I Hate Widows and Orphans: DIY Book Design, Part 3

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.

3-page blue print illustrationIn 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.


10 comments on “I Hate Widows and Orphans: DIY Book Design, Part 3

  1. Ah, typography’s a kick isn’t it? Tracking can very well be your friend, but you need to be careful, too. Sometimes the answer is also to look around your layout program for other things that can alter how words fall on the page–like the difference between Optical and Metric Kerning, or between using Pargraph or Single-line Composer in InDesign, for instance.

    • Stephen– So true and good tips for those of us willing to really dig into the meat of page layout programs like InDesign. Maybe some day we can get you to do a guest post on more book design tips or creating the best way to go about creating a clean ePUB/MOBI file. Thanks again for your comment!

      • Sure, I’d love to. But if you check thru my blog, you’ll find epub/mobi are not yet to my liking.As a book designer, I don’t like my work being tampered with. And that’s what you get with Kindle and the rest that allow the human reader to change type faces and type size on their electronic readers. Tho’ I have some reservations about whether there’s any leeway for having to use Apple’s templates in their spanking new iBooks2/iBooks Author setup, I bet I’ll find their “hands off” to readers going under the hood of their iBooks more to my liking. It’s just a question of whether their economic model, setting a $14.99 ceiling on iBook prices, will support the work of professional book designers.

  2. I would love to hear from you on what you think would be of interest to my audience here. I can definitely understand a book designer having a distaste for ePUB/MOBI formats. So sorry for the faux pas. I will be spending time over at your blog on regular basis.

    • Nah, no faux pas. No apology necessary. I just meant I might not be the best person yet to comment on epub and mobi, as I’ve yet to produce anything that way. On the other hand, I am looking forward to the necessary OS upgrade to run Apple’s iBooks Author, so I can see for myself just how much design flexibility, if any, I can coax out of it.

      As for topics your audience might find interesting … Have you done any kind of polling to find out what the makeup of your audience is? Are they other book designers? Or self publishers mostly? It makes a difference.

      For self-publishers, I think it’s important to let them know that self-publishing is not a coupla weekend do-it-yourself project like stripping furniture for use in your own home. Rather it’s a choice to go into business as a publisher. So it’s necessary either to hire a professional with chops or take the time to really learn the proper software and develop a design aesthetic that’s adaptable to different material and feels.

      • I think I have a mix of creatives and self-publishers but I have not done a formal poll. I am fairly new to blogging (2.5 months) but I am slowly but steadily building my audience. Your comment on being aware of the level of commitment required to being a successful self-publisher is exactly the kind of thing that would fit well here if that is a topic you would be willing to handle or anything else that is aimed more at the self-publishing crowd.

  3. I cut my teeth on QuarkXpress back in the day. And typically, I’d start with tracking set at -3 for starters and would then massage the text to rid it of orphans and widows. I’m in the process of laying out a book. Are there best tracking and keep settings for Minion Display 10/13.5? And do you prefer Adobe Paragraph or Line Composer? Thanks.

    • Clay–
      I too “grew up” on QuarkXpress but I jumped ship about 4 years ago.InDesign is a powerful program. My advice to you is trust your eyes. Use both paragraph and single-line composition. Paragraph is the default and is fine for most cases but if you find a trouble spot where you are trying to eliminate or fix an orphan or widow I would experiment with toggling between paragraph and single-line mode. The kinds of things that you want to be carful of are creating new problems such as “rivers of white” running through your text caused by the spacing in a left and right justified block of text, or kerning so tightly that everything runs together into one big long word. Experiment and attack each trouble spot on a case by case basis. You sound like you have plenty of design experience, trust your eye. And let me know how things work out. Get in touch with me if you have any other questions.

      • Andy, thanks for the advice. It proved helpful when massaging passages of text. But I still have a couple of places that simply turning out to my liking. If given the choice been a single first line at the bottom of a page or a paragraph that is overly kerned, which do you opt for? Personally

        • Clay–
          A paragraph that is so dense that it is difficult to distinguish between words would be far worse than a single line at the bottom of the page. What you might try doing is looking two or three (or even more if need be) paragraphs ahead of the offending one and see if you can comfortably kern one (or more) to pull up a line. The other option is to open up the kerning so that the line at the bottom of the page gets pushed over to the next. I hope this helps.

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