The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark

The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark

In our third post on the powerhouse of writing, we look at how exclamation marks can strengthen your writing.

The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark

As a writer, you must know more than your ABCs, fancy words, or stylish phrases. You also need to know how to relate those words to your reader – that’s where punctuation kicks in.

Building on our successful series Punctuation For Beginners, we will now look beyond the grammar rules. What teachers usually don’t tell us is that those punctuation marks are the powerhouse of writing. Used correctly, punctuation can supercharge your text.

Today, we’ll look at exclamation marks, or, as I call them, ‘the traps.’ Please read this post first, if you’re looking for the basics: Punctuation For Beginners: Question & Exclamation Marks.

The Trap And The Hook

Both exclamations and questions have one thing in common: they engage readers. They’re secret weapons to activate the readers’ brains. How does that work? Both punctuation marks influence speech patterns, meaning that they also help to steer the way we breathe and relax in speech. This, in turn, is reflected by our reading patterns as well.

If used correctly, these punctuation marks reel the readers right into your text. The trick is the correct usage. With the exclamation mark, this seems to be especially difficult (there’s a reason why I call it ‘the trap’). Let’s take a closer look. 

The Power Of The Exclamation Mark

Imagine your text is like a marketplace. Your readers are your customers. They ‘buy’ your story. If everything is quiet and orderly in the marketplace, your readers will stroll nicely through your text. That’s very good, we do want the readers to relax. It’s why they continue to read.

But if your readers finish the book, saying: ‘This book was nice and easy to read,’ then the steady hum of your marketplace is not good enough. Then, ‘nice’ is too close to boring. We want the readers to finish the book and say: ‘I want more!’

You need something to grab people’s attention. In a market, you’ll hear a proper shout here and there to pierce through the underlying noise. Those attention-grabbers are exclamations.

In texts, exclamation marks work the same way. Let’s look at how they do that. Please read out loud the following two sentences:

Example:

  1. I need money. (Universal truth, factual statement, no emotion)
  2. I need money! (emotional comment, sense of urgency)

Can you hear the difference? The second sentence will be read louder than the first one. Your voice will emphasize ‘money.’ That’s how you speak an exclamation. Note how this punctuation mark changes the emotional meaning of the sentence completely.

Our brains are geared to recognize that speech pattern as urgent. We prick up our ears and pay attention. We try to find the reason for this urgency: surprise, danger, anger, or just plain emotion. Isn’t it great that a mere punctuation mark can do that? 

The Danger Of The Exclamation Mark

The advertising industry has found that out a long time ago. They’ve been using exclamation marks so often that readers have grown numb to them. Why? It’s like you’re shouting at them the whole time. Imagine our marketplace where the vendors must get louder and louder so the customers can hear them. Eventually, everyone is shouting. The customers get a headache. So, if you overuse exclamation marks, you repel your readers.

Overuse means something else, too. It shows that you’ve fallen into their trap. It shows that you’re a lazy writer because you’re using their power rather than your own. Wonder what that means? You’re telling your readers that something is urgent. It would be much better if you showed them why.

Compare these sentences:

Example:

  1. ‘You’re a bad man!’ Sheila said.
  2. ‘You’re the scum of the earth,’ Sheila shouted.

Both sentences convey the same meaning, but the urgency is stronger in the second sentence. And I didn’t even use the exclamation mark. I didn’t need to. It’s all in the words. 

How To Use The Exclamation Mark

So, when do you use them? Simple answer: Very sparingly. No punctuation mark can make up for a lack of plot or content. Get the message on the page and then decide if there’s still a sense of urgency. If you can’t convey it any other way, then place that exclamation mark.

Most often, you will continue to use exclamation marks for interjections, like ‘Whoa!’ or ‘Let’s go!’ Then, exclamations are an emotional reaction to what has been said before. They tend to be rather short. Often, they consist of just one word (‘Rubbish!’), a short phrase with ‘what’ or ‘how’. Why is that ok? Because there won’t be any other way to say, ‘What an interesting blog post!’ or ‘How brilliant!’

Still puzzled? No need to be. We have a very nifty infographic for you to help you decide:

Exclamation Mark
Source: Tyler Littwin for HubSpot

The Last Word

Now that you’ve learned how to steer clear of unnecessary exclamation marks, I do hope you feel more confident in using them.

Exclamation marks are necessary to convey a certain sound quality of a text. If that’s your reason for using them, then go ahead. Just don’t fall into the trap of using them to make your text more interesting the easy way. Remember, you’re a writer, and you know your craft. Use it.

Next in ‘The Powerhouse of Writing’ will be a blog post about another attention-grabber, the question mark.

Further Reading

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 2: The Comma
  3. The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  4. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  5. The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
  6. The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett.

Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  3. How To Play Surrealist Word Games
  4. How To Write Surrealist Poetry
  5. What Is Automatic Writing?
  6. Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know
  7. How To Write Without Your Muse
  8. Why You Should Love Doing A Rewrite
  9. 10 Things That Stifle A Writer’s Creativity
  10. What Procrastination Can Do For You

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Posted on: 10th August 2022
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