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Editing Tips: Widows and Orphans Explained

As a proofreader, if you work with a publisher, they might ask you to look out for widows and orphans in a typeset text. But this can be tricky, as not everyone uses these words in the same way! In this post, then, we’ll explain the basics, including:

  • The traditional definition of a “widow” and “orphan” in typography.
  • How these words are now often used to describe a typographical “runt.”
  • How you should approach widows and orphans as a proofreader.

Read on below to find out what to look for when proofreading typeset texts.

Widows (Stranded Final Lines)

A widow is a final line that appears on a separate page from the rest of its paragraph. This leaves it by itself at the top of a page, with the rest of the paragraph on the previous page:

A widow in a passage of text.
A widow in a passage of text.

Most publishers try to avoid this, since it breaks the flow of the writing.

Orphans (Stranded First Lines)

An orphan is a first line that appears on a separate page from the rest of its paragraph. You may spot one at the bottom of a page somewhere:

An orphan in a passage of text.
An orphan in a passage of text.

As with widows, orphans interrupt the flow of writing, so publishers prefer to avoid them.

Widows, Orphans and Runts

So far, so simple. But we’re not done yet! These days, a lot of people use “widow” or “orphan” to refer to a single word or short phrase on a line by itself at the end of a paragraph:

A single word by itself on a new line at the end of a paragraph.
A single word on a new line at the end of a paragraph.

These lonely words and phrases are also known as runts in some cases. What constitutes a runt also varies, though it can include anything less than half the width of a paragraph.

Runts like these aren’t necessarily problems, but they can look untidy and leave a lot of extra white space on a page. Thus, some designers and publishers prefer to avoid them.

Due to the variation in terminology, moreover, it is always worth checking exactly what your client means if they mention widows, orphans, or runts in the brief for a proofreading job.

What to Do with Widows and Orphans

When proofreading a typeset text, such as the page proofs for a book, you’ll want to point out widows, orphans, and runts for your client. You may even want to leave a comment with a suggestion for fixing it (e.g., cutting a word or two from a preceding line).

However, you will not need to change them directly. That’s a job for a typographer!

When copy editing a document in a word processor, meanwhile, widows, orphans, and runts aren’t usually an issue since the text isn’t set in place. And many word processors even come with in-built features to prevent widows and orphans occurring.

But, if you know your client will be skipping the typesetting process and printing from the draft, you can note any issues with the layout you spot in the document. If they want you to then tweak the text to remove widows and/or orphans, you can do so.

Becoming A Proofreader

If you’d like to learn more about how to proofread texts of various kinds, our Becoming A Proofreader course was made for you! Sign up for a free trial today to find out more.

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