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The Writing Confessions of a Frugal Exclamator

book coach and frugal exclamator lisa tener
Book Coach and Frugal Exclamator, Lisa Tener

Exclamator: One who uses exclamation points.

No, you won’t find it in the dictionary. Sometimes, when I’m feeling sassy—or perhaps lazy—I make up a word.

Today, I felt a bit of each.

Against the Exclamation Point

I learned how to edit from the late Frank Conroy, back when he was the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts in Literature and flew in from DC to teach Friday afternoon seminars at MIT, and just before he became the Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Let’s just say Frank was not a fan of the exclamation point. “An exclamator, was he not,” as Yoda might have said had Yoda known Frank and/or read this post.

I still hear Frank’s voice in my head when I edit. And, so, I remain thrifty—some may say “stingy”—with exclamation points, as many of my exclamatory clients will attest.

Exclamation points serve as either:

A) A shortcut, when you don’t want to take the time to find the precise way to get across the excitement behind a sentence, or

B) Insurance, when you don’t trust yourself to get across the enthusiasm another way, or

C) Control, when you don’t trust your readers to read into the writing.

Since none of these paints a pretty picture of your intentions, perhaps it’s time to try something new if you are an exclamation point junkie.

One truism of writing is that by finding the precise word we are looking for—rather than, perhaps, the first easy word that enters our heads—we bring our writing to life and create an experience for our readers. The more precise the verb, the more we capture the action—however big or small. When we’re precise, we can trust our writing to deliver the message.

Trust that if you do your job and find more subtle ways to convey emphasis and enthusiasm, your readers are savvy enough to experience your work the way you intended, without needing obvious cues that call attention to themselves, such as exclamation points, ALL CAPS or italics used for emphasis. Cheesey, right?!!!!

Rules About Writing Rules: Generous Exclamators Take Note Click To Tweet

I did promise a confession in the title of this post. Let’s start with the exceptions to the rule, first:

  1. In some forms of writing, such as web copy, exclamation points are welcomed. I am no expert on web copy so I will take it from the experts. Marketers, in particular, encourage us to exclaim and point. Go for it! Me? I ocassionally throw in an exclamation point in a blog post, as you can see.
  2. My sister-in-law once told me a friend suggested she put more exclamation points in her emails and texts to add enthusiasm. I am no expert on emails and texts but she may be right.
  3. Lastly, if you are terribly frugal with exclamation points, when you do use one (let’s say once per book) it actually means something, since you have held back. The value of the exclamation point is in inverse proportion to its frequency of use. So, yes, there are times where, perhaps, an exclamation point is appropriate or—dare I say?—perfect.

My confessions? Yesterday, I found myself—I believe, for the first time ever—recommending an exclamation point in a subtitle for a book. I questioned myself. Thought it through. Was this a cop out? Lack of trust? But, no, it seemed to me the exclamation point worked here.

And that is one of the cardinal rules of writing—be liberal enough to break the rules when you have a good reason or a strong instinct. And that, dear writer, comes down to trust as well.

Today, I put three exclamation points on Facebook. Now I know I’m getting carried away. Time to reign it in.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions

Comments

      • Marina says

        Lisa, thank you for asking. I am working slowly on my memoir on how I was raised by my grandparents in Ukraine, trying to work on one chapter at the time. Structuring the book is as big challenge to me and answering the question:why am I writing it?

        • Lisa Tener says

          That’s a key question. You can keep writing and see what comes up that feels most exciting in terms of a theme or you can brainstorm now about theme and use that as your focus for structure as well as for deciding what goes in the book and what to leave out.

  1. Marina says

    Thank you, Lisa! Again!
    I am very happy to be included and being able to get a professional response.
    I promised my grandmother to write a book, but this may not be enough for readers.
    I have a long way to go.

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