Exclamation points: why they’re not parmesan

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

That’s the advice once given to Hollywood journalist Sheilah Graham by F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to her memoir.  

Now, I’m not sure I completely agree with Fitzgerald that you should cut every single exclamation point from your writing. There are some occasions when an exclamation is absolutely called for: when you want to indicate surprise (“Woah!”) or warn someone (“Pay attention!”).

But if you sprinkle exclamation points over your text like parmesan over pasta, your text is likely to end up indigestible rather than delicious. If you feel every sentence is So! Important! you need to End! with an Exclamation! Point!, then you’re telling people that none of your sentences is important. 

A good rule of thumb is: if you’re using more than one exclamation point in a paragraph, it’s probably too much. You’re probably also being too heavy handed if you’re using an exclamation point more than once every three paragraphs.

Not just exclamation points

It’s not just exclamation points you should be aware of. You should be careful about over-using any punctuation or formatting trick. Your text is going to be more difficult to read and less likely to grab and hold the reader’s attention if you’re:

  • using lots of italics or bold or capital letters
  • constantly changing the colour or size of the text
  • using too many parentheses and dashes

That last one is my own personal weakness, by the way. It’s part of my editing and proofreading process to check carefully and eliminate any dashes that aren’t strictly necessary.

Of course, as with pretty much everything I say about style, there are no absolute rules. But when you’re writing for your business, I strongly believe “less is more”. Persuade people through the power of the words, rather than the set dressing of flashy punctuation and formatting.

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