Wednesday, June 27, 2012


by Ruby Johnson
 I’ve been writing long enough to recognize a word or two that begins a paragraph but sits at the bottom of the page or ends a paragraph  and  spills into the next line or column (orphans) .   Or maybe a sentence ends a chapter  but spills over to a blank page to begin again all alone (widows).  Both cause too much white space between paragraphs or chapters.

“Another way is to think of orphans as generally being younger than widows; thus, orphaned lines happen first, at the start of paragraphs (affecting and stranding the first line), and widowed lines happen last, at the end of paragraphs (affecting and stranding the last line)”.(
For every style manual that says orphans are the end of a sentence or parts of a sentence sitting alone at the top of a column, there is another that calls it a widow. No matter what the definition, widows and orphans make stories harder to read and  present an unbalanced look, particularly if your copy is in colums.
Examples of widows and orphans from DELICIOUS DALLIANCE:

#1 One word ends paragraph but takes up entire line.

     ""The scent of good Scotch and a hint of better cologne teased her senses. He touched her shoulder, slid his finger into her long straight hair and twirled it gently.The soft hair encircled his finger like an evening gown as he lowered it slowly downward. She trembled and closed her eyes. His finger glided down without entangling its silken glow to the small of her back and then the waistline of her jeans. Moving his index finger inside the waist of her jeans, he tucked it in gently and left it there for a moment longer than necessary. His finger continued around her waistline toward the side and stopped at a belt loop below the navel.  
#2 Sentence ends chapter but floats over to top of next page.
There is always time tomorrow, she smiled, it’s the good thing about tomorrow; it never knows.

Once revisions start, a writer can spend weeks just taking care of orphans and widows. There are many ways of handling this, but one that is simple :
Take out trash or redundant words, the orphan or widow moves up to the previous line and you gain one more line. Just make sure the paragraphs don’t all have the same number of sentences. Aim for alternating 3-5 sentences per paragraph. You'll not only tighten up your work, there will be no widows and orphans. 


Caroline Clemmons said...

You are so right, Ruby. I hate those dangling words or lines. I turn off widows and orphans on page set up. Fortunately, for indie publishing, that problem doesn't exist. We just leave four lines between chapters. I like what you said about varying sentences and having them 3-5 per paragraph. Readers skip longer blocks of text IMO.

Anne said...

I remember this from college. You couldn't just leave a word hanging there with nothing else to attach it to.

George said...

Hugely good lessons. Thank you.

Ruby said...

Thank you all for the comments.Caroline, good tip about leaving 4 lines between Chapters for indie published manuscripts.

Anonymous said...

Usually I do not learn post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very great post.

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