I just finished judging a short story contest for teen writers on Writing.com. The project is going on hiatus until the fall, since the weeks between Spring Break and end-of-term exams are busy enough for kids and typically lead to poor turnout. I designed the contest as a platform for teens to showcase their work, and I offer in-depth critiques of every entry, in the mentoring spirit of helping young writers hone their fledgling crafts.
The payoff is I develop a deeper sense of my own craft, as I include in my reviews discussions on basic elements of storytelling and grammar.
One thing I see time and again in teen writing is the overuse of the exclamation point. This powerful little punctuation mark raises the tension of a sentence. Used too often, readers will feel like they're shouting the story. Exclamation points are a lot like Habanero sauce: A couple drops can bring out the flavor of the food, too much will overpower the diner's palette and ruin the dish.
I advise writers of these do's and don'ts of exclamation point usage:
Do use an exclamation point in dialog, when the speaker is extremely angry, shocked, frightened, or joyful. Always use it with dialog tags like "he shouted" or "she shrieked." However, if the speaker hasn't raised his or her voice, don't use an exclamation point.
Do use an exclamation point in non-question sentences that begin with "What" or "How":
What an idiot I was!
How gorgeous was that wedding!
Do use an exclamation point, if you wish, after an onomatopoeia:
The sudden screech! of the back door hinges startled me from my reverie.
Don't use an exclamation point in any other situation in formal writing. (I always qualify to my teen contest entrants that this is my own personal rule. Some writers will argue that there must be other times an exclamatory sentence pops up in formal writing. My answer is sure, you could use them, but if you aren't picky and careful to use them sparingly, you risk giving your writing a parochial, unpolished sound.)
Don't use more than one exclamation point in a row. Seriously, don't do it. Not in dialog. Not if something totally freaky and heart-stopping happens in your novel. Don't.Use.More.Than.One. Ever!
Now, anyone who's received a comment by me on their blog knows that I'm an exclamation point abuser in real life. Emails, blog comments, FaceBook and Twitter are perfect places to let loose your crazy, hilarious, fun-loving, over-the-top, exclamation point-needing voice. Show the love! Shout out loud!! Go for it and express yourself! So that, when you sit down to write your novel, you have all those compulsions for exclamation points out of your system. Your prose will sound refined and dynamic without them, because of the natural strength of your talent and through the creativity in your word choices.
What's your take on exclamation point usage? Do you agree? Have anything to add?