Widows & Orphans: What They Are and How to Fix Them
Before you call the police or child protective services, let’s clear up what we’re talking about; in typography, widows and orphans refer to lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph that are separated from the body of the paragraph.
As defined by The Chicago Manual of Style, widows are those pesky lines at the end of paragraphs that get cut off when you run out of space on a page. If left alone, they show up as a single line at the top of the next page. Orphans are the opposite; if there’s only room on a page for one more line, the first line of a paragraph can be “orphaned”, while the rest of the paragraph goes to the next page.
Both issues are visually unappealing to a reader. Luckily, there’s a few techniques to prevent widows and orphans from happening.
The goal is to reduce the space your paragraph fills by just enough to accommodate the widow line. The quickest solution is to remove a few unnecessary words, or rewrite a sentence or two. Sometimes, however, that isn’t an option.
In a shorter piece, you can try to adjust the spacing between paragraphs, letters, or lines of text. If your text is only a few pages, you can experiment with adjusting page margins.
In longer works, such as books, you might want to add space until the problem paragraph is entirely on the next page. Use this technique with your best judgement; an extra line or two of space should be fine, but adding ten lines of space is ridiculous.
If all else fails, you can insert an image or pull quote alongside your paragraph to change the spacing. Magazine articles use this method with the most success.
Orphans are easier to fix. They can be solved simply by adding a line of space before, to force them onto the next page.
Check Your Word Processor
If orphans and widows are a reoccurring problem for you, see what options your word processor offers. For example, some versions of Microsoft Word have an option to automatically prevent widows and orphans under the Paragraph Format tab.
A Word of Warning
Like any form of editing, making changes in spacing to a body of work can affect spacing later in the piece. Make sure that fixing an orphan or widow doesn’t cause a dozen more spacing issues later on.