a bunch!

There...I used one^, right up there--see it? And I'm keeping it.
Last edited by glorybee on Mon Feb 08, 2010 6:36 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2010 6:34 pm

Green Leaves wrote:From my children's poem, "Daniel and the Lions' Den:

"My God sent an angel and I am unhurt,
I didn't become the lions' dessert!"
The king, overjoyed, then set Daniel free,
No blood was found on him, no wounds...not a flea!


Now, looking back on it, I believe the first exclamation point, after "dessert", should be eliminated, but I still think the one after "flea" should be kept...especially in a poem for children. Am I wrong? I think it emphasizes the miracle of being unharmed by the lions.

Carol Penhorwood


Carol P. , I agree that you could keep it, since it's a children's poem. See my previous post for reasons.
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Postby Green Leaves » Mon Feb 08, 2010 6:45 pm

Thanks, Jan, for your input. But in looking at that poem, "Daniel and the Lions' Den", I found I DID use way too many exclamation points. I just used a sample verse to justify one and eliminate one.

I am learning so much from your classes. Now my biggest problem will be remembering it all.

Carol
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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 08, 2010 7:47 pm

glorybee wrote:Fundraising and legal writing are so far under my radar, they're practically subterranean, so I really appreciate your insight into the norms there.


The examples of legal writing and fundraising letters are not going to be of much use to folks here, but I used fundraising (especially) as an example that people can see as a "genre" that is radically different from most others (and which they will be familiar with if their mailboxes look like mine), so that they could easily see how "rules" can be very different from one genre to another. Of more help to some folks might be the point that academic writing is just one style (with many sub-styles) since some folks here may be students or recent graduates, and the reminder to adjust styles might be helpful. Also, I think some folks may write both fiction and non-fiction, and again the reminder to adjust styles might be helpful.

Just as an aside, if anyone has ever been annoyed by the writing style of most fundraising letters, it may be interesting to know that we write fundraising letters as we do because the techniques are proven. It's pretty much a science, although there are certainly different schools or camps, as well as folks who ignore the "science." Techniques are tested using what is called an A/B split. For example, 50% of the donor list will receive a letter with shorter paragraphs and the other 50% will receive a letter with longer paragraphs, everything else being the same. Or 50 % will receive a letter with regular underlining and the other 50% will receive hand underling, or 50 % will receive a letter with red underlining and the other 50% will receive blue underling. Or to return to more pure writing issues, the split may be between more or fewer ellipses or dashes or cap outburts or bullets. You find out which generates the better response rate and incorporate that into future letters. And of course this has to be done repeatedly as tastes change, as techniques lose their novelty, etc. It is a fascinating opportunity to see how every little thing impacts readers' reactions.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon Feb 08, 2010 9:08 pm

Now I am paranoid about using exclamations in my posts :) Guess the smilies will work instead? :)

When welcoming someone to the boards, I want to use it as emphasis that they are indeed welcome. Same for the simple word- praying.

Am I on the wrong track here, or just "E.P." enthused?
Barb Culler

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