I love my wife. I love my family. I love ice cream and pudding. I love weekends. I love the sound of rain on a tin roof. I love the colour blue. I love leopards. I love science fiction movies and fantasy books. I love sleeping in.
How much does the word love mean to me, do you think? The more I say it the less potent it becomes, transitioning in the reader’s mind from love to a much weaker like.
The same is true with exclamation marks. The exclamation mark says to our brain that the preceding sentence (or dialogue) is very important. It should be used exceedingly rarely, just like crying “wolf” should only be done when there is a wolf nearby.
As a rule of thumb I’d say anything more than once in ten thousand words is too excessive. Every time you use it you are watering down the meaning of it, making every use of it weaker.
The book I am currently reading Kneeling on the Promises (genre: faith-instructional) caught my writer’s eye (in a bad way) when I noticed prolific use of the exclamation mark. I found its repeated presence to be very irritating, detracting from the content of the text. Punctuation should not detract from content. For example:
- page 110 – 2 x !
- page 111 – 3 x !
- page 112 – 2 x !
That’s 3 consecutive pages, and 7 exclamation marks! (pun intended).
Keep your powder dry: conserve your exclamation mark for when it is really needed.
(I’ve added it to my checklist of editing checks).