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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Fashionable Punctuation!

I have just been reading a historical novel which I very much enjoyed, (I'll call it Book A) but what what struck me on reading it was how many exclamation marks there were on every page! I had a look back to its publication date and found it was first published in 1993!

I have recently read another book published by the same author (I'll call it Book B), this one was published in 2005 and the exclamation marks in it are a very rare breed indeed. Barely a one.

Here is an example from Book A :

"More," she said. "No! don't go!" Her arms closed tighter."I'll be so cold! Stay with me!"

I'm fairly sure that if this passage were in Book B it would read:

"More," she said. "No. Don't go." Her arms closed tighter. "I'll be so cold. Stay with me."

So what has happened to the exclamation marks? Is it that as readers we prefer a more serious tone these days? For without them the passage certainly reads to me as more intimate and less melodramatic. Are there writers out there who have ceased to use exclamation points, and if so, why?

I have read in several creative writing books that exclamation marks are to be avoided in dialogue unless the person is actually shouting. This idea seems to have spread so that we are inclined to believe that any fiction with exclamation marks must be bad fiction.

Renni Browne in "Self-editing for Fiction Writers" says that:

"...there are the stylistic devices that make a writer look insecure, the most notable offenders being exclamation points and italics."

In Book A , the writer certainly did not look insecure, though there were at least one and sometimes as many as six exclamation marks on most pages. But it seems to me the reader is pretty adept at catching the prevailing tone of the book irrespective of the individual punctuation marks, and it was still a gripping and enjoyable read, and was reprinted again recently and was very well received. The punctation seemed a necessary part of her style.

So my question is - is the fashion for no exclamation marks just a fashion, or does it signify that we want to read a different, more serious type of literature?

I have to admit, they are rare on my pages, but then I am the product of a recent creative writing course where they nearly always got a red line through them when they did dare to appear. Perhaps it is the advent of creative writing courses, where the participants must be seen to be producing "serious" work that have endangered the exclamation point.

And by the way, I highly recommend "Self-editing for Fiction-Writers", especially for writers with no critique group to help them along.

Browne and King have a website too, well worth a look if you want to check out the book before buying!

(Apologies, like most writers I just had a bout of insecurity!)


  1. I don't use them myself, but I'm baffled by the hatred of them. They do serve a purpose, and they do not necessarily imply shouting.

    Rather like the abuse of the phrase, "show, don't tell" (which is itself rather telly), I so often see comments such as, "Find a more descriptive way to get the emotion across."

    Well, sometimes a writer wants to be concise.

    Honestly, I think it's a fashion trend. Write now there's a prevailing perception that exclamation points are weak, and no writer wants to appear weak, so many writers will shun the poor punctuation mark.

    It shall turn around some day, though! I'm sure of it!

  2. Well, back in the only creative writing classes I ever took - at school, up to the age of about fifteen - I was told to use exclamation marks sparingly, because they implied laughter at a self-penned joke.

    But surely there are times when give the right upbeat tone, usually in short phrases. No, I didn't! Wait for me! Hey, you! Yes, you with the exclamation marks - bring them back!

  3. I must admit I've cut back on the use of exclamation marks over the years - I tend to feel that too many make my characters sound (or look, on the page) a bit hysterical.

  4. Hi Nevets, Deborah ans Alis, thanks for commenting. I agree with Deborah, they're great in those short phrases as she suggests. I guess none of us want to be seen as weak writers Alis,and perhaps the exclamation mark does make us appear slightly too enthusiastic about our own writing. And Nevets, yes, I'm sick of hearing
    "show,don't tell," particularly as in some sense we do actually need to tell the story.

  5. I think exclamation marks should be reserved for exclamations. If there are a lot of exclamations (as in the first passage you quoted, Dee), then they seem perfectly acceptable. But I think the use of too many of them devalues their effect, and after the punchline of a joke (they're often found in "comic" greetings cards), they seem to remove any element of humour. In that respect, I think they're a bit like canned laughter: an instruction to "laugh now".

    I know at least two people who pepper their communications with exclamation marks, to no positive effect:

    "We went shopping and bought a swede! It was as big as my head!! I shall have to make an awful lot of soup!!!!"

    That kind of thing. I long to tell them to stop! (That last was an exclamation).

  6. Now I think about it, I rarely use exclamation marks but as the majority of my writing is plays, that's maybe not surprising.

    I've only recently come across your blog and have awarded you the 'One Lovely Blog Award' -