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.

A Book for Today and Tomorrow: Reflecting

Digital StillCamera  

The desire to memorialize one’s life, to put everything down in writing, tends to grow with age.  But many people do not feel up to the task of creating a book.  Reflecting is designed to enable these people to satisfy their very human impulse to remember, and to be remembered.
The inspiration for the project began with the misfortune of one woman. The woman had suffered a stroke; it seemed her ambition to put together a book that chronicled her life would never be realized.  But a way was found to see this ambition achieved.  Miscellaneous essays, poems and photos were collected. These were organized into an anthology, which was published.
The simple act of publishing cheered the author as no one and nothing had managed to do up to that point. The lesson learned was this: ministering to the body may be a doctor’s work but ministering to the heart may require attention of a different sort.
And so Reflecting was born. It grew out of the conviction that with guidance, just about anyone can write a book, and writing the book can be richly rewarding. The challenge was to design a template that would gently lead the novice author through different stages of recollection and recording. This template would have to be accessible, so that even individuals with limited function could follow its many small steps on  to crafting a cohesive document.
On its most basic level, the Reflecting template requires an individual to provide simple answers to simple questions.  In the aggregate these answers and questions will offer insight into the author’s life.  Photos, sprinkled throughout, will complement verbal responses.
At a more advance level, completion of Reflecting provides opportunity for explanation, exploration and illumination of an individual’s life.  And, at its most ambitious, Reflecting will be the foundation for a comprehensive, traditional memoir.
One of the most important goals of Reflecting is to encourage communication. Remembering a life need not be a solitary exercise. Family and friends can be drawn into stimulating conversations about events long forgotten. Moments that might have been spent in awkward silence can now be invested in completing the book. When it’s completed, the book will be a gift to all who participated in its creation, and to those who did not but are heir to the legacy described in its pages.