What is a Rag? What is a Good Rag? And Why Should We Care?
Something beautiful there is about letters in words across a page. We read for the pleasure of the eyes as well as the mind’s sense of what the words mean. To know just a bit about what makes a page of text beautiful for the eyes can increase our pleasure in reading and the likelihood that our words will be read by others. A “good rag” is part of that knowing-a-bit-more.
A “rag” in typography is the uneven side of a paragraph where the text is aligned on the other side. So if the text is right-aligned, the rag is on the left side. If the text is left-aligned, the rag is on the right side. When setting type with a ragged edge, print typographers have long given attention to the shape of the rag, the goal being “a good rag.”
A good rag is one where the lines move in and out in small increments. A not-so-good rag bounces the eye back and forth from line to line creating distracting white spaces in the margin. In the two type arrangements of the Bringhurst quote above, the dramatically uneven text-line edges of the layout on the left could be called a “bad rag” as compared to the more even edges of the “good rag” on the right.
What to do with a poor rag?
The easiest thing to do is to use manual line breaks where you want them. You can also change your hyphenation rules and edit your text. If those changes fail to give you the rag you want, you can then make slight adjustments in tracking, kerning, column width, page margins, or point sizes. Like many other typographic skills, the ability to do these things well requires time spent learning the techniques and time spent in practice.
One important variable in creating a good rag is line length. By changing line length, we can learn the best line length for specific typefaces and font sizes to achieve a decent rag. For optimum readability, typographers have long suggested that one limit line length to 40-80 characters, including spaces, 65 characters being ideal. The longer the line, the more distracting is a bad rag.
Software applications such as InDesign allow the user to make all these adjustments over large blocks of text, but other applications may not. For example, the paragraphs of this blog may be examples of not-so-great rags as this application (WordPress) does not allow me to work on the rag, and the look of the rag will depend on your browser and on the device you are using (tablet, phone, monitor). As those interested delve further into using CSS with WordPress, we should see better rags in blogs.
The same typography skills needed to understand and set good rags are used in setting good justified text. For those interested in learning to master these typography skills, a good resource is Lynda.com. For me, the book, magazine, and e-book courses taught by Nigel French have been especially helpful.
Widows and Orphans
Widows are short last lines of a paragraph. A widow could be one word, the end of a hyphenated word, or two/three words left alone on the last line of a paragraph. A widow generally leaves too much white space at the end of a line, making it look like an extra blank line. The wider the line and the tighter the paragraph spacing, the more distracting the widow. Orphans are short top lines of a page or column and are even more distracting to the reader.
Widows and orphans have long been considered typography “crimes” resulting from laziness of the typesetter. However, today, it is often a matter of the writer having no idea that these are even problems. Also, there is some debate among typographers about the definition of these terms. See The Top 10 Typography Crimes.
As we notice more details of what makes a beautifully set book or magazine article, we will begin to set our own pages with those details in mind. And we begin to type out more beautiful pages, which mean pages easier to read. With e-books, responsive design, and everyone having to typeset their own resumes, annual reports and other documents, the ideal of a good rag with no widows and no orphans seems to have gone underground. But only temporarily. Just as good typeface options have come to the web (for more than a few years there was almost nothing much except Arial and Times New Roman). So too will we see more people paying attention to the centuries of craft and skill and knowledge of setting a good page.
To Know More
- “A widow is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page. This interrupts the reader’s eye and diminishes readability. Fix them by reworking the rag or editing the copy.” To read more, see Strizverhttp,Ilene: Rags, Widows & Orphans/Fontology. Accessed June 25, 2015.
- “Many people, designers included, think that typography consists of only selecting a typeface, choosing a font size and whether it should be regular or bold. For most people it ends there. But there is much more to achieving good typography and it’s in the details that designers often neglect.” To read more, see Carusone, Antonio: Simple Ways to Improve Typography in Your Designs. Accessed 6/25/2015. for web issues and CSS written though in 2010.
- “Most everyone agrees that a widow is a short last line of a paragraph. According to what I learned as a lad, a widow becomes a problem when it’s so short that it creates the visual impression of a blank line between paragraphs. The wider the line length (also called measure), the more impact a very short widow can have. A hyphenated widow — in which the last line of a paragraph is a morsel of a hyphenated word — is a particularly egregious subspecies.” To read more see Felici, James: How to Solve Typographic Widows and Orphans/Creative Pro.com. 1/18/2010. Accessed 6/25/2015.