I never intended to become the office’s punctuation police, but it’s happened anyway. And not all punctuation, just a single piece: the exclamation point.
It started with internal office emails. I casually pointed out that we, as a company, might be using too many exclamation points. This, of course, led to more emails and Slack messages with even more exclamation points, because we are a funny bunch that loves nothing more than to poke the bear.It also prompted a question from someone. I’m paraphrasing, but it boiled down to, "How do we convey enthusiasm without an exclamation point?"
My answer — and this isn’t meant to sound rude — was that the best way to convey enthusiasm was to choose better words.
This is not a knock on anyone in particular. Too many people everywhere, not just at today's PR agencies, tend to abuse the exclamation point.
I’ll admit it: even I’ve been known to do it from time to time. The problem is that we are asking the exclamation point to do a job that it was never intended to do. True exclamatory sentences are rare, or at least they should be. That means the exclamation point should also be rarely used.
It's a little like sugar; just enough is nice. Too much and your writing gets fat.
To my mind, the overuse of exclamation often points to a bigger problem: lazy writing.
Three Intentional Writing Choices
We have gotten too casual in our language, and that’s not good.
Language is a powerful thing. Used well, it has the ability to entertain, to motivate, to influence.
So, how do we snap out of it and give our writing more energy without leaning on crutches like exclamation points?
If you are using a three-syllable word when a one-syllable word says the same thing, don't use the longer word just to sound smarter. But do take the time to think about the specific meanings of words.
Consider "ransomed" versus "rescued." Both roughly mean pulling someone from a situation that they couldn’t escape on their own. "Ransomed," though, has a deeper meaning. It’s more than just rescuing. It’s paying a price for the person being rescued that they couldn’t pay themselves.
Using "rescued" gets the point across. Using "ransomed" adds power to the sentence by emphasizing a higher level of detail and meaning.
Take a moment when re-reading something you’ve written — yes, you should always re-read the things you write — and make sure that you’ve used the right words, the ones that convey exactly what you want them to, and you aren’t relying on punctuation to carry a load it was never meant to carry.
Language is like music. It’s meant to have a rhythm to it. But this rhythm isn’t always obvious. You won’t always notice when it’s there, but you will definitely notice when it’s not.
Anything written without considering the rhythm of the words is going to feel unsatisfying. It’s going to feel dry. It’s probably going to feel a little boring, like a recitation of facts.
How do you avoid this?
By varying your sentence structure.
Using sentences that are long, lyrical and more complex.
Then following with short, punchy ones.
And finally, reading it all out loud.
That’s the best way to identify the rhythm. Do this consistently enough and the rhythm will begin showing itself to you as you write.
Have you ever built a table?
If not, you still probably could, right? It’s just three or four legs with a top. Nothing difficult.
But ask someone with experience in woodworking to build you a table and you’ll get so much more than legs and a top. You’ll get finished edges. You’ll get decorative touches. You’ll get the things that come to mind for all of us when we think about a table, because no one thinks about just legs and a top.
The same is true for writing. Good writers have tools in their toolboxes that you probably never realized they were using.
You have at your disposal more than just 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks. While you can build a functional sentence or paragraph using only those, paying attention to higher-level details allows you to put finishing touches on the things you write.
Those fine touches can come from techniques like alliteration, parallel structure and the Rule of Three.
These are only a few of the tools writers can use for adding detail to their writing, but there are dozens more. Learn them. Use them. Along with choosing the right words and finding the right rhythm, they will elevate your writing and help break those lazy habits once and for all.
And that's cause for exclamation.