Monday, May 13, 2013

"Hey! Stop that!! I'm exclaiming here!!!"

Don't make this your brand.
Exclamation marks. They serve a vital function. But just as a child can overdose when spooning sugar onto his breakfast cereal, authors can insert too many !!!'s.

Of course, no professional writer uses more than one exclamation point at the end of a statement. In Facebook posts or text messages, there's no shame in writing, "A truck just rammed my car!!!" or "Jonny, don't forget to feed the dog!!" But in writing for publication, two or more is overkill and is a time-honored way of announcing, "I'm an amateur."

"Sure, I know that," you think. So you're tempted to stop reading this post. Don't. Let me share a personal experience that may prove helpful.

When I considered my latest YA manuscript ready for a critique, I contacted a fellow author who has proven herself to be a sharp-eyed critique partner. Tucked among her suggestions for improving my story was this observation: "There are way too many exclamation points--this is something that ha been driven home to me time and time again."

I thought, "Oh? All right then. I'll change a few exclamation marks to periods." I opened my doc, clicked the "Replace" feature and set to work tracking down nothing but exclamation marks. What I discovered shocked me. Her note had been an understatement. I truly did find far too many exclamation marks. Many of them changed to periods without losing any punch at all. In fact, in a quick-paced, action-packed chapter, exclamations must be used more sparingly than you're tempted to do. Otherwise, you simply knock the reader down with too shouts.

For instance, consider the scene after a battle. A soldier bends over a falled commander and feels his wrist. When the soldier finds a pulse, sure, you could make him blurt, "He's alive!" to those huddled around them. On the other hand, if you've already written lots of shouting and orders during the battle, you might want him to say the same words as a statement of relief--"He's alive.--before staunching the blood flow and beginning First Aid.

Another way to trim down the number of exclamation marks is to combine sentences or phrases. Instead of writing, "Bill! Don't shoot him!" simply change the first ! to a comma: "Bill, don't shoot him!"

You don't even need exclamation marks to make a powerful statement. Consider this cliffhanger line at that concludes one of my chapters: “Tell me, impudent little fool, if I give you a choice, is there any particular way you would like to die?” Whoa. Unusual question, right? I could have made the lady speaking these words yell them in anger. However, the low-key, subtle approach really is more effective.

So here's my suggestion as part of your self-editing process. Place your cursor on page one, start the"Find" feature, and scrutinize every exclamation mark. Is it truly necessary? Or are you weakening their effectiveness by overusing them?

Question: Maybe your !'s are under control, but do you OD on other punctuation? A love affair with question marks? Cancer of the semicolon? Do you dash all over your pages? Or maybe abundant ellipses make it look like G.I. Joe targeted your story with a machine gun? Spotting such problems is the first step to eliminating them.

Rick Barry is the author of over 200 published short stories and articles, plus two novels. Visit his personal blog at


  1. Great, another great post!! Oh, waite, I mean.....

  2. Great points, Rick! I think I like ellipses too much....

  3. Great -- reminders!!! Many. . . thanks!!! Hey, I'll always LUV dashes and exclam points and. . . :-)

  4. OH MY GOODNESS!! I'M THE DRAMA QUEEN OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!! Ugh. I think my characters should be as EXCITED!!!!! as I am!!!!!

    That last line in your post? "Spotting such problems?" I see what you did there. Good one. And you probably didn't even pun it on purpose.

    But I digress. AWESOME POST RICK BARRY!! YOU ROCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Lol! I'm glad you all enjoyed it. Iron sharpens iron, and writers can help each other to become sharper in their craft.