Widows and orphans

If you are self-publishing your work, it is worth knowing about widows and orphans. They can be ugly, and removing them will help your finished publication look even more professional.

Widows

The first type of widow is a short last line of a paragraph at the top of the page. The definition of ‘short’ will vary. Generally, you can pick your preference out of the following:

  • less than a third of the line width
  • less than half of the line width
  • less than the full line width

I prefer to regard ‘short’ as less than the full line width. Whichever definition you wish to adopt, make sure that you are consistent throughout.

As the author, you are well placed to decide how to deal with any widows that occur: add or remove some text on the previous page so that the line can move up or another line can move down (or just make the line longer if that’s what you want).

Make sure you check any for any knock-on effects. Sometimes even small changes have repercussions for the surrounding pages.

Here is an example of a widow.

Here is an example of a widow.

The second type of widow is a very short last line of a paragraph. This is usually fewer than five characters (including punctuation). You should be able to deal with these by adding or removing a word or two earlier in the paragraph.

Paragraphs that are only one line do not count as widows.

Orphans

Orphans are a single line of text under a new heading at the bottom of the page. If the first line of a paragraph falls at the bottom of the page, it is sometimes also regarded as an orphan.

Here is an example of an orphan.

Here is an example of an orphan.

As suggested above, you can add or remove words to fill or create space. It will depend on the capabilities of the formatting software you are using, but you might be able to amend the space above and below headings and illustrations.

If you can think of a sensible way to save or add space, it is probably worth doing when you are faced with a widow or orphan.


My definition of widows and orphans is based on that stated in Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning (Fourth Revision) by Gillian Clarke and Margaret Aherne.

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