Fix Widows and Orphans in Text

Fix dangling words for better typography and design

How to fix a widow in typesetting

Maat / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When setting type and doing page layout, the graphic designer or typesetter arranges the type on the page for the best balance and clarity. When the page contains a lot of text — especially when set in short line lengths — occasionally the type "breaks" awkwardly from one column or page to the next, leaving a single word or a single line of type separated from the rest of its paragraph.

These occurrences are called widows and orphans. These widowed and orphaned bits of text make stories harder to read and cause page layouts to look unbalanced. Usually, a skilled designer can work around this problem to benefit the design.

What Are Widows and Orphans

  • Widows occur when the last line of a paragraph flows so that it stands alone in a different column or page from the rest of the paragraph.

  • Orphans occur when the first line of a paragraph is separated from the rest of the paragraph, which appears in a different column or on a different page.

Examples of Widows and Orphans

  • A word or two at the top of a column that belongs with the paragraph at the bottom of the previous column looks out of place.

  • The first line of a paragraph that falls at the bottom of a column is equally annoying. When the rest of the sentence continues on the next page, continuity for the reader is at risk.

  • Subheads that appear at the bottom of a column or end of a page — without at least two to three lines of the following text — look bad and hurt readability.

How to Fix a Widow or Orphan

When you flow the text into your page layout design, you may notice a few widows and orphans. In modern page layout software, you have several options for tweaking the text to prevent this problem. 

  • Rewriting or editing can solve many problems including widows and orphans. If you have the authority to make editorial changes, you can rid yourself of stubborn dangling words by simply editing out a word or two or using a longer or shorter word somewhere in the paragraph.

  • Some software programs have automatic controls that help prevent widows and orphans. These may work fairly well to keep subheads and paragraphs together or to keep at least the first and last two or three lines of each paragraph on the same page. This type of control usually works by adding extra space at the beginning or end of a page or paragraph, forcing text that might otherwise split to stay together on a page. You can specify how many lines must stay together.

  • You can control line endings on all lines as well as widows and orphans by making your hyphenation zone larger or smaller — forcing fewer or more words to hyphenate. Manually hyphenating some lines can also force changes that eliminate some widows and orphans without changing entire sections of your document.

  • You can use tracking and kerning to change line endings. You might want to apply these changes globally throughout your document or only in certain areas. Sometimes loosening or tightening the spacing on just one line or even one word can be enough to force a change.

Don't rely on your software to recognize and correctly fix every type of dangling word or phrase. Try different settings to get the best overall line endings and then fix remaining problems individually. Proofread after every change.

Know When to Stop

Watch out for the domino effect when tweaking type to eliminate widows and orphans. When working your way through a document making changes in tracking or spacing, start at the beginning. Make changes in small increments. Any changes you make at the start of the document can affect text further along and create new line-ending problems.

Don't lose sight of the big picture. What seems like a few simple line adjustments in a single paragraph can appear quite different when you look at the paragraph alongside other unadjusted text. Although you can sometimes do just a tiny bit of squeezing on a single word if you need to do a lot of squeezing you should spread it out over an entire paragraph.

Make sure that the measures you take to eliminate the widows and orphans aren't worse than your original problem. Correct the worst of your widows and orphans and then let the marginal ones go.