Listening to punctuation

Thanks to Julie Schrager, counsel and legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin, for this guest post. 

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I have been desperately trying to find a way to write about exclamation points. I grew up in a time when they were reserved for exclamations:

“Congratulations on winning that game!”

or

“That’s the reason he got that promotion!”

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, calls those uses the “Yes!”  and “Ah!” meanings of exclamation points.

And I was taught—starting in high school, then in college, law school, and in my first 20+ years of legal practice—that exclamation points had no role in business communications. Nothing we wrote was considered exciting or emotional, and exclamation points were viewed as showing too much emotion.

My teachers were in good company in disliking the exclamation point.  Fiction writers for centuries had condemned the use of exclamation points in fiction-writing. Both Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald are credited with saying that using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

But then I started sending and receiving texts. The old exclamation point rules didn’t apply there. And now I would say the rules—at least for certain legal correspondence—have changed.

This blog is about listening like a lawyer. Lawyers listen to things judges, clients, and other lawyers say out loud. But they also “listen” to writing:  opinions from judges, emails from opposing counsel and clients, and notes from colleagues. Some people read written communications out loud, but even if we don’t, we read and “hear” them in our head.

And I don’t “hear” exclamation points as exclamations anymore. I’ve started to listen to what I read from law students and new law grads and my college-age daughter. I’ve learned that exclamation points don’t say “Yes!” or “Ah!” anymore. Instead, they say, “I hear you” or “I’m not angry” or “We are in this together” or “Our relationship is on solid ground.”

Let me explain. My job involves regular email correspondence with associates at my law firm. It’s a unique position. I work as Schiff Hardin’s legal writing coach and read and comment on written work—memos, briefs, articles, web content, blog posts, and anything else summer associates or associates write. My interactions are almost exclusively with people under 35, and most are with people between 25 and 30. Sometimes associates reach out to me to ask me to review a piece of work—and sometimes I reach out to them.

This is how it goes: at the start of every week, I send around an email to all of the associates at the firm reminding them of my existence and asking if anyone would like to work together during the week. I ask them to fight against the idea that they should be able to figure out their jobs by themselves and do not need to ask anyone for help. I ask that they embrace a “growth mindset,” which holds that abilities are not fixed in space but can be developed with perseverance and hard work.

Exclamation points play an important role in our correspondence. They help young associates and summer associates win the fight against going it alone. Sometimes I’ll get a return email letting me know that the associate is writing a blog post and would like to send it my way. Often the email either starts with “Hi Julie!” or ends with “Thanks in advance!” The message is clear:  I am putting myself out there and am interested in working together.

Listening like a lawyer means matching the tone of the person speaking to you. So I respond with exclamation points of my own: “Thanks for reaching out!” or “Sounds good!” or “My pleasure!”

And I submit that the exclamation point has a new meaning and a legitimate role in business correspondence.

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