Or why punctuation doesn’t make the unfunny funny.
The exclamation mark rule
Another of my particularly harsh rules that I applied rigorously whilst I was working as an editor involved exclamation marks. Essentially, if I saw one in copy that a freelancer or potential staff member had submitted, then they were never going to get any work at the magazine while I was in charge.
That does seem mean, doesn’t it? But hear me out. Something is either funny or it isn’t. You cannot make something funny by sticking an exclamation mark at the end of it. In fact, it just makes it look like you’re trying desperately hard to be funny and are failing miserably. The exclamation mark is the literary equivalent of canned laughter.
It is not a problem that can be solved by simply taking the exclamation marks out. Remove them, and you still have a joke that isn’t funny cluttering up the story.
Neither can you really train someone out of using exclamation marks to prop up crap writing. They may end up obey your exclamation mark diktats, but they’re still going to produce bad writing full of unfunny jokes.
Multiple exclamation marks
I’d rather not use that sort of writer. Thankfully, the presence of the exclamation mark provides a handy advance warning system – there’s no need to read through the rest of the drivel to realise that it is unpublishable tosh. As for anyone who uses multiple exclamation marks (!!!), shooting’s too good for them.
Exceptions to the rule
As always, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule, but they’re so rare that they’re hardly worth mentioning. But for the record, here are the three occasions where the exclamation mark has a place.
1. Genuine exclamations (ie. Wow! or Crikey!).
2. Reported speech (when quoting someone who was making an exclamation or talking excitedly in a manner that would be accurately transcribed with an exclamation mark).
3. Taking the piss out of someone who does use exclamation marks to signify a joke. Again, this is very much like the reported speech exception – it’s just that you may be adopting their voice for the purposes of satire/ literary bullying/ merciless savagery.