Thursday, July 16, 2009

Look for the Silly Stuff: Exclamation Points

In her outstanding books on fiction-writing techniques, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, editor Chris Roerden says, “Exclamation points in abundance produce the same effect as too much italicizing: after a while, readers wonder if the writer thinks we are deaf or dense.”

According to Copyediting & Proofreading for Dummies by Suzanne Gilad (President of, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Exclamation points are appropriate in dialogue commands and very occasionally in dialogue exclamations.

If overuse of the exclamation point is a habit, you can use your software’s Find/Replace editing tool to quickly substitute periods where appropriate.

However, if the reader will not be able to tell that a statement in narrative is emphatic, or dialogue is spoken forcefully or with surprise, then it’s best to rewrite the scene to “show, not tell,” thus eliminating the need for exclamation points.

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Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).


  1. Good point. And good point re italics (which I'm fond of using.) I'm revising now and need to revisit my italics addiction.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Great advice. Will watch out for those pesky exclamation points from now on!

  3. Great post! (Kidding on the exclamation point, not the great post part.) Very good reminder. When I'm editing, I'm often deleting exclamation points.

    Straight From Hel

  4. Good thoughts. I've read 'Don't Murder Your Mystery' but I probably need to do a refresher.

    Just curious, though.... How often is too often do you think for italicization or for exclamation points? I tend to use exclamation points mostly in dialogue, and occasionally in monologue. Certain characters tend to do internal monologue, requiring italicization, more than others, too.

  5. Liberty, I once edited a book in which the author had almost all the dialogue with exclamation points. How was the reader to know what was really important?

    In my opinion, an exclamation point should be reserved for perhaps three or four lines in the whole story that deserve that emphasis. But of course, I do know that in the romance genre, exclamation points are used a lot more frequently. So I guess it depends on what genre you are writing for.

    As for internal dialogue. That, too, should be used sparingly, unless like you said, you have a particular character who talks to herself as part of her characterization. Yet, still, it should not dominate the page.

  6. I learned a long time ago from a Seinfeld episode never to use more than three exclamation points.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. That's three in the whole novel, right Stephen? I once critiqued a manuscript that contained hundreds of the darned things. It was as if the whole narrative and all of the dialogue was frantic-speak.

    Personally, I'm reducing my italics use to foreign words (not internal dialogue), and I will perhaps use an exclamation mark for a direct order (Halt!). Other than that, I'll try to avoid them.

  8. I had a professional editor tell me that there should only be one exclamation point, at the most, in any manuscript - and it had better be needed!

    Her point was, if the writing does not show the excitement, what good is one little symbol going to do for the reader?


  9. I die a little each time I see the exclamation marks in series, especially in newspapers. I guess it's what happens when you hire amateur reporters!!!

    Slays me!!!

    What about you???



  10. Like everything else, too much of anything can be bad. But I like italics and ! when needed. Ometimes without it, I feel the emphasis has deflated.


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