No exclamation marks

February 16, 2007

A lot of my work and hobbies revolve around writing. Be it copywriting or blog posts or guides or instructions or forum posts or e-mails or whatever else there may be.

Now, at Skype we are pretty anal about our brand and language, and try to maintain a high standard in those departments. We obviously have editing guidelines to support us, and amid all the technical and trademark guidelines, there’s a simple one that I have found to be immensely useful both in work and personal writing. And that one says, no exclamation marks.

I generally try to refrain from using an exclamation mark myself. And while you might see some on the Skype site, it’s more of an exception than a rule. Here’s why I don’t like exclamation marks – or rather, why I like not using them.

I find exclamation marks to be a shortcut! to! SHOUT! and get YOUR POINT ACROSS VERY LOUDLY!!!111 even if there’s actually no point. You can reinforce things with an exclamation mark even if they don’t really make any sense. Whereas “non-marked” regular writing actually forces you to focus on what you are really trying to say, and try to be more precise in getting your point across in plain words. So quite simply, it makes your writing better.

You may think that exclamation marks still have their place in “Buy NOW!!!” types of ads and banners or such, but I think people are becoming increasingly immune to this. And indeed it is quite possible to make good banners without this mark.

This works in the other direction too. Not only can I use this rule to improve my own writing, but I can judge other texts by the amount of exclamation marks they have. I use the highly unscientific categories of smart and dumb writing, and for all the texts that I have seen, you can tell if a writing is “smart” or “dumb” simply by looking at the amount of exclamation marks it has. It may be marketing copy, a blog post, an e-mail, an instruction manual, or any other text… or rather, utilitarian text.

The only place where I think exclamation marks are justified is fiction. And indeed this is where I violate the rule knowingly myself sometimes. If I’m extremely frustrated with something or pissed at someone, I may go in some chatroom and post a lot of rude words followed by a zillion exclamation marks. And similarly, I think exclamation marks have a place in dialog and narrative in fiction and poetry. But as for utilitarian, daily, work-related texts, well, I find exclamation marks to be out-of-place and putting me off.

Note the “smart” and “dumb” qualifications above. I’m not at all referring to the content of the text, but only the method of communication, which also means the originator, or person communicating it. I know this is highly unscientific and bordering on racist, but I have found it works for me and I have yet to see an opposite example… apart from pure e-mail spam. But then again, some spam I get is more entertaining than some of the work texts.</p> <p>I know Skype is not the first company to think of this in the copy department, and I’m sure there’s tons of marketing and copy science behind this exclamation mark stuff. Another example that’s almost cliché but I’ll still post it is the Get a Mac campaign and the whole Apple site. Not a single exclamation mark on the whole page.

I’m not worried that I don’t know the theory behind this, since for me it mostly matters what works in practice and what I’ve found out for myself. But if you know of any links supporting or refuting this, feel free to fire them my way.