When I first started writing full time, I received a shock: all that I knew about punctuation wasn’t necessarily so. As an English teacher, I had approached punctuation in a clinical, analytical, black-and-white manner. There was a right way, called “standard” in the textbook, and a wrong way, referred to as “nonstandard.”
Then I discovered that writers working for newspapers used a different “style book” (and what was a “style book,” I wondered) from the one schools typically used. Fiction editors favored a third different style book. According to those guides, the “right” way wasn’t always right.
For example, from different writing instruction books such as Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King I learned that the fiction style books discouraged the use of the exclamation point. Discouraged it!
When I began my work as an editor, with the latest and greatest style book recommended for fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, I found this statement about exclamation points: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment” (6.76, emphasis mine).
The craft books explained the rationale. A good fiction writer chose words that conveyed emotion and didn’t need to rely on punctuation to tell the reader how to interpret the text.
I filed this piece of information away and proceeded to stop using exclamation points. Until one day I received a comment from a critique partner about the matter. My dialogue, she said, indicated great emotion, but the use of a comma instead of an exclamation point seemed to contradict the words.
She was right, I realized.
When in the writing world, I wondered, did “use sparingly” become “never use”?
Imagine my happiness when The Chicago Manual of Style tweeted the link to an article about the use of exclamation points: “The exclamation point revisited”. The author of this Chicago Tribune opinion piece, Nancy E. Anderson, experienced a similar exclamation-point journey to mine and has now made peace with its use, at least in more informal communication formats such as email.
I agree with Ms. Anderson and even think exclamation points may have a purpose in blog posts or comments. But one thing I’d like to hold to—that exclamation points don’t come in multiples (!!!), especially in fiction, even in YA fiction in which the characters and the readers might not be over fifteen (see the article mentioned above for the context to fully appreciate that line 😉 ).