Widows and orphans in printed text: impact and best practices

June 1, 2020

As communicators, we still need to produce various printed publications despite the overwhelming abundance of web-based content to cope with. We do more than merely write text for printed content – we also need to make decisions about the typesetting and layout of the text. This includes decisions about the treatment of ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’ in printed text.

A great help with this type of information is research conducted by Colin Wheildon, former editor of Australia’s largest motoring publication. With one million readers, Wheildon wanted to maximize the effectiveness of his printed words.

Widows and orphans

Wheildon’s findings from several ‘hands-on’ tests by readers of type and layout, relate mainly to newspapers and magazines, which are typeset in columns:

  • Widow: A paragraph-ending line at the beginning of the following page or column, thus separated from the rest of the text. (It has a past but no future.) A widow can also be interpreted as 1-2 words at the end of a paragraph that run on to the next line, as shown above. I try to avoid leaving 1-2 words on a line to end a paragraph because, for instance with my newsletter, several such instances extend the length of the newsletter down the web page.
  • Purist editors hate ‘widows.’ However, Wheildon’s research found that a widow actually creates the benefit (to the editor) of encouraging the reader to continue to the next column or page. In the  research, no readers said they were offended by – or even aware of – widows.
  • Orphan: A paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page or column, and is therefore separated from the rest of the text. (It has a future, but no past.)
  • Runt: A single word at the end of a paragraph, a ‘runt,’ is also considered a problem for the reader. It can be resolved by deleting a previous word in the sentence, or adding two or more words to the sentence to fill out the line further.

Google Fonts has also written a useful article: Widows and orphans in its glossary section.

Best column width is 20-60 characters

  • 38% of readers found body text typeset wider than 60 characters (including spaces) hard to read. A further 22% indicated they probably wouldn’t read wide-measure body type even if they didn’t find it difficult to read.
  • 87% said they found extremely narrow measure hard to read, eg fewer than 20 characters.
  • 78% said they found cross headings useful, especially in long articles. None said they found cross headings unattractive or intrusive.
  • Jumps, where an article continues on a later page, really annoy readers. Around 83% didn’t bother to make the effort to jump to the later page/s.
  • 39% said that when they jumped to continue reading an article on another page, they realized they frequently didn’t return to the original page.
  • 77% were annoyed when body type jumped over an illustration or sub-heading contrary to the natural flow of reading, ie in the middle of a sentence or paragraph.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a more recent version is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.)

Further reading

You can read another of my articles on this typography topic: “Best body type alignment for printed publications: Justified vs. ragged right.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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