Death to dingbats!

Reading an elegant memoir this week, I became annoyed with the dingbats the publisher inserted in the author’s line breaks, the white spaces he used as transitions between sections in chapters. A dingbat, in this case a set of three square blocks, is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations,” says That’s the third definition—the first is “an eccentric, silly, or empty-headed person” and the second is “dingus,” a “gadget, device, or object whose name is unknown or forgotten.”

Amen. The dumb things arose in the age of hot lead type, an era of imprecise technology and poor communication, to safeguard authors’ intentional white space from harried printers in the back shop. Now dingbats traduce this important authorial decision. Clearly they’ve outlived whatever usefulness they possessed, something evolution tried, like tailfins on Cadillacs, that was excessive, grew vestigial, and faded. Except of course in newspapers, where dingbats are used to insult normal readers by shouting that a mistake isn’t being made.

In short, dingbats are moronic. And yet some book publishers still reflexively put the damn things in whenever a writer hits an extra return and pauses for breath. Tradition is at work, but mindlessly, which is my real beef. Melville used only four line breaks, by my count, in all of Moby-Dick, and the novel’s printer used five bristling asterisks in each break.

With the poetic influence of lyric essays growing, even many traditional writers are using white space to set up a mere line or two—and dingbats bracketing such liminal space are grotesque. (Somehow poets survive without dingbats after every stanza.) Dingbats deface the text and the writer’s intent to use white space as a resonant pause full of meaning and implied narrative. The white space is counterpoint, the ball hanging in the clear air before the racket’s downward thwock.

I’m supportive of dingbats used to separate sections in block-style paragraph format where most white space is simply a paragraph indicator, as on this blog, and dingbats (or numerals) can telegraph a more significant transition. Like so:

*      *      *      *      *

There, my jihad against dingbats is launched. Admittedly a number of publishers already do without them. But I expect slow dingbat extirpation because design is a realm that authors are ignorant of, or which they cede, and publishers refrain from soliciting design preferences from writers.


Filed under aesthetics, design, editing, essay-lyric, journalism, structure

3 responses to “Death to dingbats!

  1. Also sprach Richardthustra . . .
    And I say Amen

  2. This is an interesting history of dingbats. And remember using them as a newspaper editor — or our version, three hyphens between separate pieces in the same column, usually to separate a roundup such as items in a police blotter. On something like that, as a way to separate unrelated items, the dingbats make sense.

    On the other hand they are confusing in longer works such as book. What’s strange is to find the use of dingbats to mark off a section, but then a few paragraphs later encounter white space only. It seems confusing.

    I submitted part of a manuscript to a professional editing service and the editor suggested I put three asterisks in the white space of section cuts. I’ve been doing so, wondering, if this piece were to ever be published, would it have the dingbats, or would it have section breaks as I intended?

  3. I think the asterisks are redundant and publishers don’t need them to understand that a writer’s white space in a manuscript was an intentional break. The exception is where a break falls between pages, and there, as in a book, dingbats are used to indicate there’s a transitional break. I suppose putting them in every break in a manuscript helps the writer avoid worrying about signaling differently and gets the difficult places covered, as chapters change length and the breaks move around, suddenly needing dingbats added or removed. So asterisks or bullets might be helpful in every break for consistently telegraphing intent and lessening a writer’s work. I’m tormented by this myself: I’d hate to encourage a publisher to use them but would hate having to track where they are and are not needed to flag line breaks for the publisher. So I guess I agree with your editor. (Except in the case of essays and on-line pieces; all my thoughts and dubious expertise apply to print and to books.)

    In any case, whether manuscript dingbats stay or are replaced by plain white space in the published text is still up to the publisher. I think it’s something writers should be aware of and discuss with their publishers, mention their preference, but not to the point of making it a deal breaker. I agree the mixed use of dingbats and white space can really confuse, unless it is unmistakable that they are marking a different kind of section break—but while that can be clear in essays, the whole of which (and their sections) can be seen at a glance, the longer form of books seems to militate against readers understanding and holding in their minds a distinction that this break is different from that break.