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October 05, 2017

Widows and Orphans and Bears, Oh My!

David Becker



By David Becker

Dear APA Style Experts,

Is it okay for a heading to be alone at the very bottom of a page while the first paragraph of that section begins at the top of the next page? I checked page 62 in the Publication Manual where it talks about levels of heading, but I couldn’t find any answers to this question. Please help!

—Keith T.

Dear Keith,

Yes, in an APA Style manuscript, it’s perfectly fine to have a heading at the bottom of one page with the body of the section starting on the next page. In fact, you can see examples of this at the beginning of Sample Paper 2 (see pp. 54–55 in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual; the sample papers are also accessible online via our “Best of the APA Style Blog” post).

Lonely headings like these are sometimes called orphans in typesetting. An orphan can also mean the first line of a paragraph that’s left all alone at the bottom of a page. When the last line of a paragraph appears by itself at the top of the page, typesetters may refer to it as a widow. Widows, like orphans, are acceptable in APA Style manuscripts.

However, if you’re a student writing a class paper or a dissertation, your professor or university may have standards that differ from APA Style. They might prohibit widows and orphans. Universities have particularly precise criteria for dissertations and theses that often address widows and orphans—sometimes even specifying the minimum number of lines of text that can appear on the same page as a table. Your professor or a dissertation committee will be the ones evaluating your work, not APA, so their standards supersede those in the Publication Manual. You should therefore ask your professor or dissertation advisor about whether widows and orphans are acceptable.

You may be wondering why the Publication Manual doesn’t discuss widows and orphans. This is because the guidelines in the manual were designed with draft journal articles in mind. They don’t directly address issues that are more relevant to a final article’s appearance and composition, including widows and orphans, which are sorted out during typesetting. Publishers generally determine what their articles will look like when they go to print, so they establish their own typesetting standards. Although the Publication Manual doesn’t weigh in on these issues, section 8.06 (pp. 239–240) briefly addresses an author’s responsibilities during typesetting, which includes sending the manuscript files to the publisher in an acceptable format and double-checking the typeset page proofs for any errors.

Typesetter at Work

Although some aspects of a draft manuscript carry over into the typeset version—the reference list follows the same APA Style guidelines, for example—the appearance and composition of the article will change drastically. The font type and size, the margins, and the line spacing are all typically very different after typesetting. Some articles will also be formatted so that the text is split into two columns. And, the tables and figures that appear at the end of the manuscript will be embedded close to their first mention in the text. All this rearranging and redesigning means that what were once widows and orphans in a draft manuscript will likely be in completely different places in the final version. There’s no reason to be too concerned about these lonely lines of text during the draft stage if they will be reunited with their lost relatives during typesetting and appear together in the final article.

If you’re a student, your schoolwork won’t go through this whole process before it’s finalized. Your paper is considered “final” when you submit it to your professor. For example, a dissertation, once submitted, becomes the final, published version of record. Therefore, it’s important to consider the final appearance of your paper during the draft stage. Some formatting issues not covered in the Publication Manual will need to be addressed while you’re writing your paper. When in doubt, always check with your professor or university to see if they have their own preferred standards.

And, in case you were wondering, APA Style doesn’t have any guidelines concerning bears. I doubt your professor or university will have any either.

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