Formatting Tip: Widows and Orphans

Posted August 1, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Publishing

Widows and orphans is a collective term (no one can agree on which is which) that applies to a word or small group of words left dangling at the bottom of a paragraph or that is forced up to the top of the next page or column.

For the purposes of this post, one version of widows and orphans is defined, but the concept applies whatever they’re called.

Why You Should Worry About Widows and Orphans

Eliminating typographical widows and orphans balances your layout and can make it easier for the reader to follow. Anything you can do to make your book easier and cleaner is a bonus to the reader, and therefore to you and your reputation.

Look For…

This is a step you take at the very end as part of your prep to publish your book. This is a good time to eliminate any remaining double spaces between a period and the start of the next sentence. (For more about this bit of proofreading, read the “Period” post.)

Do a go-through, looking only for:

  1. A lone word(s) at the top of the next page or column that belongs with the paragraph at the bottom of the previous page
  2. A single line of text starting a paragraph at the bottom
  3. A subhead starting at the bottom without at least 2-3 lines of its following text

Fix It

Fix it using any combination of the following:

  • Rewriting the offending paragraph to pull the lone word up a line
  • Use hyphenation to:
    • Use software to force hyphenate
    • Manually change hyphenation
  • Use tracking, letter spacing, or character spacing to change line endings. It’s best if you change this line by line. If you must, edit the paragraphs.
  • Change the margins, column widths, leading, type size, or choice of font — and be careful with this one as it could change too much

Be very careful in making these adjustments. Global changes are not a good idea as it can create more problems. Some professional software has automatic controls that deals with widows and orphans.

Look it over: the text on the page should all appear similar in size and spacing, even if you have squeezed or expanded some lines or paragraphs. Check the pages coming up to ensure that entire sections haven’t been thrown off.

Formatting Tips started…

…as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with words that should have been capitalized or italicized, in quotes or not, what should be spelled out and what can be abbreviated, proper styling for the Latin names of plants, the proper formatting and usage of titles and more in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this style tip with friends by tweeting it.

Widows and Orphans
Credit to: Felici 157-159
Orphan Definition: One or two lines “of a paragraph that are stranded at the bottom or top of a column.

A three-line paragraph fragment ending with a widow that appears at the top of a column may also be considered an orphan” (Felici 157).

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Example of an orphan line

Fig. 1. A heading and a single line of text could use just one more line of mass.

Example of hwo to fix the orphaned line

Fig. 2. Adding just one more line, lifts it out of orphan mode. It’s still not ideal, but better—

Fixes include:
  • Layout changes include:
    • Specify that the last two, three, or more lines of a paragraph must be kept with the paragraph that follows it
    • Require that a heading is kept with the paragraph that follows it
  • Editorial change in which you re-write the paragraph to eliminate the extra words
Widow Definition: Last lines of a paragraph that starts on a new page, separated from the original paragraph. It looks very lonely all by itself at the top…

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example of a widow in a typographical sense

Fig. 3. Photo courtesy of

Fixes include:
  • Draw it up into the rest of the paragraph
  • Change the hyphenation of the preceding lines by using discretionary or soft hyphens
  • Tighten the tracking a wee bit
  • Make the paragraph longer or shorter

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