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.


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 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.


Proofing is not proofreading

I have noticed a tendency for the term ‘proofing’ to be used interchangeably with ‘proofreading’. I thought this might be a good opportunity to explain a little more about proofreading. In publishing terminology, ‘proofing’ means providing a proof. It is not another term for proofreading.

http://mrg.bz/f5d0NIOnce a typescript has been copy-edited and design instructions have been established, the marked-up typescript (copy) is sent to the typesetter. The typesetter then produces the proof. The proof is a way to ‘try out’ the typesetter’s work. It allows the material to be checked and corrected before the publication process moves any further.

A proofreader will read and correct this proof – proofreading.

The proofreader will typically check for any errors that have been introduced during typesetting (as well as those that may have made it through the copy-editing stage), ensure that the material has been presented as intended and without any poor outcomes (bad word breaks, widows and orphans, etc.), and make sure that any page references are correct. The proofreader’s job is to ensure consistency and accuracy, but the actual tasks undertaken may vary depending on the client’s requirements.

If you would like further information on what a proofreader does and does not do, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders has a handy page here.