Writing in a Procrustean bed

That stud on the vase is supposed to be Theseus, the Athenian hero who went on to slay the Minotaur, dealing with a ruffian named Procrustes.

Procrustes was famous for his bed. He invited passers-by to spend the night and to lie* in his bed. The bed was always too short or too long. So Procrustes “adjusted”, not the bed, but the guest as he was sleeping. He either stretched the guest (Procrustes = ‘the stretcher’) or cut off his legs.

Theseus eventually dealt with Procrustes by making him, Procrustes, fit his own bed. So there.

But from this myth we have the great term Procrustean bed. It applies whenever we force something into a size or a result (as with statistics) that is not natural and thus incorrect or inelegant.

I was thinking of the Procrustean bed once again while writing my piece for The Economist this week.

You recall my musings on the subject of a text’s optimal length, and how important it is neither to go under or over it. Well, in most print media, and certainly in The Economist, lengths are fixed in advance. What determines wordcount is the line count in the page layout of the print edition, which is done before the editor even has the “copy” (article) in question.

In my 12 years at The Economist I have, as you might expect, become very good at writing ‘to length’–ie, at delivering copy that fits exactly (thus evading any Procrustean tendencies by editors). Often I even enjoy the discipline of that constraint.

But it increasingly strikes me as bizarre, indeed unsustainable: We invariably cut good stuff out of articles, add unnecessary words to ‘turn lines’, or even entire paragraphs to fill a page when a chart shrinks. Sometimes this means sacrificing color and detail, or even logical connectors. Other times it means adding noise to signal.

And what happens next? People read the print edition, then pulp it. So much for the beautiful page layout.

But the same text survives forever online, where it faces no obvious layout constraints. Thus, all posterity reads a suboptimal text, stretched or amputated as Procrustes’ guests were.

The ancients (Homer, Virgil, etc) did not have this problem. They (or rather, their slaves) wrote on scrolls, which scroll as our web pages do, into infinity if necessary. Perhaps our evolving media habits will take us back to that future.

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22 thoughts on “Writing in a Procrustean bed

  1. * Please don’t say “lay” here.

    A guest lies in Procrustes’ bed, unless Procrustes himself lays him there.

    Since this happened in the past, the guest lay in bed, unless Procrustes laid him there.

  2. Procrustes bed–another beautiful reference of increasing obscurity.

    Thanks for dusting these off. But I’m a little worried that the next time I’m at a dinner party I might tell the host and hostess that their unkempt, Goth teenager “looks like an unlicked bear who has been victimized by the Procrustean Bed of adolescent conformity.”

    That may be the last time I’m invited to their house!

  3. Why don’t websites simply post both versions, the pre-Proscrustean one as well as the print version, so the reader can choose? For instance, post the print version and add a link to the full version, or vice versa? TV shows routinely air trimmed-down versions of interviews and then provide weblinks for viewers who would like to watch the whole thing online.

    • Aha. This, Peter G, would be: logical, reasonable, obvious.

      Therefore it … cannot happen.

      Seriously, I see a few problems.

      1) We would, in effect, be saying “here is the version we had to make when stretching/chopping to make it fit our print edition, which we would quite like you to keep buying for its excellent writing, and here is the better version, written to its natural length.”

      2) It requires effort and fiddliness, and is thus assured instant death in our organization.

    • I totally understand the fiddlitude issue. Most editors, presumably, aren’t violinists.

      Regarding problem #1, however, this seems to be merely a matter of marketing. After all, record companies have been selling extended-play bonus tracks for decades, and they wouldn’t be doing it if hurt sales of the regular three-minute song versions.

  4. One could apply this to the full volume of all newspapers to the extent that the paper will always fill up with ‘news,’ whether there is any or not. The Wikipedia news is an interesting counter-example because it doesn’t have a daily pace.

    Mark Twain said (approximately), “I read the news yesterday and I read it today. I’m amazed at how little can be accomplished by a billion people in twenty four hours.”

    • Indeed. Yet another reason for thinking that these Procrustean beds (ie, newspapers with fixed publication schedules) will disappear, as Phil also suggests below.

  5. Cut to size, the outcome has defined the cause.

    Isn’t this the modus operandi of a lie? fitting the facts to the necessary conclusion.

    The bed will not accommodate so whatever is a testimony to its flaw must suffer for telling.

    How much room does truth finally have? Must it always sleep under procrustean care?

    • Philosophically, this might lead somewhere. But if all lies are Procrustean beds, not all Procrustean beds are lies. Sometimes, you don’t want to lie, you just have to stretch/chop and in the process dilute/distort.

  6. “if all lies are Procrustean beds, not all Procrustean beds are lies”.

    Time – deadlines – and space – 2000 characters max – are of the essence and they always run out. If they are elements of truth they are not here forever; even we are cut short in our aspirations to live. Life is a procrustean bed.

    Is it a lie?

  7. … and, as you say, Exuvia, do we have the time? Maybe, lay yourself down and allow time to pass? It is an illusion anyway.

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