Rivers are streaks of white space through several lines of text that can be very distracting to readers. They can be straight, diagonal, and curved, and they noticeably separate text. This happens by random chance, though certain factors can increase the chance or make them more noticeable.
Not all rivers are long. In fact, some mild rivers are to be expected in printed text (not that this means they’re okay). What you don’t want is a lot of big, noticeable rivers that can distract your readers or lead them to accidentally read the wrong line.
Rivers aren’t always created by spaces between words, either. Stacked dashes and ellipses can create a river (more like a hole) of blocked space that stands out to readers.
Unfortunately, rivers aren’t as noticeable on a screen due to resolution but are very apparent when printed. It draws the eyes to the split and looks tacky. If you can’t print your text, try squinting. Blurring the text can make some rivers stand out more.
Common Causes of Rivers
The common causes are sans serif fonts, all caps, or justified margins without allowing the hyphenation and justification settings to adjust character spaces or use hyphenation. Anything that brings attention to word spaces will heighten rivers. Mild rivers will become obvious and bad rivers will really stick out.
Rivers are more obvious for sans serif fonts because the sharp geometry enhances the space between letters. As serifs soften the transition, they hide rivers better.
All caps amplify rivers because the letters and words are more rectangular and block shaped. This makes the spaces between the words stand out more, which makes rivers more visible.
Justified margins without character spaces being modified or auto-hyphenating forces text to exaggerate word spaces to fit properly. Your processor will try to stretch phrases farther than looks appropriate for the eye, which is why you can have some lines with wide spaces next to lines with narrow ones.
Fixing rivers requires a bit of formatting work. You have to coax the text into re-ragging (creating new line endings).
3 Ways to Fix Rivers:
- Adjusting kerning
- Adding hyphenation to your text (no hard hyphens in case your paragraph re-rags for some reason!)
- Choosing a different word choice
You should only change word choice if you are editing your own document. Keep it simple–you don’t have to revise the full paragraph. However, kerning or hyphenation should be your first choice of adjustments.
For more tips on formatting or editing for print formats, check out our guide.