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 forĀ 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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