Type Tip #3: Widows and Orphans

Sounds like the plot of a Charles Dickens novel. Despite these curious typographic terms, avoiding widows and orphans is an important concept graphic designers, and writers for that matter, should remember.

Widows
A widow is a single word or two very short words at the end of a paragraph or column. It is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs and tends to draw the eye toward the hanging word. It interrupts the reader’s flow, diminishing readability, and gives an unintended visual emphasis on this dangling word. The rule of thumb is at least two words, three if the words are short, on the last line of a paragraph.

To accomplish this, the designer should manually break the previous sentence apart. Keep in mind that doing this requires a “soft return,” (shift + return key) rather than a “hard return” (return key), the difference being that a soft return is a simple manual line break whereas a hard return inserts an invisible paragraph marker in the middle of the sentence. This bad habit will cause problems with text formatting and style sheets.

Orphans
Creating a similar visual distraction, an orphan is a single line of type that appears at the top of a column or page. This creates poor horizontal alignment at the top of the page. Again, the rule of thumb is at least two lines of a sentence at the top of a column.

Writers
These rules apply to writers as well as designers. Screenwriter Mark Sanderson’s informative article on avoiding widow words when writing scripts is an interesting read. He observes that widows in scripts look sloppy and notes that the cumulative effect of dozens of widowed paragraphs can add unnecessary pages to a script. The effect is even more pronounced in novels where hundreds of widowed paragraphs can really add up.

Look professional by assiduously avoiding widows and orphans in your typography. Remember, if it’s not good type, it’s not good design.

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2 Comments

Filed under Typography

2 responses to “Type Tip #3: Widows and Orphans

  1. Tim Verdries

    Great tip Paul. Everybody forgets the soft return. Merry Christmas.

  2. Widows, orphans, ah yes, and might I suggest another format bane, “vagabonds.” The chapter that ends with the last sentence dangling on a blank page. Too much empty space. I work hard to avoid this also.

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