Pagination Styles: Shall We Kill the Widows & Orphans?

by | Oct 20, 2010

In Brief: In book design we have to decide which style of pagination to choose. This article presents both so you can make an informed choice.

People often seem to divide themselves neatly into two camps: shirts versus skins, innies versus outies, grow it out versus shave it off. And so it is in book design. There’s one decision every book designer has to make on most every book of prose they work on: squared-off pages versus no widow or orphan lines.

Okay, you need to know what “squared-off pages” and “widows” and “orphans” mean when talking about book pages, so let’s look at those first.

Pity the Widows and Orphans

Text consists of letters built into words, which are strung into sentences sequenced into paragraphs. There are probably about 90 words in a typical paragraph. That means in a manuscript of 75,000 words you will be dealing with over 800 paragraphs and 5,000 line endings.

Because there are so many paragraphs, there’s a kind of random distribution that happens in books. If you get to the bottom of a page and there’s only room for one more line, and that line is the first line of a paragraph, you will have an odd look at the bottom of that page. This is a widow:

book design for self-publishers

On other pages, just the last line of a paragraph may bump to a new page, leaving a stub of a line at the top. That’s an orphan:

book design for self-publishers

Now some people hate these widows and orphans, and they will do anything to get rid of them. And since they don’t look very neat and tidy, you might think that’s a good idea.

But wait! There’s another entire group of people who, although they don’t like widows and orphans either, prefer them to the alternative.

What happens when you eliminate the widows and orphans? You lose your squared-up pages.

Let’s take a look.

To Square or Not to Square: That is the Question

Here is a spread from a book. Notice that the widows and orphans have not been changed, and the right-hand page has an orphan line at the top.

book design for self-publishers

You can change this globally throughout the book very easily. In Adobe InDesign we use the Keep dialog on the Paragraph menu. This allows us a lot of control over what you might call the infrastructure of the paragraph and how it behaves on the page:

book design for self publishers

You can see here I’ve instructed InDesign to keep at least 2 lines together at the beginning and end of paragraphs. This will eliminate all widows and orphans. So why isn’t everyone happy?

Here’s the resulting spread:

book design for self publishers

You’ll see that there is no longer an orphan line at the top of the right-hand page. But the line that moved there to keep the orphan company had to come from somewhere, and it left a space at the bottom of the left-hand page. We now have a different number of lines on these two pages, and they are no longer “squared off” at the bottom.

Which One Will You Choose?

For many years I preferred this second method of pagination for the books I worked on, unless a client specifically asked for squared-off pages. I don’t like the way widows and orphans look, and the way they make spreads look untidy. Book designers don’t like untidy books.

Recently I’ve become more flexible and now do many books with squared-off pages. I find the disturbance of the occasional widow or orphan less bothersome than that missing line at the end of the page.

When it comes time to do the layout and pagination of your book, you or your book designer or the personnel at the company you’ve hired to typeset your book will have to make this decision. And you’ll be ready to decide which part of the world of book design you belong to: with the widows and orphans and squared-off pages, or banning widows and orphans altogether.

As a self-publisher, it’s one more thing you get to decide. Which one will it be?

Ed: After this article was posted I received an email from frequent commenter Michael N. Marcus, in which he said:

Years ago (maybe on my college newspaper) I learned that an orphan was the lonely entity at the bottom of a page, and the widow is at the top. To remember this, I visualize the “widow’s walk” at the TOP of old seaside homes.

I found this fascinating because when I learned this nomenclature long ago it was the exact opposite. It was the widow at the bottom of the page (always a full line) that had been “abandoned” and left behind, while the orphan (always a short line, since it’s the end of the paragraph) that had been left without the rest of its “relatives” and forlorn at the top of the page.

Wikipedia has this to say:

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 column, separated from the rest of the paragraph. There is some disagreement about the definitions of widow and orphan; what one source calls a widow the other calls an orphan.

However, Chicago Manual of Style prefers Michael’s usage, and readers should be aware of that.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by elbragon,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sharon

    Mark, yes, font and type size will make a difference.

  2. Mark Satterthwaite

    Thanks for the information, Sharon. I notice that my APA Publication Manual hardly touches on the subject, merely advising that lines not be justified both left and right and that a 1/2″ tab be set for paragraph indents.

    Anyway, since this is a novel I'm line and copy editing, I'm not following APA requirements. I'll recheck the document and suggest that the author adjust the tab setting because in dialogue it's quite possible that the orphan is shorter than the indent of the preceding line and, consequently, is an eyesore.

    I do wonder whether the particular font and type size also make a difference. A bigger font size should alter the content of lines, moving more content onto the line starting with the orphan.

    Thanks again,

  3. Sharon

    Mark, the Chicago Manual of Style’s closest rule to this issue is 2.116, where the number of characters (4) is mentioned, but this rule refers to a hyphenated word at the end of a paragraph. So if you have a five-letter word alone on a line, you would be fine. If it’s less, I would recommend making a change to the line somehow (if at all possible). The typesetter may see this first and try to fix it but most probably it will be up to the author or proofreader to find it and call it to the attention of the typesetter to fix–with an adjustment if possible.

  4. Mark Satterthwaite

    The example I offered should be shown with the indent preceding the first word and the single word “shack” on the second line as an orphan.

  5. Mark Satterthwaite

    I assume that the terms “widows” and “orphans” also apply to single paragraphs, say, in dialogue, where a tab space correctly precedes the line of dialogue but, unfortunately, a word or two are orphaned at the beginning of the next line:

    "I still believe that the cause of our trouble lies in the unopened chest outside the shack."

    Would the typesetter make adjustments or is the author (or his editor) responsible for correcting this eyesore?

  6. William White

    Shut off Orphan\Widow control. Visually pore over the novel (it’s easier if you had to clear all formatting, as you are less lazy when perusing the work then.) Do NOT ask why I had to clear all formatting, LOL (Okay, I’ll tell. I had the original copy done in such a way that hard line breaks appeared, even though there were actually none registered by Word in the Paragraph View. I was all ‘screw it!’ and switched to a clean document formatted the way it needed to be. Copied, pasted as text only, and BAM!!)

    You need to visually make sure that the justify occurs correctly, as sometimes it leaves a chunk at the end of a line. If you see an orphaned line, it can usually be dragged back to the empty space and VOILA!! Instant ‘squared off’ pages!! 8D

    • Joel Friedlander


      I’ve at times resorted to dropping an entire file to plain text, just to completely scrub it of formatting codes. However, if you have a book-length manuscript with italics throughout, I would not do this. And keep in mind both Word and InDesign have very powerful Search/Replace functions, so you can find and change all those hard returns without having to massacre the file.

  7. Pytor

    For my upcoming nonfiction book, I minimize orpjans and widows, by adjusting the spacing between paragraphs. My default is 12 points, but for a page in need of extra care, I will make the paragraph spacing 6 points or 18 points.

    I think this is a good compromise between having orphans and extra space at the bottom of the page. Sure, it is not uniform, but the change is subtle for say 10% of the pages. The reader is focused on reading and is unlikely to be that discriminating with such a design detail.

    • Joel Friedlander


      I’m sorry to disagree, but in my opinion varying the space between paragraphs (assuming you are using the “block style” of paragraphing) is not a solution, because you introduce inconsistency into the book. This creates an interruption for the reader and is unnecessary in any event.

      • Pytor

        So then what is your solution?

        • Sarah

          I adjust the tracking. Sometimes I even adjust the tracking of another paragraph if it looks like I can do so without it looking too cramped.

  8. Sharon

    Rombout, it is an interesting situation. I mentioned above (see the paragraphs that start with Ed:) that some sources define these terms one way and other sources a different way.

    • Rombout Versluijs

      Thanks, still makes it fuzzy why they being mixed up isnt it?

      • Joel Friedlander

        Yes, it’s a mystery and probably will remain so. The important thing is to make sure your typography is up to the task, no matter what you call those stray lines.

  9. Rombout Versluijs

    Iv got perhaps a weird question. Why are in English these names and meaning switched compared to Typography in Dutch? In Dutch a widow is the last line of a paragraph on a new page and an orphan is the first line of a new paragraph at the end of a page



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