On my practice of shrinking and distilling text for visual appeal, length, and precision.

Squashing Widows and Orphans

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

No, this is not a particularly gruesome horror story, but instead a “micro-strategy” for writing. I’ve actually been saving up a bunch of them for a larger blog post on such micro-strategies, but I recently came across two situations where I found myself having to explain this concept, so I thought I would go ahead and write this one up first.

Basically, when writing, I care not just about the content of text that I write, but also the shape it makes on the page. I realize that this may seem more than a little odd, but I promise there is a good(?) reason for it! Suffice to say is that I try to write papers that are not just informative, precise, succinct, and easy to read, but also where the typesetting looks good from a mere visual point of view. Some of the visual features I look out for include varied sentence lengths, regular paragraph breaks, and meaningful headings. Oh, and widows and orphans.

What’s a widow and an orphan in the context of typesetting, you ask? Wikipedia actually has an article on this topic, and has this to say about them: “widows and orphans are lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph…” Most style guides recommend eliminating them, and list strategies for doing so.

I actually take a harsher interpretation of this practice: I not only try to eliminate lines that are left hanging at the beginning or end of a column or page, I also try to eliminate single words or short lines that appear on a new line at the end of a paragraph. I am talking about single words (or a small number of words) just before a paragraph break that, by the luck of the typesetting, appears on a new line all by themselves. This results in the rest of the line being empty; a whole lot of whitespace clear from the end of the sentence to the right margin. In other words, these are not the true widows from Wikipedia, but “paragraph widows”, or maybe “dangling words”.

Why do I care about this? Two reasons: because (1) I find these paragraph widows to be ugly (blech!), and because (2) eliminating them shortens the whole paper by a full line. While the former of these reasons may be a little iffy (I personally find packed paragraphs with little extraneous whitespace beautiful), the second one is nothing to sneer at. As scientific writers, we often find ourselves having to restrict our papers to firm page limits, and squashing widows and orphans in this manner can save you a surprising amount of space.

What’s more, squashing paragraph widows generally means rewriting the paragraph to become shorter while conveying the same meaning, and that is never a bad practice for scientific writing. Academics should always be striving for precise and concise language, and I find that the practice of rewriting my paragraphs to eliminate dangling words is a good exercise in concentrating my message.

Of course, this slightly eccentric practice only makes sense when you have full control of the typesetting yourself. For some journals and magazines, you don’t write your article in the format it will ultimately appear, so trying to squash widows and orphans in this way is fruitless. For situations like that, I just have to grit my teeth and prepare for excessive whitespace in my paragraphs.

I am kidding, of course. But only a little bit.