Print Book Formatting: Finishing Touches

Widows & Orphans

A widow is the last line of a paragraph which stands on its own at the top of a page:


Orphans are paragraphs that starts with one line at the bottom of a page and the rest of the paragraph on the next:


There’s some disagreement over which is which. If you read other sources, they may call a widow an orphan and vice versa. However, the distinction really doesn’t matter as the rules for both are the same: you want to avoid them, wherever possible, particularly if the separated line only contains a word or two.

So why, then, did I tell you, right at the beginning of this guide, to remove the widow and orphan control on Word? The simple reason is that it’s rubbish. Its idea of avoiding widows and orphans is to end the page a line early whenever they occur. This works fine if you’re writing an essay on A4 paper and may even look reasonable if your book’s that size. However, on an average-sized book this will look really unattractive, often leading to pages facing each other finishing at different heights.

The method I suggest for dealing with widows and orphans is to change the character spacing of a line, paragraph or even a whole page in order to fractionally squeeze the words together or lengthen them out. This way, you can alter where paragraph breaks occur and create the look you want.

To condense character spacing, highlight the line/paragraph/page in question. How much text you need to alter to correct the problem will vary from case to case. From the Home tab, open the Font dialogue box. The tab you want will either be labelled Character Spacing or Advanced, depending on which version of Word you’ve got. Under Spacing, change Normal to Condensed and type 0.05pt into the By box. Press OK.


See how the word sunshine now tucks itself neatly onto the previous line and avoids the widow:


If condensing by 0.05 isn’t enough to effect the change you want, try going to 0.1, 0.15, 0.2, 0.25, 0.3 etc.

You can also expand text. In this case, follow the same steps as above but change Normal to Expanded in Spacing box.

Bear in mind, the paragraph you alter doesn’t have to be the one where the widow or orphan actually occurs. In many cases, it makes more sense to change one earlier in the page or even a page or two back. To effect the changes you want, you’re looking for a paragraph which either has just one word on its last line (so you only need to condense a little to tuck that onto the previous line) or has a nearly full last line (so not much expansion of text is needed to push the text over onto an extra line).

So, to correct the orphan I showed above, I’ve chosen to expand the character spacing of an earlier paragraph by 0.15. This creates an extra line on that paragraph and moves all subsequent text down a line. Thus, the orphan at the bottom of page 11 is reunited with the rest of the paragraph on page 12:



When you’ve altered text in this way, do print out the page and check the paragraph doesn’t look either too spaced out or squashed together. If it does, a good trick is to alter the character spacing of the whole page and the one that will face it.

You don’t want to alter the character spacing by more than about 0.5 or it will start to look funny whatever you do. If you reach this stage, give up on that particular line or paragraph and try another on that page or earlier that will create the same effect.

There may be instances in which there is no way to correct the text which doesn’t look worse than the original widow/orphan. In that case, there are a couple more options. Firstly, you could rewrite a sentence or two, taking out or adding a word here or there. This isn’t ideal as any rewriting you do, at this stage, won’t be edited or proofread but it can solve some tricky formatting situations. Secondly, if you absolutely have to have a shorter page, make sure that the one facing it matches. If you do this, there’s a good chance your readers won’t notice.

If all else fails, simply leave the widow or orphan in. If you follow this route, ensure that any widow isn’t a single word. This can be easily done by expanding the type and pushing a few other words over to accompany the stranded final one.

Whilst removing widows and orphans is a nice touch, if you’ve tried everything and failed, don’t worry too much. Professionally edited books are full of widows and orphans, left in because removing them would lead to even worse visual results.