Friday Speak Out!: My Name is Jocelyn, and I’m a Punctu-holic, guest post by Jocelyn Kasper

Friday, April 20, 2012
My Name is Jocelyn, and I’m a Punctu-holic

by Jocelyn Kasper

I’m on week four of a six-week WOW! Young Adult Novel Writing workshop with author Bonnie Hearn Hill. She’s got me on a no-exclamation-point diet. Bonnie says I’m in rehab.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. It’s a substitute for a lively little remark, added to the end of a perfectly good sentence, such as, “Isn’t that special?” Some people would substitute the word amazing to get the same effect. But I hate that word.

Bonnie says I need to use words, not punctuation, to express ideas and feelings. I told her I will lay off the punctuation brew and instead grow my language skills. I think my sentences are actually funnier, friendlier and smarter without exclamation points.

But sometimes I worry someone will think I’m drier than I mean to be. So I’ll add a colon and shift+zero, which, after a thoughtful tap of the space bar in a properly working Word program, turns into a smiley face, which is just as bad. I’m trying to get used to the new me.

Bonnie says get rid of colons and semi-colons in fiction. They’re too authorial. Let the reader get swept away by the writing, not by the writer. I want my readers to fall in love with my characters on their own and not notice there’s an author hanging around telling them how to feel about it.

Punctuation feels like music notation to me. In fact, like interpretation of music notation, it’s almost spiritual. A comma or em dash signals a musical rest of particular length and temper. Question marks and periods convey vocal inflections. But putting a word or phrase in italics or quotation marks (orphan quotes) for emphasis is off limits. Bonnie says not to think of myself as an actor, singer or composer, but as a writer. Again, use words.

This whole anti-punctuation thing is really just what the doctor ordered. You see, punctuation can make me feel like a smart person, even if I’m not. Like all those books on all those bookshelves do, which I haven’t read in years or ever.

Except for when I type smiley faces. I don’t feel so smart then. Just because I like to doodle, I shouldn’t scribble faces, parentheses, dots and other flyspecks all over my manuscripts to prove I’m smart. Or artistic.

Thanks to Bonnie, I’ve thrown my Punctuation Princess crown all the way across the valley. And still, I hear a million echoes of shattering glass, as it bounces from mountain to mountain.

It might seem like I’ve only learned junk about punctuation from Bonnie Hearn Hill. Or that punctuation is junk—on many levels—or both; but that wouldn’t be accurate. Oops. There goes a semi-colon.

I’ve been learning so much more. But you’ll have to wait for another blog day to hear about all the rest. In the meantime, use your words.

* * *
Jocelyn Kasper loves to write. In her spare time, she teaches people how to sing. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, three dogs and one cat. Read more at

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!



Angela Mackintosh said...

I LOVE this post! Oops, there I go again.

Jocelyn, I'm right there with you. I have a bad habit of overusing exclamation points (hence the name "WOW!" lol), smiley faces (yup :), parentheses, and em dashes. I'm not bad with colons, semi-colons or scare quotes. I don't overuse them in my fiction writing though, just in comments like this. ^_^

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...

Thanks, Jocelyn. Happy to see that you're doing well without the extra baggage.


Paul Christy said...

That is excellent advice for everyone, not just writers. I hereby am going on the same diet. I will also do my best to stop a horrible habit I picked up many years ago from Herb Caen in the San Francisco can guess what it is.

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...


He was the king of three-dot journalism. And it worked for him, didn't it?


Kirstie said...

This is hilarious and so true. I am guilty of infatuation with the colon (punctuation not body part) and I could be accused of obsession with parentheses when it comes to blogging and commenting.
I try to curb myself in revision, but sometimes I think 'Oh, but that line's so pretty like that' then I remind myself of when I test read a friends first chapter. In the space of ten paragraphs he used fifteen exlamation points and I was beating my head on a desk. I was a bit kinder than that when I told him.
Oh, and emoticons are addictive. I had to fight not to put one on the end of the last paragraph.

Loretta Boyett said...

As a former student (and forever friend and admirer) of Bonnie Hearn Hill, I, too, have been on Bonnie's no-explanation-point diet for years.

At first, following her wise advice proved quite difficult since I had practiced this deplorable habit for many years, and I must confess that I still rationalize the occasional use of this obnoxious punctuation, especially when I want to say something important, such as: Bonnie is the best!!!!

As you can probably tell, I still have to fight several other bad habits such as run-on sentences and the use of those loathsome colons. LOL

All of this is in fun, of course. Bonnie is an instructor par excellence. If you ever have a chance to be one of her students, don't miss the opportunity.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh. My. Gosh. It has just recently come to my attention that I may have a "little" problem with exclamation points.

And so now, I've taken them out of my manuscripts and my stories and even my blog. But I will never take them out of my emails!!!!

Or blog comments. ;-)

Moderne Shellac said...

not the semi-colon? It's really my only punctaddiction. I slip it in whenever I can, which isn't very often. I'm the Countess of the five dot ..... I have a tendency to overdo.

Jocelyn comma I love your style in all things comma not just writing.


Holly said...

Bonnie taught me the same thing. Now I try to find better words and scenes to get the remark across. My next "ten pounds" will be the semi colon.

Cathy said...

I have been lucky to have Jocelyn as one of my critique partners for almost four years now. She does the best critiques, thorough and honest. I still quiver in fear at her scrutinizing of my comma usage, but I do learn a lot from her. I love how you compare punctuation to musical notation, Jocelyn. Never thought of it that way.

Great letter, Jocelyn. I almost put an exclamation mark after Jocelyn, but decided against it. I'll put a smiley face instead. :) Sorry, I had to put something if I can't put an exclamation mark. Oh, the withdrawal symptoms. My fingers itch to hit that Shift and 1 key. *Trembles*

Bonnie's course does sound really good. Glad you're getting so much out of it. She sounds like a great teacher.

Sarah said...

Oh NO! I always use exclamation points! I don't have a problem with that! I'm just excited! (You the little excited puppy that just piddled all over your shoes)
Oh, wait. I wouldn't like that either. OK, I concede...

"Hi, my name is Sarah, and I am a punct-a-holic."

Muddy said...

Oh no! This is the second time in less than a week I've heard the universe (in the form of F. Scott Fitzgerald) say stop using exclamation points. But...I love them! And the 3 dots...

Maybe it's a sign.

I love the idea of strengthening my writing to convey the emotion of an exclamation point. I can get behind that. But when I'm writing as myself in the form of an email or a blog comment, the exclamation points get to
stay! Otherwise, people will think my son has hijacked my email account.

john reynolds said...

Well said. Now if i can just learn to spell.

Jocelyn Kasper said...

Thanks for your Comments, everybody.

It seems I’m changing the world, one exclamation point at a time. But that was never my intention.

I do believe it's one of Bonnie's, though.

I coined a new word, too. Punctu-holic. I don’t mind being known for that.


Ekmou said...

As an academic, I love colons - not the stomach, but these :

Ekmou said...

Seriously, studying with Bonnie Hearn Hill helped me gain excellence in writing, both academically and for fun. Editors of journals like my papers, since they don't have to do a lot of editing on them. And I edit colleagues' work as well, gaining me friends and social capital. Having Bonnie as a teacher was one of the best things that happened to me.

Karen Moustafa Leonard, Ph.D.

Linda said...

Cousin Jocelyn,I think the exclamation point is a family trait. Personally, I love using it; it expresses my animated teaching style. As a preschool teacher/naturalist, I want to show my upbeat personality in the title of my program, Nature Adventures! It's always edited out, even by WORD. Why is this blog called WOW!?-- Because it grabs attention & shows that enthusiasm! However, I do agree with your teacher to use your words, TOO. I love your doodles,too! I still remember a letter you wrote me when we were kids, filled with lots of !!! You wrote, "Gotta run" & beside it, a doodle of a guy dashing away. I think you should end every chapter of your novel with an appropriate doodle, & maybe a!

Ann Marquette said...

This is great and a good one for me to remember. Thank you.

Scott Frasier said...


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