You know that guy who ends every sentences in three exclamation points? What speaks louder to you: the content of his missive, or the fact that he screams everything he says? That, my friend, is the power of punctuation.
We talk a lot about words when discussing writing—from the sounds of words to the myriad of ways to arrange those words. But writing isn’t just composed of words. There are also spaces, italics, bold text, all caps, small caps, and a whole legion of punctuation. And I’m not just talking about your use of the serial comma, or whether you put one or two spaces after a period! I’m talking about a host of hard-hitting exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, em-dashes, semi-colons, and other unassuming characters that add bursts of personality your manuscript—whether you like it or not.
Just like the music in a movie, punctuation can drastically alter mood and interpretation. That same sob scene will read differently if it’s backed by the world’s tiniest violin squeaking unsympathetically, the hellfire and brimstone of Carmina Burana, or banjos. But overdosing on strong punctuation is like setting your make-up gun to “nightmare circus”—leaving the face of your manuscript a riot of screaming colors.
As a rule, the reader should never come away with a stronger impression of your punctuation than your story. So how to wrangle these textual divas into enhancing your prose—rather than distracting from your intent? Here I’ve outlined the many personalities of punctuation, along with tips on how to—and more importantly, how not to—use them.
Exclamation Points Try Too Hard
Example: I love you!!!
Exclamation points are like party hats for your sentences. Like a literary laugh track, they are excited and want to let you know that you should be excited too!!!--even if there's nothing to be excited about! Some people use exclamation points like smiley faces—to show that they’re enthusiastic. And a lot of people use them for everything in children’s books, because they want kids to be excited about what they’re writing, and probably because they get the sense that they should talk to kids in a very energetic voice. But I dare you—just once, try reading a book written entirely in exclamation points aloud. It begins to sound a lot like screaming.