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Referencing text layout. . .

  • A widow is a sentence fragment separated from its paragraph at the start of a page or column
    • A widow is the end of an incomplete sentence which appears at the beginning of a column or page.
  • An orphan is a sentence fragment separated from its sentence at the end of a page or column
    • An orphan is the beginning of an incomplete sentence which appears at the end of a column or page.

When considering this for print layout...

  • Are these ever a good thing?
  • Is there a reason to allow either of them in text?
  • Or should they always be removed?
  • If so, what are some good methods for removing them, assuming copy editing is not permissible?

Regarding web layout...

  • Is it even possible to control such matters in live HTML text?
  • If so, what are some good methods?

I do realize that in responsive web layouts text control is merely not something which can be present at all times and often "you get what you get" and that's "as good as it'll get". To this end, I'm really thinking more about print design.

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  • 2
    maybe if you're EE Cummings Jan 7 '20 at 21:56
  • 4
    "Should they always be removed?" - if you're talking about doing that in a digital context covering every screen size, good luck. Jan 7 '20 at 22:35
  • @ZachSaucier edited to include that possibility.
    – Scott
    Jan 7 '20 at 22:39
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I can't see how orphans and widows can ever be a "good thing". They should in my opinion always be avoided, but in some cases you can be forced to accept them because the alternative is worse.

Why are orphans and widows a bad thing?

It always hurts my eyes to see those tiny snippets of text. It looks like an unintentional error. In this example we have both:

The orphan makes the readers start reading a sentence and then immediately forces them to move their eyes to the top of the next column or page or to turn the page. If the paragraphs are indented it also cuts off the corner of the text block in the lower left corner, making the pages look unbalanced.

The widow can also feel annoying for the readers since they have to remember the start of a sentence then find the continuation and might be disappointed to find just a tiny snippet. The widow can also make the page look unbalanced since it often cuts off the upper right corner of the text block. Another bad thing about widows is that they in some cases can look like a heading.

How can they be avoided?

(I'll assume InDesign is used, but similar approaches can probably be used in other applications.)

Initially you can set the Keep Options of your Paragraph Style to disallow orphans and widows. Check Keep Lines Together. Choose At Start/End of Paragraph and set Start and End to (at least) 2 lines:

This doesn't really fix the problem. It just moves the troubled line introducing an empty line instead. In some layouts this can be good enough, but in any case it makes it easier to spot orphans and widows.

When all text has been styled you have to go through your text, spot the orphans and widows and try to fix them manually.

In simple one-off layouts, the first thing to try is to change the design until the problem goes away. Change the font size, margins, number of columns etc.

In dynamic magazine layouts you can try to organize your elements differently. Reposition text frames and images, let headings span over a different number of columns, use text wrap etc.

If all else fails, and in long plain texts with no images like a novel, you have to manually adjust paragraphs to become one line shorter or longer. You have two knobs to turn:

  • Tracking. Increase or decrease the spacing between letters. Use a tiny amount of positive or negative tracking (probably not more than +-10).

  • Word spacing. Increase the spacing between words with Ctrl / Cmd + Alt + \ and decrease with Ctrl / Cmd + Alt + Backspace.

The two methods can be combined to achieve the best (or least bad) result.

Sometimes you have to go back several pages to find a paragraph which will change its length with only a small amount of adjustment. And sometimes you need to change several paragraphs before the puzzle is solved.

Be aware that there are cases which logically can't be solved no matter what you do. In those cases you'll either have to live with an orphan (widows are worse in my opinion), try to convince the writer to change the wording or simply "cheat" by having a spread with one line less on both pages. Maybe nobody will notice.

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The general approach is to try to avoid these as much as possible, but this depends on the item being designed:

  • Brochures or flyers or generally simple designs: you can break the grid and extend text boxes here and there by a few millimeters to reflow content just enough so these can easily go away. A similar effect can be achieved by increasing the right padding (assuming left aligned text). I actually use these techniques many times for most low-content work.
  • Then, you can also play with the tracking, but I personally avoid this at all cost and would rather have orphans than squeezed text.
  • However, with a more structured grid, as in an actual book, you can't make (too many) exceptions. Especially if a baseline grid is also used, which pretty much means widows will 100% happen.
  • Should they always be removed?: sometimes just not possible without major compromise.
  • I am just looking at a book published by Penguin in the UK, fresh 2019 edition. They sure don't mind widows and orphans as there are plenty in the book.
  • Another important typesetting book — Jost Hochuli's Detail in typography — features plenty of orphans, even very short ones, but not any widows.
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Yes. There are times when they can be helpful.
Widows and orphans can propel reading....

For general one-page items, where all copy is ingested in a single view, it is best to avoid orphans and widows whenever possible. However...

Much depends upon what is being designed

There are occasions in print design, specifically sales-oriented print design, where widows and orphans can be a very helpful tool in multi-page designs.

By intentionally creating orphans or partial sentences at the end of a page spread you greatly entice the reader to turn the page (where there's the widow). If for no other reason, to finish the sentence they were reading.

It is human nature to not stop reading mid-sentence. And it's also human nature to not stop something (like reading) until a natural stopping point is reached. So, by forcing a page turn to finish a sentence you then put a new spread in front of the reader and many will be compelled to continue reading. Or at the very least skim the new spread....

Overall the use of widows in these situations is merely playing on human psychology and the need for completion or "fear of missing out" on something. This is along the lines of seeing sales pieces with little "over" or "next page" indicators. However, using widows is a far more subtle, and I'd argue, compelling, tactic.

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  • Can you please explain the orphan a bit more? You wrote it is a word separated from sentence, but the pink arrow by Wolff highlights a sentence in bottom separated from paragraph?
    – Vikas
    Feb 25 '20 at 7:03
  • 1
    @Vikas I clarified in the question a bit more.
    – Scott
    Feb 25 '20 at 7:16
  • I see what you mean, but maybe just making sure to let paragraphs continue onto the next spread is enough to achieve that "cliffhanger" effect? Doesn't have to be an orphan/widow. It is kind of a beginner's mistake to try to let every page end with a full stop.This subject reminds me of very old books where the first word or syllables of the next page were sometimes added in the bottom of each page. Example from "Thierbuch" from 1592.
    – Wolff
    Feb 26 '20 at 22:13
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    @Vikas, I'm a little unsure if I'm using the terms correctly. When I google them I find contradicting definitions.
    – Wolff
    Feb 26 '20 at 22:17
  • @Wolf 30 years, thousands of direct mail sale pieces..... orphans and widows work better. It's been proven with ROI numbers. Which I would share if I could, but it's difficult get marketing people to give you data. I know what has become the control piece, at that only happens because it has a better return than any previous piece. (and I agree definitions get REAL muddy, but how I've outlined them in the question is my understanding)
    – Scott
    Feb 26 '20 at 22:44

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