Widows & Orphans

Some of the common problems I encounter whenever I’m formatting a book are widows and orphans. I’ve exchanged literally hundreds of emails and Facebook messages back and forth with clients on this topic, and so I’m writing this blog in hopes of simplifying my work in the future.

What are widows and orphans?

According to wikipedia, a widow is a paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text. And orphan is a paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text.

Here’s an example, with the orphaned line highlighted in black:

There are several ways to deal with widows and orphans, and I’m to cover all of them so my clients will understand their options.

1. Ignore widows and orphans. Take a look through 10 traditionally published books in your library. You’ll find that some of these contain widows and orphans and others do not. This is purely an aesthetic problem, and many people do not care about it in any way.

2. Keep lines together. I have an option in Adobe Indesign where I can force the orphaned line to stay with the rest of the paragraph, but this option creates another problem. Namely, it leaves a blank space at the bottom of the page. See the example below.

Does this extra space matter? If you’re flipping through your book and looking at the bottom lines of each page, it might jump out at you when you crossed this page spread. In the instance above, the bottoms of Pages 10 and 11 still line up, but that isn’t always the case. You might see pages with a ragged bottom, like this:

Now how do you feel about it? For most of my clients, this still doesn’t matter. There are no widows and orphans in the document, and each page has a uniform leading that your eye can easily follow. I do quite a bit of work for a small publisher, and this is the method they prefer. That said, there is another option.

3. Force justification. Given all the factors in the previous example, I could also turn on a force justification of the text boxes, which would adjust the spacing between each line of text on Page 10, while in order to fill out all of the space in the text box. Page 11, since it already fills out the space, would remain the same. Can you see the difference in spacing in the example below?

This example solves the widow and orphan problem, and it solves the ragged page bottom problem, but it creates yet another issue. This time, the line spacing doesn’t match on Page 10 and Page 11. Does it matter?

4. Manual adjustments. There’s a fourth option here, and it is the most time consuming and expensive one on the table. I could go through the document, page by page and paragraph by paragraph, adjust the spacing between letters in order to make everything come out even on the bottom. This requires an enormous effort on my part, and of course I charge accordingly. In this example, I adjusted the spacing on the first paragraph on Page 10 in order to make it flow onto the next line, thereby resolving the orphan problem at the bottom of the same page. Can you see the difference?

Ultimately, each author needs to decide for themselves the best way to resolve this issue. I tend to lean toward Option 2, and this is my default setting whenever I layout a book for a new client. There is no right or wrong solution here, but personally, widows and orphans jump out at me when I’m reading a book and a ragged bottom line does not. ┬áIn any case, there is no magic button that makes widows and orphans go away. If you’re using Microsoft Word for your layouts and discover a magic button, let me assure you that it’s using Option 3 and force justifying your text.

I’m happy to explore any of these options on your next book. The goal, of course, is to create the most beautiful presentation possible for your novel. If you need a formatter, drop me a line and I can get you on my schedule.