Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

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