When writing on Facebook or Twitter, or exchanging emails or text messages with friends, you might feel compelled to use exclamation marks at every opportunity, and that’s fine, but when it comes to your serious writing endeavors you must not abuse this poor fellow.
The exclamation mark rule: Only use the exclamation mark to express emphasis or surprise. Never use the exclamation mark in formal writing.
So, for example, in a cover letter, when applying for a job, there is no need for “I have extensive experience in writing articles”! Okay, so this could be considered emphasis, but it is entirely unnecessary because the impact has been made adequately and you aren’t telling a story. An exclamation mark would be appropriate, however, in a story, for example, “I jumped out from behind the bush and shouted, ‘where the hell do you think you’re going!”
Not Everything You Write Requires Emphasis
The way we speak and the way we write are, more often than not, two very different beasts. Some people have a tendency to escalate their voice at the end of each sentence, creating a big emphasis on each sentence. Naturally, people have transferred this to the page, and we now see exclamation mark abuse, everywhere. One key skill you need to master is being able to convey emphasis without needing an exclamation mark. Use the exclamation mark sparingly; overuse leads to a loss of impact, and subsequently a loss of purpose. Use verbs and strategic punctuation to put across a point and describe intense situations. Reading more will help you with master this skill and become a better writer.
Re-read your sentence, and if it doesn’t feel like you need an exclamation mark, then you probably don’t. Also remember: if you don’t use one it isn’t wrong, yet if you do use one and it feels odd then it probably isn’t needed.
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The following is an excerpt from "Wait, How Do I Write This Email?,"Danny Rubin's collection of 100+ templates for networking, the job search, and LinkedIn.
Back in the day, the rules were simple.
In the office? Suit and tie. Write a memo? Keep it formal.
Today, social mores have changed, and the default setting is often business casual. That applies to everything from the clothes we wear to how we communicate. Does that mean it's OK to fill our emails with exclamation points? I say no.
Yes, we glide from Gmail to Twitter to Gchat and the messages muddle together, but work email should still be seen as "professional." Too many exclamation marks imply you're young and inexperienced. Right or wrong, they make people question your seriousness. After you've been in a position for a few months and see your colleagues, including your manager, sprinkle exclamation marks into every message, then you can relax a bit.
I'm not so rigid to suggest we never use an exclamation mark! As in all things, moderation is key.
1. Hello and goodbye
Let's start where all emails begin: the introduction.
Plenty of people open a work email with:
They also end with:
Have a great day!
Exclamation marks at the beginning and end. No big deal. The other half of the population goes with:
And for the finish…
Have a great day.
Which one is right? They both are. Intros and outros are the entrance and exit of the conversation. They are only pleasantries so, yes, you can come and go with an energetic tone (!) or something more subdued. Either way, it's not a distraction to the reader.
2. Let the other person make the first move
Now we depart the safe harbor of the email introduction (where the exclamation mark is up to you) and enter the body of our message. Here's where exclamations are a far riskier game.
If you already led with:
Then you might think you can continue to roll with the excited streak:
I want to send an email to catch everyone up on the project since we have a lot going on! Please respond that you saw this email so I know you're in the loop!
And the reader thinks, "Yikes, calm down over there. It's Monday morning, and I haven't even finished my coffee."
So let's make a new plan. Rather than start off strong with exclamations, let other people make the first move and match their emotion. That way, you're always in line with how they want to exchange messages.
If the person writes back:
Thanks so much for the note!
Then you reply:
If the person goes with:
Thanks so much for the note.
Then you reply:
When you defer to other people, you're always right. If they want to drop exclamations here and there, so do you. If they prefer to keep it plain, you feel the same way.
3. Double exclamations
In points one and two, I make the case you can go either way with exclamation marks. In point three, the tune changes.
Double exclamations have no place in a work email. I make no apologies for that rule.
There's a difference between energetic and overkill, and it happens somewhere between ! and !!.
If you're on Gchat or talking to a friend through Gmail, go nuts!!! But when it comes to work, the double exclamation is double trouble. Remember you're a working professional. Business is business. Money is money.
You need people to feel comfortable using you or you firm. If you drop "!!" into every sentence, it could be seen as a red flag.
4. When an exclamation is necessary
Point four is where you "learn the rules and break them." That's because there are situations where an exclamation mark matters even if you don't like to use one.
I want to tell you I landed the promotion, so now I'm VP of development for the entire East Coast. Thought you'd like to know the good news!
That's a pretty big deal, right? You can't come back with:
That's great news. Congrats.
Your answer does not match the person's emotion. The moment deserves:
That's great news! Congrats!
If you want the person to know how excited you are, then you need an exclamation mark. If the person wrote the big email to a group, everyone may respond with:
There's no way you could drop in with:
Now you appear unenthusiastic and as though you sent good wishes through gritted teeth.
Some moments require you to fall in line.
5. Trust your instincts
When you finish composing an email, look over your work. How many exclamation points have you used?
If it "feels" like you overdid it, then you overdid it. That applies even if you try to keep pace with the other person's use of exclamations. No matter what, you never want to appear less professional than the person on the other end.
You want to be … what's the word?