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  • Nayda Cruz

Make Your Text Easier to Read: Hyphens, Orphans, Widows, and Rivers

Make Your Text Easier to Read: Hyphens, Orphans, Widows, and Rivers

On this last blog of the series “Make Your Text Easier to Read” I write about the last thing I work with when designing with text: the hyphens, orphans, widows, and rivers.

All of these have to do with how words distribute along the design.

Hyphens, how words are divided.

The first thing that I work with, after adjusting the margins, choosing my typefaces, and working with the spacing, are the hyphens.

Adobe InDesign automatically divides your text. You can choose how will it divide it in the paragraph’s options. Or even to not have hyphen in your text.

Whenever I finish text design, I press “Cmnd F” on Mac, or “Ctrl F” con Windows, to open the “Find/Change” window. This is one of the most powerful windows when designing a long text document. On the “Find what” section, I type a hyphen and click “Find Next”. Then I go all over the document and verify that the hyphen is dividing the words correctly.

Adobe InDesign Paragraphs Panel
Adobe InDesign Paragraphs Panel

I prefer to do this before adjusting the orphans, widows, and rivers. Although you can also use hyphens to correct orphans, widows, and rivers. But first, let’s look at what are those.

Orphans, alone at the bottom.

Orphans are opening paragraphs lines that are at the bottom of a column. Meaning that they are separated from the rest of the paragraphs.

They are text at the bottom of a column. Some people explain them as “They have no past but a future”. Which is an odd description. But it helps some people to remember. I prefer to remember them by “alone at the bottom.”

Orphan in Text.

An orphan can also be a single syllable or word at the bottom of a paragraph. Some people call this a “runt”. But it is more common to call them an orphan. Since they still follow the “norm” of “alone at the bottom.”

Widows, alone at the top.

Widows are the contrary of the orphans. “They have a past but no future” or as I prefer, “alone at the top.”

Widow in Text.

A widow is a closing paragraph line at the top of a columns. Leaving that line separated from the paragraphs.

Rivers, vertical white spaces between lines of a paragraph.

Rivers are white spaces that you can see vertically through a paragraph. They are a coincidence because of spacing.

River in Text

They may occur more when the text is justified, and the columns are narrow.

How to solve these issues?

There are many technical issues that you can work within Adobe InDesign options to avoid orphans, widows, and rivers. I will address those in a future blog post. But two fast and simple solutions are:

  1. Shift + enter

  2. Add hyphens when needed.

Force Break: Shift + Enter

When you press enter you automatically create a new paragraph creating a gap between two paragraphs. But when you press Shift + Enter you keep one paragraph. This is a fast and easy way to solve orphans and widows.

Text with river and text with no river

Adding hyphens is a great way to break rivers. Rivers can happen when lines have similar length words. Once you break one, the river disappears.

You text design is now easier to read.

Avoiding poorly hyphenated words, widows, orphans, and rivers makes your text look balanced and helps the reader make fewer pauses when reading.

There you go! Your text is easier to read when your margins and line lengths are the right ones; the typefaces for your heading and text are readable; you adjust the leading, kerning, and tracking; and finally, when you correct the hyphens, orphans, widows, and rivers.


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