Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Exclamation Mark Rehab Clinic by Moira Butterfield

Do you pepper your writing with exclamation marks (called exclamation points in the US)? Picture book and board book authors must get out of the habit. As a sometime editor, I know that it is the mark of an author who hasn't spent enough time editing their work. It’s also the mark of a text written in-house by an editor under pressure. 

I find I sometimes add stray exclamation marks on first drafts. We probably all do it, perhaps because we use exclamation marks a lot more these days on social media. I certainly had a serious habit when I first started writing. Oh yes, I reckon I used many a day back then. But I had to stop, and so do you. We need to edit out those mad little barks at the end of sentences. 

Read this blog as exclamation mark aversion therapy. I'm going to be tough. I want to drill it in. I want authors to stop overusing them and I want editors to stop adding them to work without thinking, as if they're sprinkling salt on their food. 

Use an exclamation mark if someone in your writing is exclaiming – “Wow!”

Or if they are shouting/calling out  “Stop!”

Or if there is a loud noise. 

New board book art for an upcoming series. A loud noise and a call-out here. 

Otherwise DO NOT use them.

Because picture book and board book texts are short, exclamation mark addiction becomes very obvious and overpowers everything else. Let's be brutal here. If you put them in all over your work  you will come across like some demented over-needy children’s TV presenter, gurning away and trying far too hard to please an audience you have no empathy with. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is why he didn't write The Great Gatsby! 

Exclamation mark over-user

Remember that an exclamation mark will not convey lovely smiling positivity. It will not convey a happy tone of voice. Used over and over again it will make you look slightly mad. As Terry Pratchett said: “Five exclamation marks. The sure sign of an insane mind.” I think he was talking about a long row of exclamation marks at the end of one sentence (utter, utter madness) but loads of the pesky things in one short book is bad, too. 

Read through some of the best picture books. Note that most of them use one, possibly two exclamation marks at most, and always in just the right place. Then flick through some bargain board books, count up the exclamation marks and breathe deeply to calm your rage (er...that might just be me). Board books are particularly prone to exclamation mark overdose because they’re increasingly put together in-house by stressed editors who can't go back and mull over the work. 

Feeling suitably traumatised by my aversion therapy? Good.
Remember. Only use exclamation marks when someone specifically exclaims or shouts. Like this….


Moira Butterfield

New picture book series, 'Everybody Feels', for Quarto Publishing, out later in 2015.   


  1. Great post, Moira.

    I have to admit that I am addicted to exclamation marks, but one of my editors is helping to ween me off them. I was about to send off a new picture book text this morning and your post has made me go back and cut out a few. It seems a shame to just throw them away, so I'll leave them at the end of this comment in case anybody else can put them to better use!!!!!

  2. I will destroy them humanely, Jonathan.

  3. Thanks Moira, I'm a user, too, thanks for the exclamation mark aversion therapy. It seems to be working, I've fought the temptation to end with some of Johnathan's spare exclamation marks... Where do I go for ellipsis therapy?

    1. Ellipses...Oh yes! (was tempted to put seventeen exclamation marks here). I am a terrible deep-seated user of those, myself! Next blog rehab clinic sorted.

    2. Oh, there's nothing like a nice ellipsis...

  4. Me too! Like this! Far too often!

    I think I might take that F. Scott Fitzgerald quote and pin it up above my desk.

  5. Guilty, but at least I am aware of the problem! Thanks for tackling the issue in this fun post. Off to do a little, much needed editing.

  6. Agree, and am constantly removing them from stuff I get back from editors (not even always my own work, as I also work as a consultant occasionally on picture books). There is a very specialist area where they are useful in a different circumstance. If you are writing for so-called reluctant readers who might have difficulty understanding the tone of a text (perhaps because they are on the autistic spectrum, for example), exclamation marks can be a useful indication that 'this bit is surprising' or 'this actually an unusual thing'.

  7. Very interesting point. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this post!!!!! And the reminder:)

  9. I find myself wanting a half strength exclamation mark, a full one just feels like forced jollity or feigned surprise.
    But then I am responsible for 'I'm Not Cute!', 'I'm Not Scared!' et al so really shouldn't comment ;-) . . .

    1. I think titles are a different kettle of fish. Yours sound great. They get across the voice of a child very well. They're a declaration.

  10. I'm also cowering as I too have titles that include exclamation marks. Oops, I just typed an exclamation mark after that statement and have now deleted it. Sigh... Yikes, and there's an ellipsis. I give up.
    Must admit I use exclamation marks quite frequently in email to soften and avoid comments being taken literally, though I really don't want to be thought of as a demented children's television presenter.

  11. I think it's a good point that exclamation marks can be OK in titles if they're a shout out. I use exclamation marks myself all the time on social media. It's when they creep into my writing that I have to be on my guard. I'm addicted to ellipses in a bad way!

  12. Another guilty party... I'm bad at brackets, too (and ...s). A timely reminder. I will go through my current manuscript and make sure they're not over-used... OK, big confession time. I've just checked through my current manuscript and I've got 12! (that's got to be worthy of one, surely?). Lots of them are exclamations (which fit the tone of the particular story) but I reckon I might be able to chop half of them... Thanks. Clare.