Another thing about writing advice and interpretation

by look i have opinions

“An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

—attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, though I’m not sure what it’s from

Some invisible, unspoken assumptions underlying this remark:

  • An exclamation point adds special emphasis. It’s not just there because it’s appropriate to the sentence, or for other stylistic reasons.
  • An exclamation point is an especially obvious way of adding emphasis.
  • The voice of the exclamation point user is the voice of the author. (At least, I think that’s the assumption being made. Given that Fitzgerald is best known for his fiction, this is kind of weird. Maybe he’s talking about the narrator’s voice.)
  • “Laughing at your own joke” is inappropriate.
    • Because it’s self-congratulatory? In that case, the assumption here is that self-congratulatory writing is bad. Writers should not indulge themselves on the page. They should efface themselves, prioritizing the story over their egos.
    • Or maybe because it reveals the author’s insecurity? In that case, the assumption is that writers should not struggle on the page. They should do the hard work behind the scenes and make it look effortless.
    • Or maybe because it’s patronizing to the reader? In that case, the assumption is a bit simpler: obviousness is bad, subtlety is good. Readers are sophisticated. Readers want to be able to interpret tone and emotion themselves, without blatant cues.

This is why I hate pithy bits of “wisdom” about writing. These underlying assumptions usually stay invisible and unspoken, when they are exactly the parts that should be analyzed and challenged.

I’m being unfair to Fitzgerald, by the way. The longer version of the quote is

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Very likely, he was talking to a particular fellow writer about a particular work of fiction. Context is key.

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