Step-By-Step POD With CreateSpace, Step 10 (Widows & Orphans)

Addressing Widows and Orphans in fiction is optional. Well, . . . kind of. Maybe. Depending on the situation.

Confused?

You’re not alone. Widow and orphan control is confusing to a lot of us. As long as you are writing a fiction NOVEL, not short fiction written in columns for a magazine, this post may be of some use to you.

First, let me do my best to clarify some of the confusion surrounding widows and orphans. To do that, I had best start with definitions. But even in that, when it comes to widows and orphans, experts don’t agree. If you check Wikipedia you’ll discover that the definitions they state as being the most accepted differ slightly from those that I was taught. And people may find the Wikipedia versions confusing in that an orphan can appear at either the beginning or the end of a paragraph. So rather than try to adjust my own thinking to agree with the Wikipedia definitions, I am going to proceed with this discussion on the basis of the definitions I was taught for Widows and Orphans. They are the following:

Widow:

  • A paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, separated from the rest of the paragraph’s text.
  • A word or part of a word, or very short line, that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph.

So Widows are always at the END of a paragraph.

Orphan:

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

So Orphans are always at the BEGINNING of paragraphs.

In general, a way to remember the terms is that orphans are younger than widows, so they come first, at the start of paragraphs. Widows are older, so they happen last, at the end of paragraphs.

After reading those definitions, a lot of you are probably clinging hopefully to the word “optional” that I mentioned above. So let me explain further.

When it comes to widows and orphans there tend to be two camps: Those that advocate ruthless eradication of the offending widows and orphans; and those that feel they are best ignored. Well, actually, there is a third camp, I guess, and that is one supporting compromise. Those in the third camp feel that allowing a few widows and orphans is fine as long as the text of a novel is not teeming with them. I used to be in the second camp. However, I currently have my feet firmly planted in the third camp.

Why did I change my opinion?

I was reading an editor’s blog. In it, she stated that she had been unable to get into a story because the novel was absolutely littered with widows and orphan. As book lovers, editors are readers, too, obviously; and this prompted me to look at my own novels.

Was there an issue with widows and orphans?

I noted that there were a number of single-word or short-phrase widows at the tops of pages. More so than was typical in the novels on my shelves. And that meant they needed to be addressed. As professional writers, none of us can afford to offend readers if we can avoid it.

So, based on the definitions I use above, I came up with some guidelines that I use to ensure that the number of widows and orphans in my novels stays with the parameters that are acceptable in fiction.

 Here are the Guidelines

Widow:

  • A paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, separated from the rest of the paragraph’s text.

If the portion of the paragraph ending or sentence extends at least 2/3 of the way across the top of the page, I usually leave it, and consider it acceptable. If the phrase is shorter than that, I do my best to format it out.

  • A word or part of a word, or very short line, that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph.

If the word or very short line falls within the text of a page and NOT at the top of a page, I usually leave it, and consider it acceptable. (Why? Because readers tend to like some white space on a page; it’s easier on the eyes.) Any single word widows that fall at the top of a page I do my best to format out.

(Note: It may be desirable to format out widows consisting of portions of hyphenated words that fall alone on a line at the end of a paragraph, even if they are in the center of a page. Particularly if it’s something really brief, like an “LY” that has carried to the next line to sit alone.)

Orphan:

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

I rarely bother trying to eradicate the paragraph opening lines that fall at the bottom of a page. If you study the novels produced by established New York-based publishers that are on your book shelves, you will find that such lines are common, and do not detract from the story. Therefore, in fiction, I usually leave them and consider such an orphan acceptable.

Note: A short line of DIALOGUE isolated at either the top or bottom of a page is all right. For example, a short line of dialogue may be a sentence like, “Walk slowly.” The sentence is complete in and of itself, and is not a continuation of a sentence started on the previous page, therefore no correction is required.

And, if a widow or orphan is not easily adjusted, or if adjusting it is just going to cause additional issues, then leave it. I will reiterate: If you go through the novels on your book shelves, you will certainly find published works which have widows and orphans that have NOT all been formatted out. Avoid having a widow at the top of every second page, if at all possible, as that’s when they become noticeable and distracting. However, one or two left standing will not be a problem. Your goal is merely to keep your reader concentrating on your story, rather than the formatting of the text, or lack thereof, by ensuring that the widows and orphans that exist are not numerous.

So then, to summarize, you may choose to ignore widows and orphans entirely if your novel doesn’t have a lot of them. A small number of each tends to be generally acceptable in fiction. It is only when widows and orphans become noticeable that you may receive comments from readers concerning poor formatting, and you definitely don’t want that happening – especially on a public forum or book review post. Such comments tend to immediately identify your novel as self-published, and – whether true or not – classify it as being of inferior quality.

Whether you intend to ignore widows and orphans or adjust them manually, your first step in this process should be to turn OFF Word’s widow and orphan control if it is active. To do this click on the Home tab, in the Paragraph group, on the diagonal arrow in the bottom right corner and choose the Line Breaks tab. Ensure the box beside Widow/Orphan control is blank. Click OK.

You are probably asking yourselves the following question: “Why are we going to deal with this manually when word has a “Widows and Orphans” setting that will look after them for us?”

Note the ragged edge of the text at the bottom of the page.
Note the ragged edge of the text at the bottom of the page.

It comes down to both personal preference and a professional appearance. In a non-fiction novel with lots of graphics and tables, or a work written in multiple columns, uneven blocks of text may not be particularly noticeable and you can probably get away with the automatic setting in Word. However, in a fiction novel it will become evident to the reader very quickly if the text on the left-hand page ends two lines higher than the text on the right page. Yet this is what can, and often does, happen if you allow Word to take care of widows and orphans for you. So the option of allowing Word to take care of widows and orphans for you tends to become less acceptable, in fiction, than simply allowing widows and orphans because it becomes even more noticeable to the reader. And, once again, I suggest that you check the published novels on your book shelves. It’s unlikely that you’ll find any that have ragged text along the bottom. Every novel that I checked, had opted for a squared-off, even appearance.

Note the squared-off even edge of the text at the bottom of the page.
Note the squared-off even edge of the text at the bottom of the page.

So, let’s proceed. Initially, you need to spend a bit of time assessing the formatting of your novel. If the number of widows and orphans in your work appears acceptable by comparison with published novels, then you may choose to ignore them, allowing them to fall where they may. If that is the case, then, after turning off the widow/orphan control feature in Word, you’re finished. Move on to the next step.

Those of you for whom the number of widows and orphans seems excessive, or who may simply be a bit more interested in controlling the appearance of your novel text, will want to read further. However, be warned; formatting widows and orphans manually is a time consuming and, often, frustrating process. It is not an endeavor that can be rushed and still be done well, so ensure that you have enough time to go through your novel and consider each scenario carefully.

Now, even though I’ve explained above that I tend to ignore most orphans, I will nevertheless describe the process to rid yourself of them if you need to. So now you’ve started going through your manuscript. You’ve found an orphan — a paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page — that, in your opinion, is glaringly obvious because it’s the third or fourth one in as many pages and you want to get rid of it. What do you do? The first tendency of many people is to delete a word or phrase in a paragraph above the orphaned line—presumably a word or phrase that isn’t required to preserve the context of the writing—making that paragraph a line shorter. That then allows the second line in the orphan’s paragraph to join the first line (the orphan) at the bottom of the page, thus making it orphaned no more.

Doing this may result in tighter writing and is certainly a route you can use if you prefer, provided doing so doesn’t affect the context of the narrative. However, changing your prose may not be desirable. There are a couple of other tricks you may employ rather than resorting to changing what you’ve written.

First study the orphan. If you move it up a line, the top line from the next page will move to the bottom of this page and the second line on the next page will become the top line on that page.

Will moving the orphan up cause a widow? If the answer is “no”, then study the paragraphs above the orphan. Do any of the above paragraphs have widows consisting of only one or, possibly, two short words wrapping onto the next line? If so, you may be able to condense the spacing on that paragraph to get rid of the wrapped word or words, and, thus, move the orphan up a line.

How do you condense the spacing?

Highlight the entire paragraph containing the word or portion of a sentence that you want to move up. Then on the Home tab, in the Font Group, click the diagonal arrow in the bottom right corner. When the pop-up box comes up, click on the Advanced Tab. Note the second drop down box: Spacing. Click the down arrow beside the option box and choose “Condensed”. Now move over to the drop down box beside the word By. The default is probably 1.0 pt., however, that would result in too much compression. What we want to do is condense the space between the characters or your words by a miniscule amount that won’t be visible to the naked eye. So you want to type in 0.1 pt. If you’re dealing with a single small word widow, that may condense the paragraph enough to pull the widow back onto the previous line, thus moving your orphan up. In fact, sometimes I have been able to condense by as small an amount as 0.05 pt. and have it work. If 0.1 pt. didn’t work, you may have to go to 0.15 or 0.2 pt. and see if that takes care of the widow. I would not recommend condensing my more than 0.2 pt. because at that size the condensing can start to become noticeable.

If your orphan moved up and you didn’t create a widow on the following page, that’s wonderful. However, if condensing was not enough to move the orphan up, or condensing the text would have caused a widow on the succeeding page, the next thing you can try is expanding text so that you bump that orphan to the next page.

If you tried condensing according to the instructions above, use Word’s undo feature to undo your condensing efforts.

Now, choose a paragraph above the orphan whose last line is almost a complete line, if such a paragraph exists on the page, and expand the spacing in that paragraph so that a couple of words wrap to the next line. (I know; in effect, you are creating a widow, but it will be within the text of your page and, thus, theoretically at least, less noticeable than your orphan.)

To do this, highlight the text you want to expand, and in the Spacing drop down box, choose Expanded instead of Condensed. Then, again, try the settings 0.1, 0.15 or 0.2 to see what that does for the appearance of the orphan.

If your issue is with a widow — a phrase or portion of a sentence isolated at the top of a page – try condensing the paragraph of which the widow is a part. Once condensed, the word or phrase may wrap to the bottom of the previous page, becoming much less noticeable.

If the paragraph to which it belongs is a short one that doesn’t allow for enough condensing of text and space to condense it back onto the previous page and you cannot easily get rid of it by condensing the text on the previous page, what can you do?

Consider the guidelines. Does the phrase stretch almost half way across the page? If so, you can try expanding the widow’s paragraph to make that portion of the sentence stretch to occupy at least 2/3 of the line at the top of the page—becoming more acceptable and less noticeable in appearance.

To do this, select the paragraph or text you want to expand, then, in the Spacing drop down box, choose Expanded. Once again, try the settings 0.1, 0.15 or 0.2 to see what that does for the appearance of the widow.

Or lastly you can try expanding or condensing the text of a paragraph that is above the paragraph of which the widow is a part, creating a situation where the widow either moves up to the previous page, or is joined on the succeeding page by another line, eliminating the widow.

And that’s it! The entire process that I use for reducing the number of widows and orphans in my novels. Whew! For some reason I feel like I’ve run a marathon.

In my next post, I will talk about the process of saving your manuscript in a PDF format that is acceptable for upload to CreateSpace, without receiving error messages. I will also include a brief discussion on novel cover design. I say brief because I am not a graphic designer and I do not do my own cover design.

Until next time, farewell and good luck.

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