Are you yelling at your customers? You probably don’t mean to, but that’s what you’re doing when you spray your copy with an egregious number of exclamation points.
And by “egregious number,” I mean one.
The rule of thumb is to limit yourself to one exclamation point in every 10,000 sentences.
That’s a tongue-in-cheek rule, of course. I’ve broken it myself (and I break it every other Monday with my newsletter, Copy This!) The rule is meant to inspire caution. Will your sentence really become more urgent or important just by sticking an exclamation point at the end?
No! (OK, there’s my quota.)
I was reminded of this when watching an episode of the old Seinfeld sitcom. Elaine, an editor at a publishing house, gets in trouble for inserting exclamation points everywhere in an author’s novel. Her boss, Mr. Lippman, calls her out on it:
“It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!”
“I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark bar didn’t come out!”
Elaine tries to defend herself, weakly explaining, “I felt that the writing lacked a certain emotion and intensity.”
The truth is she and the author had been having a fight. She was scoring points with some poisonous punctuation – the perfect choice of weapon for an editor trying to humiliate an author, like throwing salt into a chef’s perfect stew or paint onto an artist’s masterpiece.
The Point of the Exclamation Point
Exclamation points do have their place. Sometimes, you do need to use them to express emotion. Take the first three lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World”:
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Or the often-recited line from Emily Webb’s monologue in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town:
Oh, earth you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!
Now imagine those lines without the exclamation points. They don’t have the vibrancy, the breathless awe, that I believe the authors intended. Ending with only a period would make them seem matter-of-fact and ordinary.
The key is that Millay and Wilder aren’t trying to bump up the excitement by tacking on exclamation points. Their speakers are genuinely excited, and the exclamation points merely express that natural emotion.
I follow the same principle with my newsletter, Copy This! I use the exclamation point to express urgency, not to add it.
Overuse of the exclamation point is most often seen in marketing and ad copy. This writing is supposed to create urgency — a gotta-get-it-now feeling — but a constant stream of exclamation points does little but make the prospective customer feel yelled at. Buy this product! It’s great! You’ll love it!
Imagine a real-life salesman grabbing you by the hand and shouting his entire pitch into your face.
Peppering your copy with exclamation points everywhere dilutes the effectiveness of the sentences that deserve one. Consider these two pitches:
You’ll love the look of this handbag! And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit!
You’ll love the look of this handbag. And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit.
The first pitch gives all three sentences the same volume and intensity. In the second, reserving the exclamation points for the price makes that value proposition stand out as the most important element.
Next time you find yourself tempted to add energy, try the sentence with and without an exclamation point. Does it still convey the urgency you need? You may be surprised! Or just surprised.
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