(F. Scott Fitzgerald)
I like to use exclamation marks in emails and text messages because they signify that I’m just a harmless fool, and I suppose that must be the message I’m generally going for on a personal level. But in text, by which I mean writing that’s constructed with critical attention, I think there are very few justifications for them. (Signifying an exclamation, such as ‘help!’, is pretty much the only one.)
I taught a very ebullient writer who loved his exclamation marks, and basically told me that out of his cold, dead hands… I let him keep a few, because I liked him. But to tell someone you’re being funny – or worse, zany – is not good writing. People who write for children by adding an exclamation mark to the end of every sentence – have they ever actually met the earnest, philosophical, don’t bullshit me, dead-pan surrealist that is the average young child?
Other punctuation, though; this I am a fan of. To those of you who think that you’re either a punctuation bore (stand up anyone who’s corrected someone else’s apostrophe usage on Facebook) or someone whom punctuation bores, I’m here to offer you a third way.
Punctuation as the allegros and staccatos and fortes of good writing.
Punctuation instructs the reader where to pause, where to stop, where to speed up and where to attend to possible connections. It’s part of that mysterious thing called ‘voice’. It helps turns words into music by controlling the pace and rhythm of them with exquisite precision.
I’m not a massive fan of Steven King’s fiction (not judging it as lacking, just never got into it), but he’s a brilliant writer on writing. Here (in On Writing) he’s offering some excellent advice to budding fiction writers:
How to evaluate criticism
Show your piece to a number of people – ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story – a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibilities – change that facet. It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it. But if everyone – or even most everyone – is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.
But he’s also using punctuation expertly, to guide the pace and rhythm of the words and control exactly how they sound in the reader’s head.
As writers we have a lot to learn from anyone who makes writing feel effortless – because if it’s good, it’s not.