What are Widows and Orphans?

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They might sound a tad Dickensian, but ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’ are actually terms designers use to describe unwanted stray words in typography.

Here, we’ll look at what widows and orphans are, and share some quick and easy tips for banishing them from your typesetting.


What is a widow?

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A widow is a lone word or short group of words that appears at the bottom of a paragraph, column or page.

They tend to make long sections of text look unbalanced and messy, as well as leaving too much excess white space at the end of a page.

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What is an orphan?

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An orphan is a similar unwanted straggler, but this describes words that appear at the top of a page.

Orphans really belong on the previous page, as not only do they look untidy on the page they appear, but they also break the flow of reading across two pages.

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OK, got it. Now how do I get rid of them?

There are three quick and easy solutions to banishing both widows and orphans, leaving your typography beautiful and neat.

The directions below are descibed for InDesign users, but you can observe the same general processes whichever design software you’re using.


Solution #1: Slightly extend the edge of your text frame

It’s amazing how even extending the side of your text frame just a millimeter or two can tidy up those widows and orphans, and it’s barely noticeable that the frame is larger than others around it.

In InDesign, take the Selection Tool (V, Escape) and pull the right or left edge of your text frame slightly, extending it until the orphan or widow is pulled into the main body of the paragraph.

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Solution #2: Apply optical margin alignment to your text

Optical margin alignment is a method of shifting small text elements like commas, apostrophes and serifs to sit outside the edge of the text frame. As well as being a great way of making your paragraphs look generally more symmetrical and attractive, it’s also a nifty way of helping to get widows and orphans in line.

In InDesign, go to Window > Type & Tables > Story.

With the text frame selected or your Type Tool (T) cursor set in the paragraph, check the Optical Margin Alignment box. You’ll notice a subtle shift across some of the text. If your widow or orphan is a short word this can be enough to make them toe the line.

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Solution #3: Apply tracking or kerning to the text

Some designers would argue that reducing tracking (letter-spacing across a group of words or a paragraph) is the lazy solution to banishing widows and orphans, but in some situations it’s simply necessary.

If you’re dealing with only a tiny word that is stubbornly resistant, reducing kerning (letter-spacing between individual letters) slightly between either some of the letters of the word, the preceeding word or in the space between the two final words of the paragraph is a more elegant solution.

In InDesign, use the Type Tool (T) to highlight the whole paragraph, the final sentence or the final few words of the paragraph. From either the Controls panel running along the top of the workspace or the Character panel (Window > Type & Tables > Character), reduce the Tracking (symbolised by a VA on top of an arrow) to -5 initially. Reduce the Tracking further to -10 etc, until you’re happy with the result.

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To adjust Kerning, place your type cursor between the two letters you’d like to draw slightly together, then look for the V/A symbol in the Controls or Character panel. Adjust to -5, and repeat between other letters until the widow or orphan is pulled onto the previous line.