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Widows, Orphans and Runts

No we’re not talking about old ladies and children here. In typesetting, widows and orphans are words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a page. Runts are single words or portions of a word left alone on one line at the bottom of a paragraph. There is some disagreement about which is a widow and which an orphan, it seems to vary geographically so for the purpose of this document I will use the following definitions


A paragraph-ending line that is less that 3/4 your column width that falls at the beginning of the following page. Note, single lines such as dialogue are NOT considered Widows.


A paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page.


A word or part of a word that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph.


Fiction Standards

Now, some of these items are acceptable in a fiction novel, especially one with a small column width, others to be eliminated at all cost so lets talk about which to worry about and how to take care of them.

Widows should always be eliminated. These short lines at the top of a page break up the flow of text and cause the spread to look amateurish.

Orphans should be avoided if possible but are acceptable if need be, often times attempting to remove both widows and orphans can cause major layout issues, in these cases always eliminate widows and let the orphans remain.

Runts can be acceptable on narrow columns, I suggest removing any single syllable runts or any partial word runts that occur due to hyphenation.


How to remove them

Before attempting to correct these please note that this should be the absolute final stage in formatting your book. There is no use going to the trouble of correcting these if you have other formatting or editing to do which could potentially change the layout. Also ensure that when you are correcting these you work from the front of your book on as the changes you make will adjust the text flow on the following pages.

There are a few ways to remove these and I suggest evaluating each on an item by item basis

  • Forcing a page break early, producing a shorter page – if you choose to do this ensure that you do so on both pages of the spread, this will maintain the block edge at the bottom.
  • Adjusting the spacing between words to produce ‘tighter’ or ‘looser’ paragraphs – ensure that you modify the spacing of the entire paragraph so that the adjustment is slight and invisible to the eye.
  • Adjusting the hyphenation of words within the paragraph – add manual hyphenation to modify individual line length
  • Rewriting a portion of the paragraph – this is acceptable but I frown upon it, once you have fully edited your book, adjusting phrasing to correct formatting just seems wrong. If it can be done well, however, it is an easy solution.

The key here, is to make each spread look as clean as possible. This is the final step in producing your book, take the time to ensure it is done well and that your final product is as professional as possible.


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