Before I dive right in please take a few minutes to read over part 1 and part 2 of my DIY Book Design posts if you haven’t done so yet. One of the final things that I think about when laying out my book is avoiding all those pesky orphans and widows. I’m not talking about unadopted children or women who have lost their husbands. Typographically speaking an orphan is a single sentence or part of a sentence at the beginning of a paragraph that has been separated from the rest of the paragraph that falls on a following page. An orphan can also be a single word on a line all by itself at the end of a paragraph. A widow is the last line of a paragraph that has bumped over to the top of the next page.
In eBooks there is little that can be done about orphans and widows, but in a printed book there are things that you can do to avoid them. Tracking is a setting that adjusts the amount of space between all the letters in each word. If you have access to a program such as InDesign or QuarkXpress which allow you to control the tracking, you can tighten up the space or spread it out. A little tracking goes a long way especially with longer paragraphs. If you have an orphaned word at the end of a paragraph, reducing the tracking just a little bit will generally pull that word up a line. If you have an orphaned line at the bottom of a page that really belongs on the next page, you can increase the tracking in the preceding paragraph. The reason you want to do this is to kick two or three words down creating a new line, which in turn will force the orphaned line over to the next page, reuniting it with the rest of its paragraph. You still with me?
Widows are treated in a similar manner. You can decrease the tracking in the paragraph that has the widowed line (a line at the end of a paragraph that has bumped over to the top of the following page) in hopes that you can pull the widowed line back onto the appropriate page. Sometimes you will need to decrease the tracking in several preceding paragraphs to make up enough space to pull the widowed line back with the rest of the paragraph.
Tracking is a little tricky and you have to be careful that you don’t decrease it so much that the whole paragraph looks like one big long word. Conversely, adding too much tracking to the words will cause words to look unsightly and difficult to read. You also want to be careful that you aren’t creating more problems than you are fixing. If you are changing the tracking across a number of paragraphs make sure you aren’t giving birth to new widows or orphans.
If you have the proper tools and experience, I think it is a good thing to take full control over what your book looks like. There are other considerations such as page numbers and how to treat each chapter page but I think that you have enough food for thought to get started. If you are adventurous enough to take on such a task then you are probably able to handle the last few details. If you have questions please leave me a comment and I will gladly get back to you with an answer.