Saturday, January 29, 2011

Exclamation marks!!!!

Many years ago, in the days of typewriters, I sent a children’s book to a publisher I picked from a list, using a pin, and with my eyes closed, of course. Then I waited for the contract to arrive and old Walt to get in touch and discuss film rights. (Weren’t those days of ignorance sheer bliss?)
I got a no but a kind editor gave me some advice. He pointed out that his company didn’t actually take the sort of book I had written and told me about something I’d never heard of then – The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
I had asked, in a cheeky covering letter, if he thought I should sell the typewriter and buy a knitting machine. He was kind enough to tell me to hang on to the former but to learn my craft and then came the sentence that has stuck with me ever since. ‘The overuse of exclamation marks is the sign of a true amateur.’
Nowadays I am always surprised how many I see scattered around students’ assignments and stories sent to me for critiques. (I shouldn't be because I probably used even more when I started out.) Naturally, I have learned that ! is not necessary at the end of nearly every sentence and should only be used for exclamations. The clue is in the name. It’s an Exclamation Mark!
Save them for real exclamations such as Ouch! Help! Look out!
As every rule is broken you will discover that the children’s stories in certain magazines contain, on average, fourteen exclamation marks, most of which are not needed. But, if a magazine likes them and uses them I advise students to write their piece first and add the ! later.


  1. It's funny how we start out full of dreams (Walt) and hopes (contracts) and exclamation marks. I am still guilty of overusing them.

    I'm very glad you didn't swap your typewriter for a knitting machine! (oops).

  2. Me?!? Overuse exclamation marks?!? Never!!!

    Seriously though, I too remember sending my first ms off and being convinced it would be turned from a book to a film. I'd never have been able to handle all the fame so it's just as well it came back with a polite rejection.

  3. I definitely abused the exclamation mark back in the day. I also used to write a story and send it off to a magazine, then buy the magazine every week hoping it had been published ...

    I've learnt a lot since then! (That was an ironic exclamation mark.)

  4. I could have handled the fame, Rosalind! And somehow I think we need exclamation marks in emails and on blogs, rather like smiley faces, because you can't always tell the intention/mood behind the comment.
    No knitting machines or even needles for me.
    And Karen, when my early work appeared in print I'd sometimes spend more on buying the magazines than I'd earned from selling the story! (now that deserves an exclamation mark.)

  5. I always say to my students, the exclamation should come from your text, not from your punctuation. And grammatically it is wrong too. An exclamation mark is an end of sentence punctuation mark, so you don't see sentences ending ........ or ???????????? so why should !!!!!!!! be any different?

  6. I have a pathological hatred of all things exclamation.