For Monday, March 14, 2016:
“Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Seriously, though, what’s a writer to do? Fitzgerald doesn’t like exclamation points, Vonnegut doesn’t like semi-colons (neither did my writing mentor, for that matter). Salman Rushdie doesn’t much care for periods, at least in the book I’m reading now.
And, oh yeah … Twain doesn’t like the word ‘very.’ I know, it’s not punctuation, but it kinda sorta is, especially if we can’t use exclamation points.
Is there anything left for us to use? If anyone advocates omitting the ellipsis, I know I’m in trouble. And the dash – but at least I have Emily Dickinson on my side for that one.
It’s a good thing I went through my novel-in-progress and got rid of most (sorry, F. Scott, but I had to leave one or two in) of the exclamation points before I found today’s quote. Whew. I did that on my own, but I get the … um, point.
We can do quite a lot with what we’ve got left, actually. If we’re writing fiction, use dialogue to exclaim, not punctuation. In that dialogue, though, we can’t end it with the crutch of ‘she exclaimed.’ To my mind that’s even worse, because that tells the reader what to see, it doesn’t show the reader what to look for. And it’s too easy. It lets the writer off the hook.
Poetry and descriptive narrative are a little different, of course, each in its own way, and can be harder. So (letting myself off my own hook here because of time and space constraints) that can be a post for another day.
Suffice it to say, some punctuation is obviously needed. And it is all right to break the ‘rules’ every now and then. The key is moderation. If the reader perceives, even subconsciously, that we’re careful and thoughtful with punctuation, then s/he will feel we’ve been careful with everything else, too. When we have to use an exclamation point, then – when nothing else will do – it will stand out and make the reader take notice. And that’s the real point we want to make.