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Inches to Ells

And ells to Ws.

1940s MAN BUYING NEWSPAPER...
(Photo by Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

The comedian Marc Maron has a funny story about a traveling comedian whom he knew in his early career, one Frankie Bastille, whose great dictum was “You got to do your time.” By a trick of Einsteinian relativity, we can transform this into a version suitable for editors of the written word: You have to fill your space. 

Space is usually measured by the word now; once upon a time it was measured by the inch. The New York Sun, of which I am proud to be a contributing editor, holds close to the old ways in its style guide, despite these days being a web-only publication; an acceptable news graf is three lines of single-spaced 14-point type in a five-inch column, an acceptable editorial graf seven lines of the same. 

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An edition of The American Conservative usually runs to 70 interior pages. With our typesetting (two columns per page for features and the leader, three for articles, reviews, and essays), this comes to within the ballpark of 1000 inches of type, or, for connoisseurs of old imperial units, twenty-three ells, give or take. The importance of filling space comes into focus before such a number.

Failing to fill your space—not filing your inches—is a ticklish business, like declaring bankruptcy or forgetting your anniversary. At best, it will earn an ear-chewing (well deserved, we hasten to add) from your editor; worse, it can convulse the entire publication, sending editors and typesetters scuttling, fretting about filling space—your space—with enlarged pictures and pull quotes.

The late Jeffrey Bernard, “Low Life” columnist for the Spectator, had a certain affinity that occasionally rendered him unable to file his inches. With admirable discretion, his editors would run a notice: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.” When he underwent an amputation, ultimately a result of that certain affinity, the editors ran a cheeky version: “Jeffrey Bernard is having a leg off.”

(Bernard’s column, by the way, ran alongside the “High Life” column of a TAC founding triumvir, Taki Theodorocopalous; with the savage but accurate instinct innate to members of the British press, the Spectator editors thought the contrast between Bernard’s chronic evictions and visits to Queer Street and Taki’s adventures on speedboats and racetracks would tickle readers.)

But why must the space be filled, really? We turn to Samuel Johnson’s description of Fleet Street: “the men who scribble on the backs of advertisements.” This neatly captures both the supply- and demand-side elements of the press. Advertisements without anything scribbled on them are just fliers, immediate candidates for the circular file. And scribblers have to be put to use somehow.

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Scribblers, especially for physical print, are eternal, compulsive. Paper still has a romance that does not inhere to mere web publishing. It has been probably forty years since any publication was laid out by hand, scissors and tape and so on; yet the business of proofing and printing still has a whiff of the trades about it, something based in the physical world rather than mere blips on a screen.

My college rag owned its own presses, huge brutish objects of steel and grease hunched in the basement below the newsroom. They were overseen by two ancient, crocodilian Bostonians, of whom we were all a little afraid. That was good; it kept us on schedule. (You try telling such a townie that the paper would be delayed.) When you heard the presses rumbling at last, you felt big.

So we scribbled, and keep scribbling, and filling out the inches on the backs of advertisements until they become ells on the backs of advertisements. The ells (and the advertisements) become newspapers and magazines. With each magazine put to bed, there’s an air of victory—of the W, to use the slang of sports writers. That is to say, we have transformed our ells into Ws. 

Turning ells (and Ls) to Ws is the characteristic maneuver for gentlemen of the press, who, like Bernard, run to disreputability and certain affinities (or used to). Even our grandees have always tended to present themselves as a hardscrabble lot. E.V. Knox, the editor of Punch, was once asked by a waitress in a wine cellar what profession he practiced; he replied wryly, “I live by my wits.”

Devotees of this column—the few! the proud!—may have noticed that it has arrived a full day after its customary Thursday morning. Jude Russo, happily, is not unwell; he is certainly not having a leg off, affinities or no. He was typesetting the July/August issue of the print edition of The American Conservative. (Subscribe!) He may be late. But let it never be said that he has failed to fill his space.