That’s right, punctuation can be extreme. While it’s probably not up for its own reality TV show any time soon, punctuation symbols can affect the way your writing is perceived and the effect your writing has on the reader.
We all know writers have to use punctuation correctly, and that sometimes we can bend the rules for poetic effect or pauses or emphasis in fiction. But what I’m talking about here is different.
Certain punctuation marks stand out from the text so much they should be used sparingly or not at all.
Exclamation points and ellipses (…) are the two main culprits of overuse. New writers frequently use them to show hesitation or urgency, which of course are things they do communicate, so it does make sense. But because they take up more space than a period or comma, and because they’re less common punctuation, they stand out from the words on the page so much that they’re almost always distracting. It’s somewhat like having the “&” symbol in your book. Particularly when they’re overused, they lend a tone of false drama to what’s happening. I’ve heard some agents and editors say they don’t want to see more than three of either per manuscript, and I often see three per chapter in the slush or in material I’m editing. Given that the average novel is in the range of twenty-some chapters, that means ellipses and exclamation points should be used about twenty times less than they are used by aspiring writers.
There’s a good reason for why, besides simply standing out as a symbol on the page. Exclamation points and ellipses tell us something is urgent, or tell us hesitation is happening. Most of the time, those things can (and should) be communicated through character action and subtext, not symbols. It’s more impacting and it’s something we can feel, rather than something we simply observe. If we see the boy hesitating, it’s much more powerful than if there’s simply a “…” at the end of his words. If we hear his frustration in his tone and he slams the table with his hand, we don’t need the exclamation point after “no.” We don’t need told, because we were shown.
Question marks and dashes are also ones to watch out for. More than a few question marks in a scene can be distracting, yes, because they’re large symbols, but also because questions tend to be structured in similar patterns and if you have more than a few, you have a redundant sentence structure going on, and it will probably make the rhythm clunk. But still, we need them for questions– so if you can turn a question into a statement, I usually advise doing it. Statements are normally stronger, anyway.
I love dashes. I am very much guilty of overusing them. They provide a clean, hard break to a thought. Because of that, if you use them too often, your writing starts and stops and jerks the reader around. If you can use commas, which give us a much softer pause, go for it. Some moments, though, you really need that harder break. Just be aware of how often you use them and save them for the moments when you need that impact. More than two sets on a page can be really distracting to read.
And I hope it goes without saying, to please, for the sake of us all, not use “?!” in your manuscript. I think I’ve seen one place where it worked, and it was a very self-aware use.
Of course, these are general principles. Bend the rules, people say. Create. Write a scene compelling enough that readers don’t get hung up on punctuation. And yes, I agree. But part of a compelling scene is minimizing distractions and showing the experience through impacting means. Punctuation can become a crutch.
If you learn to write without exclamation points and ellipses, and if you can minimize question marks and dashes, then you’ll be much more able to see where they work well, and when they’re the best tool for the job.