On Publishing

Writer’s Reasons for Typesetting Rules

Basic Rules and Why Authors Should Care

A friend of mine recently self-published her new novel and hired someone to do the formatting of the print book. When she showed us the advanced copy, I was shocked to see numerous widows, orphans, and poor justification. The contractor was paid a great deal of money for shabby typesetting, but my friend didn’t know to look out for composition rules and didn’t know why they should matter.
So for all you writers, with no typesetting or design knowledge, here are some of the basics and why they’re important.

Widows and Orphans

What are they?

While not everyone agrees about the terminology differences between widows and orphans, these are the basic rules:
  1. No single line from a continuing paragraph left alone at the bottom of a page (sometimes tolerated if we must)
  2. No single line from a continuing paragraph left alone at the top of a page
  3. No single word left alone on one line at the end of a paragraph
Widows and Orphans

Why care as a writer?

Typesetters and designers dislike widows and orphans for visual reasons, but they can be obnoxious to readers, too. Turning a page (print) or pushing a button (digital) to get to the last few words of paragraph interrupts the flow of a sentence or an idea. Page/formatted poetry is effective because white space, enjambments, and rags cause the reader to interpret the rhythm, distinguish ideas, and therefore interpret the meaning differently. Breaking up paragraphs can have negative impacts on prose, too, in addition to just looking sloppy.


What is it?

The standard for print books is to justify the text from margin to margin. This means that the gaps between words and letters will vary. Unless proper restrictions are set up, lines can be too gappy or too tight.

Justification and Hyphenation Why care as a writer?

Not wanting the type to be too tight is more obvious: you don’t want the words to run together. Consider also how accidentally spaced out or squished words can change the way it’s read. More stylistic prose writers might emphasize narration or dialogue by separating out letters or running words together. (Ex: Oh. My. G A W D. or: Areyoufriggingkidding!) Too gappy or too tight lines are visually displeasing and they can alter how the reader “hears” the text.

See also Hyphenation

Hyphenating helps to prevent too gappy or too loose lines in justified text, but without specific settings, hyphenation can go awry.
  • Hyphenate between syllables (most composition programs have dictionaries, but new words might by broken in the wrong place)
  • Don’t hyphenate names and other proper nouns
  • Don’t separate the first letter or last letter, even if it’s one syllable
Bad hyphenation can also cause reading mishaps. Also keep in mind, if you are using made-up names or words in your book, you want to pay special attention to whether and how words are broken so the readers to interpret your creative words as you intended.

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