Student Writing Tip #2: Exclamation Marks


frog surprise

Though it is true that even the most information-laden pieces need energy, that energy should come from words, not punctuation.  Just as a human being cannot live well in a perpetual state of excitement, few writing pieces bear up well under a constant stream of commands by the author to be excited or surprised. Readers soon weary of the ubiquitous exclamation so that eventually it loses its power and simply becomes a distraction. Use the exclamation mark sparingly; this handy punctuation tool can assist in adding emphasis, but only if used appropriately.

Weak writing depends on punctuation to convey meaning.  Punctuation enhances and supports a piece; it does not carry the piece.  If you want to show excitement, then show it through description and pacing of narrative.  The following examples demonstrate how that might be done:

Example #1

It was a quiet day.   I walked along the lane and contemplated all the birthdays I’d had in the past.  Some had been fun and  some had not been very enjoyable. However, none of them had been dull.  I began to feel  sorry for myself. Very soon this feeling passed because a group of friends was waiting for me at the end of the lane.  This was going to be a good day after all.

Example #2

I walked home that day, as I did every other.  This was going to be the dullest birthday I’d ever had. No one remembered me.  No one gave me a present or threw me a party.

I refused to cry in public, but tears welled in my eyes and threatened to flow.  I brushed them away so I could see where I was going.

What was that up ahead? Johanna, Bill, Andrew and so many others, waiting for me!  They were laughing, carrying balloons and wearing party hats.  Right in the middle of the park they were throwing a party. I could tell this was going to be the best birthday ever.   

Both example describe the same scene.  The second example is more effective for several reasons. These have to do with punctuation, descriptive language and pacing.

The first paragraph has seven periods and one comma.  The second has many commas and periods.  There is also an exclamation mark and one question mark.  Not only do these various signs give clues to reader about how to read the piece, but they also provide visual interest.

In the first paragraph the narrator tells us about feelings but doesn’t give us any insight into those feelings.  The second example gives details and uses specific descriptive words so the reader can see what the writer imagines.

Now, think of the emotional pace in each example.  In the first example, the emotion is flat. Neither the words nor punctuation provided any energy.  In the second example, however, there is a definite movement in energy.  It begins low and peaks, then subsides again.  The exclamation mark does help to indicate where the piece peaks but it does not do this work alone.  The writer has built to this point and then gently allows the reader settle into a quieter mode again.

Exclamation marks can be very useful, as the use of exclamation shows in the second example.  However, the true power in a piece comes from the writer’s craft, from the use of words that convey emotion and action. Exclamation marks enhance, but do not replace, good writing.

2 thoughts on “Student Writing Tip #2: Exclamation Marks

  1. great piece, I enjoyed it. I often find it harrowing at how some writing has been punctuated. It reminds me of Lynn Truss’ book Eats shoots and leaves

    Liked by 1 person

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