One of my favorite features of our daily newspaper, other than my own column, of course, is the Letters to the Editor page.
I have to hand it to the people at our little news review — not only do they print a balanced array of opinionated writers, from Clarence Page to John Stossel — they make a genuine point of printing each and every letter, and other than fxing obvius spllng mstakes, they keep the content pure and unadulterated.
With all respect to Misters Stossel and Page, I read the ordinary people first, and as a writer, I get especial enjoyment out of the variety of ways a variety of people have of saying a variety of things.
One itsy bitsy element stops me in my tracks, however, and this is the overuse of exclamation points.
These little ditties are like Tiramisu, the cloyingly rich Italian dessert composed of Savoyard finger biscuits dipped in strong coffee, and encapsulated with Mascarpone cheese, spirits, sugar, cocoa, and double cream.
If it sounds like something that you shouldn’t eat for dinner every night, you’re right. Too much of a good thing.
A good thing!
In the same way, exclamation points are punctuation items meant to be brought out for that special occasion, when the selective choice of the right adjective, adverb, noun, or verb, just doesn’t do the job.
Sometimes an inarticulate grunt or gasp or cry of anguish manages to express our feelings on the matter, but an entire composition of these utterances makes one wonder why the primeval Neanderthal bothered with the scratches on the cave walls in the first place.
Too often, people tack an exclamation point to the end of an insipid sentence, with the mistaken notion that it will somehow infuse hot scarlet overtones into a sepia-toned lithograph:
“This is so stupid!”
or, for even greater emphasis,
“This is soooooooo stupid!”
Aside from the obvious point that calling people or complex issues stupid does nothing to bring the other side into your court, this verbal laziness undermines the integrity of the writer, giving the reader the impression that this person is overly emotional, underly sensitive, and possessive of a working vocabulary of less than 500 words.
The better authors give examples:
“The other driver pulled into the opposing lane and rapidly accelerated to pass me — in an elementary school zone, during the lunch period, and at the crossing intersection. It is amazing how quickly a stout, middle-aged former heavy weight boxer crossing guard can react.”
or understate the issue for emphasis:
“I found the mayor’s conduct unprofessional when he flung his Dixie cup of fruit juice at the opposing councilman, and question whether his explanation that he had tripped is a valid one, given that both men were sitting down at the time.”
Decidedly, when a writer takes time to frame his phrases into strong constructions — using words more complex than “nice,” “dumb,” “cool, man,” or “gross,” then the letter on the whole is not only more interesting to read, it is highly likely that it actually says something, whether or not we agree with the writer’s opinion.
So, take that little box of exclamation points and put it in the back of the cupboard, removing it only on special, special occasions — which, incidentally, pretty much never occur on resumes, cover letters to prospective employees, business reports, or essays for a 101 English paper.
Invest in a physical thesaurus or use an online one, and play with different words in your writing (you might want to confirm the meanings in a dictionary as well — you can call your fiancee “buxom”, but she probably wouldn’t appreciate “ample”), and if a particular sentence doesn’t have the punch and panache you want without an exclamation point, it probably needs more thought as opposed to a line with a dot.
This article is reprinted from Focus on the Artist, a division of Steve Henderson Fine Art, providing articles to art lovers and people who want to be art lovers on art issues, writing matters, and general topics of interest.