Five Techniques for fixing Widows and Orphans using InDesign & Illustrator.

techniques for fixing widows and orphans
03Mar, 2014
I listed Widows and Orphans as an issue in a previous post, “Five Rookie (and sometimes seasoned pro) Typography Mistakes I See Everywhere!”, I suggest you read that post first as this is a follow on article that expands on the previous by outlining a number of techniques that can be used within either Adobe InDesign or Illustrator to fix Widows and Orphans. Why not Photoshop? Well, you shouldn’t be setting too much type in Photoshop as that’s not what it’s designed for, but if you do, some of these techniques may work—no promises though!

First off lets have a quick review. With the disclaimer that both terms can be interchangeable, a Widow is a single word (or two very short words) sitting by itself on the last line of a paragraph; and an Orphan is the last line of a paragraph that is situated at the start of a column or even worse, on a different page to the rest of the paragraph. Check out the picture below for a visual perspective.

widows and orphans

Now, why are these two issues considered bad typography? For two reasons. Firstly, Widows cause unsightly (and unnecessary) chunks of white space throughout the text; and secondly, Orphans disrupt the flow of reading. The techniques to fix these pesky little fellows can range from minor adjustments to tracking—or at the extreme end, adjusting glyph scaling.

Golden Rules

The two golden rules when applying techniques to fix Widows and Orphans are:

  1. The paragraph that you apply the technique/s to should not appear visibly different to any other on the page.
  2. You may apply multiple techniques to the same paragraph to fix a problem.

Let’s look at each technique  and any negatives that go with the fix.

Manual Line Breaks

Best for fixing: Widows

The simplest approach is to rework the paragraph using a manual line break, or as it’s sometimes called, a soft return. So how is this achieved? Well it’s pretty easy. Look at the paragraph and try adding a line break somewhere by placing the cursor before the last word of a line and press Shift-Return. As a result, this will reflow the remaining text within the paragraph and hopefully add an extra word to the last line, which will eliminate the widow. Fingers crossed!

fix widow with soft return

The major issue with this approach is pretty obvious looking at the example above—we have ended up with a big “bite” out of the paragraph. Therefore, the solution to fixing one problem has caused another. As a result, this technique is worth a try if you have a really short word sitting at the end of a line, but apart from that, you’ll probably have little success.

One thing to be aware of when using the software, you need to ensure the paragraph is set to Adobe Single-line Composer. This can be done by placing the cursor within the paragraph and choosing it from the Paragraph Panel menu.

Tracking Adjustments

Best for fixing: Widows, and occasionally Orphans.

This is the technique that I find will work for most Widows. Simply highlight the entire paragraph and either reduce or increase the tracking amount (the distance between each character). I suggest you go no further than -25 or +25 but this will depend on the font. Use your common sense—if the letters seem too loosely spaced or are too close together, you’ve gone too far. Remember, the paragraph should not appear visibly different to the others on the page.

fix widow with tracking

Wordspacing Adjustments

Best for fixing: Widows and Orphans.

This is a good one if you have some major issues to address. The idea behind this technique is to reduce or increase the spacing between each word within the paragraph. Again, just like tracking, you don’t want to go to extremes otherwise the words will be too close together or too far apart.

If you’re using InDesign, this can be achieved by a nifty little (but hard to remember) keyboard shortcut. To add space between selected words, press:

  • Alt+Ctrl+\ (Windows)
  • Option+Command+\ (Mac OS);

To remove space between selected words, press:

  • Alt+Ctrl+Backspace (Windows)
  • Option+Command+Delete (Mac OS).

You can also multiply the amount of space by 5 by holding down the Shift key when pressing the shortcuts above.

I find it usually takes a few hits of the shortcut before you notice the changes. So if you hit it once or twice and you think nothing is happening, keep pressing, it will eventually!

fix widow with wordspacing

Illustrator is a little different, I’ve not found a keyboard shortcut for this technique. What you need to do is highlight the entire paragraph, select Justification from the Paragraph Panel menu and then adjust the amount in the Desired field for Word Spacing; and, if needed, you can increase the Maximum and Minimum fields. A little tip here is to make sure you also tick the preview checkbox so you can see the changes happen in real time. And by the way, you can also adjust the word spacing this way within InDesign, but I tend to find the shortcut is quicker.

fix widow with justification settings

Keep Options

Best for fixing: Orphans.

This is strictly an InDesign only feature and is used to fix Orphans. Keep Options will allow you to automatically keep a specified number of lines at the beginning or ending of paragraphs even if they span across different columns and frames. Simply select all the text within your document, choose Keep Options from the Paragraph Panel menu or the Control Palette menu. Now check the Keep with Next checkbox, ensure the At Start/End of Paragraph radio button is selected and enter 2 (or greater) for Start and End.

The issue with this technique is that you can end up with uneven endings across the bottom of your columns (the last line of each columns may not horizontally align). However, with a little reworking of a few paragraphs using some of the techniques described above you can soon fix this if that’s the look you are after.

fix with with keep options

Glyph Scaling (extreme fix)

Best for fixing: Widows and Orphans.

Now, there is one more fix, but I’m of the opinion that you are probably best to keep a Widow or Orphan than to implement this one. However, if you are going to have trouble sleeping at night knowing that you have some of these little nasties in one of your designs you can try this with extreme caution.

Glyph Scaling involves either expanding or condensing the horizontal scale of each character. Why don’t I like it? Because it changes the anatomy of the type making it appear different to how it was originally designed thereby hindering readability. However, if you do decide to employ this technique, only do it using very small amounts such as one or two precent.

You can change Glyph Scaling using the Horizontal Scale within the Control Palette (InDesign) or the Character Panel (InDesign and Illustrator). Also, you’ll find this setting by selecting Justification from the Paragraph Panel menu.

widow horizontal scaling

Where to Learn More

If you are looking to learn more about typography I can highly recommend the book Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton.

Final Words

Well that wraps up Five Techniques for fixing Widows and Orphans. Just remember the two golden rules: when applying any one of these techniques the paragraph should not appear visibly different to any other on the page; and it’s OK to use a combination of these techniques on a single paragraph. So go forth and eliminate Widows and Orphans from you designs!

Also, check out these other related posts on typography:

The Ultimate Guide to Typeface vs Font: When to Use Each Term.

Does your Paragraph Measure Up? How to Determine the Correct Width of a Paragraph.
Paragraph Alignments. The Ins and Outs of Justified, Flush Left, Flush Right and Centred Text.
What font size should you use for body copy text and why?

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About The Author
Matt Smith is a graphic designer and principal lecturer with expertise in print media and web design. He has over 20 years of experience under his belt and has dedicated much of his career to educating others. He founded Edgee in 2014 with the aim of providing quality education for new and experienced graphic designers. With ‘hands on’ experience and qualifications in graphic design, along with a Bachelor of Education in Adult Vocation, Matt combines his passion for design, typography and teaching with his expertise in Adobe Creative Suite to develop eBooks, tutorials and informative articles aimed at helping designers of all levels improve their skills and knowledge.