At the end of February, I’ll announce the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. And if tradition holds, some will read like a screenplay called Attack of the Killer Exclamation Points.
What’s wrong with overloading a book with exclamation points besides that it looks — well, dippy? David Shipley and Will Schwalbe respond indirectly in Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office (Knopf, 247, $19.95).
They note that in e-mail the exclamation point has found new life as a surrogate emoticon:
“The traditional rules allow for an exclamation point only after an actual exclamation – ‘My Goodness!’ or ‘Good Grief!’ Few abide by this any more.
“Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth. ‘Thanks!!!!’ is friendlier than ‘Thanks.’ And ‘Hooray!!!!!’ is more celebratory than ‘Hooray.’ Because e-mail is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be. If you try saying ‘Thanks’ or ‘Congratulations’ in the flattest voice you can muster, you’ll notice it sounds sarcastic. Without an exclamation point, these may read the same way on the screen.”
The catch is that while exclamation points are an “effective way to combat e-mail’s essential lack of tone,” the authors say, they’re also lazy: The better your choice of words, “the less need you will have for this form of shorthand.”
That comment suggests why a blizzard of exclamation points hurts books more than e-mail: We know our electronic correspondents don’t always have the time to refine every word. Authors do have the time. And unlike e-mail, books have tone, the psychological cast or shading of their words. If the tone is well-controlled, a book may succeed even if other aspects of it fail. Authors who substitute exclamation points for the right words are defaulting on a vital task: control of tone helps to set the mood much else in a book.
Have you read a 2008 book by an author who abused exclamation points or another punctuation mark? If so, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Awards by leaving a comment.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.