Copywriting 101: Exclamation Point, Friend or Foe?

My name is Ann and I'm a grammar geek. There, it's out and I'm relieved. Does this mean my writing is perfect and consistently conforms to grammar rules? Heck, no. It does mean that I spend hours perseverating about serial commas, dangling participles, and feeling guilty if I end a sentence with a preposition. I worry endlessly about what I call the PowerPointification of America (i.e., the trend toward writing short chunks of information in bullet points - which, incidentally, is what sells). I can't bring myself to use abbreviations in e-mail or instant messages. I don't use emoticons. I can't help it. For better or worse, I'm a word nerd.

In my technical writing world, I get paid to think about these things. I must stay on top of instructional design trends, write to suit my audience rather than myself, and ensure that my copy is error-free both technically and grammatically. Often, I must check my ego at the door and conform to writing styles with which I don't agree. Why? I must please my customers. It's my job. There are times in life when we all must conform and comply to rules we don't like. Sometimes, however, you just have to stand up for what you believe. For me, it's a strongly held belief that the exclamation point is a dangerous grammar tool that should be used sparingly and with caution.

Why do I pick on the exclamation point? I've noticed a trend in recent years that correlates with the growing popularity of e-mail and instant messages. It's the proliferation of the exclamation point. I see so much Web copy with multiple exclamation points (e.g., "This widget is the best in all of widgetdom!!!!") or an entire page of Web copy in which each sentence ends with an exclamation point. This makes me feel like someone is yelling at me. It "hurts" my virtual ears. And frankly, if you use the exclamation point too much, you are like the boy who cried wolf. Who is going to believe you if you're always yelling to get attention?

What's a newbie copywriter or small business owner who can't afford to pay a professional copywriter to do about exclamation pointitis? Follow these simple guidelines:

  • Limit your Web copy exclamation points to one per page. Yes, I know you love your product, but remember, there is great elegance in simple, clean copy.
  • Read and revise your copy and then read and revise again...and again. If you're suffering from exclamation pointitis, ask yourself, "Are there adjectives I could be using that would more precisely illustrate the point rather than using exclamation points?" Remember, the thesaurus is your friend. Use colorful adjectives. Vary them throughout your copy, but don't use a word unless you are entirely sure of its meaning.
  • Don't ever use multiple exclamation points!!!! It's a sign of immature writing.
  • When is an exclamation point appropriate? Use it to convey extreme emotion or as a command (e.g., "Stop it!" I yelled, as my brother hurled me into the pool.)
  • Still stuck? That's okay. We small business owners aren't expected to know everything. Chances are there's another business owner out there who loves to write killer copy. Have others you trust read your work. Make it a habit to check out the writing styles of people and companies you admire. Find Web pages with exclamation pointitis and think about how you would improve them. And always remember, the beautiful thing about Web sites and your blog is that you can change your content whenever you want.

    The bottom line is that well-written copy portrays a professional and polished image. Is your marketing copy up to snuff?

    Copyright 2005, Ann Zuccardy, All rights reserved.

    Ann Zuccardy is a freelance technical and copy writer with 17 years of industry experience in marketing and technical communication. She currently consults with IBM in Essex Junction, Vermont where she writes software user manuals, training guides, and release notes. Ann is also the owner of Vermont Shortbread Company. She can be reached at http://wordbrains.com/

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