Friday, September 3, 2010

Saving space, killing widows and orphans

While formatting a book, sometimes eliminating a sentence, a phrase, a word or even one or two characters can eliminate a page or an ugly widow or orphan.

This is an area where a self-publishing author has a big advantage over authors whose books are formatted by others. The author--not some stranger--gets to decide on the appropriate surgery.

Take advantage of shorter words and contractions. “Pasta” takes up less space than “macaroni” or “spaghetti.” “Group” and “club” are shorter than “organization.” "Costly" is smaller than "expensive." “J. P. Morgan” takes up less space than “John Pierpont Morgan.” "USA" is much shorter than "United States." "A "box" takes up less space than a "package." A "car" needs less room than an "automobile."
  • These substitutions also work well in arranging text around a photo.
  • Sometimes it can be useful to substitute in the other direction. A longer word may help you to make a better looking block of text, especially with justified copy if there is a lot of extra word spacing.

Widows and orphans are lonely and need some attention. They make a book look lousy and amateurish and waste paper and trees. Do your best to eliminate them.

A widow is the last line of a paragraph that shows up at the top of a page, or at the top of a column on a page with multiple columns.

In typography, an orphan has two meanings:

(1) An orphan can be a single line of type beginning a paragraph at the bottom of a page, or at the bottom of a column on a page with multiple columns.

(2) The other kind of orphan is a single word or the final syllable of a hyphenated word on a line by itself.

From the Chicago Manual of Style: “A page should not begin with the last line of a paragraph unless it is full measure and should not end with the first line of a new paragraph. Nor should the last word in any paragraph be broken—that is, hyphenated, with the last part of the word beginning a new line.” NOTE: I've heard that the newest version of "Chicago" is more permissive, but I have not yet received a copy.

(You can left-click to enlarge an image.)

These columns have ugly word spacing I'll talk about cures in the future.


  1. LOL, I thought I was the only person that cared about those ugly dangling words! As a publisher of sewing patterns for over two decades I would manipulate text to look "pretty" rather than release something I didn't like to look at!

  2. I have a question that I simply cannot seem to get anywhere else so I hope someone can help me here.

    How do you solve the problem of widows, orphans and hyphens in electronic publishing? When I say electronic publishing I mean websites and electronic newsletters, especially the latter.

    I ask this because I work in the electronic publishing industry where we try to solve the problem of widows, orphans and hyphens in our electronic newsletters – yes, those things that arrive in your email inbox.

    Thank you very much.

    1. Electronic text -- on websites, in ebooks and in email -- is controlled and manipulated by the reading device and the person who is reading.

      When text is flowable and typeface and type size can be changed, aesthetic considerations mean nothing.There is nothing you can do about it, so don't waste your time.

      I delayed publishing ebooks for several years because I thought the pages looked so bad, but I ultimately gave in. Readers don't seem to care about ugly e-pages.

      A PDF will retain your formatting, but PDFs are seldom used in these applications.