Honey Copy

Articles.

Riffs on marketing, writing, creativity and life ––

Perhaps, it's time to kill the exclamation mark.

I was sprinting like hell, fueled by caffeine and dopamine.

I had just downed an afternoon cup of coffee. I could feel its glorious life-giving productivity-enhancing effects take hold as my fingers began pounding out emails at a breakneck pace.

But, as I hit send on the last one, a pang of anxiety rushed over me like a hot scratchy blanket.

I thought to myself… that was a bit too fast, I hope I didn’t make any typos.

(It’s one thing if the accountant makes a typo in an email; an entirely different thing when the copywriter commits the same sin).

As I began reading back through the emails I had sent, I didn’t find any typos, but something far far worse…

Copious amounts of exclamation marks that stood out like a Smurfian village haunted by a rogue hammer.

If I were one of my clients, I would have thought I was either horribly angry or had recently started writing advertising for a local car lot.

I was disappointed and for good reason –– standing like a jackass in a dunce hat in my email inbox, staring at a practically endless number of exclamation marks, I had to come to the unfortunate realization that I was a hypocrite.

When to use an exclamation mark? Never.

I pride myself in avoiding exclamation marks at all costs. I don’t write them in my articles, I instruct folks not to wield them in my copywriting course and I don’t touch them with a ten-foot pole when writing copy for clients.

In fact, I’d wager if you read Sticky Notes (my weekly newsletter) for an entire year, you would be able to count the number of exclamation marks I use on one hand.

The bottom line is that I don’t use exclamation marks. I loathe them.

For starters, they promote lazy writing.

When I read back through this particular afternoon’s emails, I hadn’t said anything interesting or noteworthy to my clients. I was zipping back answers and subconsciously sprinkling in exclamation marks in hopes to add some flavor I knew wasn’t there.

Many writers (and even more marketers) use exclamation marks because they think it adds some punch to a sentence or a headline. They don’t.

They’re cheesy and clunky and smelly, and they leave a great deal of skepticism in the reader.

Since we live in a world where not many people exclaim –– to cry out suddenly, especially in surprise, anger or pain –– it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around people writing with tons of exclamations.

The exclamation mark leaves readers feeling like the writer is being inauthentic.

It’s not unlike the texter who throws around LOL’s willy nilly, eventually, the receiver must ask herself –– is he really laughing this much and if so could he potentially be a psychopath?

Folks don’t want to read (nor buy from) psychopaths.

Which speaking of psychopaths, while Stephen King (not the writer his characters) wasn’t writing about exclamation marks in his iconic book on writing, he might as well have been…

When writing dialogue, King tells writers to only use “he said” and “she said” versus “he exclaimed triumphantly” or “she shouted horrifically”.

He was right. He still is right.

Very few people exclaim triumphantly. But, many say.

To me, this is why writers and marketers must reach for the period over the exclamation mark –– because it’s how the vast majority of folks speak.

Quickly, look at how these headlines can be improved by simply exchanging the exclamation mark for a period.

  • Happy birthday, Cindy!

  • Happy birthday, Cindy.

The latter feels more genuine. Nobody shouts happy birthday.

  • We’ve been expecting you!

  • We’ve been expecting you.

That was the headline on Basecamp’s old landing page. In my opinion, they should have kept it. The latter is more sophisticated.

  • Just do it!

  • Just do it.

If an asshat in Nike’s creative department would have fought harder for an exclamation mark, the slogan would have imploded.

A period, just f*cking do it.

Eddie Shleyner at Very Good Copy once wrote a similar piece arguing for a period over an exclamation mark.

He cited Robert De Niro as an example of someone that rarely if ever “exclaims”, using footage of him losing his cool with an advertising executive during a commercial when asked to say something with more energy…

De Niro closed with a brilliant piece of advice that all writers and marketers must remember when tempted to reach for an exclamation mark…

I’m not selling cars.

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer