Actually Setting by Anax

The anatomy of a crossword

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Prior to this year’s Times Crossword Championship (2009) Dave and I had never met, but we quickly fell into conversation and I reckon I spent more time talking to Dave than anyone else. At some point the conversation turned to what it is a setter actually does when putting together a puzzle, and I said something – can’t remember exactly what – that must have come as something of a surprise. We both realised that there doesn’t currently seem to be a published in-depth description of the nuts and bolts processes of crossword setting. Yes, there’s plenty of “technical stuff”. And – a thought that just suddenly occurred to me – Tim Moorey gives some page space to it in his “How To Master The Times Crossword”; but that excellent book is primarily a guide to solving and the setting section restricts itself to describing the sorts of wordplay devices a setter looks for.

Dave very kindly invited me to put into words what I now find myself struggling to put into words – perhaps this is a cop-out, but I’m going to describe it as the “feeling” behind the creation of a cryptic crossword.

Let’s start by mentioning that I set for The Times and The Independent. That isn’t intended as self-promotion. I’ve mentioned it because these two crossword series have fundamentally different starting points. The Times provides its setting team with a stock of pre-designed grids; The Independent allows its setters to design their own. Before explaining why that’s so important, I’ll just answer a question that does get asked quite a lot:

Do you have a stock of clues?

For me the answer is yes, but it’s a very modest stock. A quick glance at my Excel document shows just 71 “waiting” clues, and these are not always in ready-to-use state. Often, I’ll have spotted the potential for exploiting a particular piece of wordplay and will have found an example of an answer where it can be used, but it’s effectively a sketch – a concept that needs honing into something that would be approved by an editor. Only about half of these waiting clues are of a form I’d be prepared to use.

Why so few? To be honest I’m not sure. It may be that I have a sort of temporary relationship with a clue idea, one that fades over time. So a clue that sits unused for several months gradually loses its appeal; it felt like a good idea at the time, but now…

The grids

If you have the freedom to design your own grid it’s very tempting to raid the database and throw in as many as possible, which of course is an invitation to disaster. Firstly, you end up with an extremely clever but probably unsolvable crossword. Secondly, you run out of clues. However, this freedom of grid design means that placing one humdinger doesn’t necessarily inhibit a successful grid fill – if things get a bit sticky you can make changes. On set grids much more care is needed. It may surprise many to be told that the deliberate placement of just two database clues can pretty much dictate how the rest of the fill falls into place, and there’s nothing worse than finding that the only possible answer at 4Down is QUIZZICALITY.

How do you fill a grid?

Crossword software makes the grid fill potentially a very easy process. You can do it by clicking a button. But I very much doubt that any setter does that, because an essential part of choosing answers is getting a feel for what kind of wordplay potential exists. That doesn’t necessarily mean having a clue in mind straightaway – mostly it’s simply a case of seeing that arrangement of letters and getting a feel for how easily or otherwise they can be dealt with. Unless I had a miraculous brainwave, I can’t imagine seeing QUIZZICALITY in a list of placeable candidates and plumping for it – I’d look for something a bit friendlier.

Do you start writing clues only after filling the grid?

No. There will be a small number of answers for which a clue has sprung to mind immediately, and I’ll get these written while the ideas are fresh. In a grid of 28 answers that may account for around half a dozen, but I have to be happy that these answers are not going to change. The grid fill can fall apart at a late stage and, while written clues can be added to the database if it turns out their answers have to be changed, it’s still very disappointing when it happens. So I tend to get the grid complete with a few clues written, and only then start work on the rest.

Do you start at 1 Across and work through clues in order?

Another no. Editors set limits on certain types of wordplay – in The Times, for example, each puzzle has a maximum number of full or part anagrams. As setters we also try to get a good balance of charades, containers, double definitions etc etc, and we like to spread them throughout the puzzle. If you start at the first across answer and use one type of wordplay because it happens to create a reasonably good clue, you may later find yourself unable to use that device to far greater effect elsewhere because you’ve used up your ration of that wordplay type. This is particularly true of anagrams in a puzzle with perhaps four long answers. I’m always looking to not use anagrams for these (sometimes it feels like an easy escape) but there are occasions when you’re either forced into it because the answer won’t break down into components, or it just happens that you discover a wonderful anagram that’s too good to resist. But I’m always aware that clues to long answers need to be satisfying to solve, so these get the fullest attention and I try to get them written as soon as possible – and I always keep a tally of which wordplay devices have been used.

My next task is to look over the remaining unclued answers and try to spot what I call “hooks” – little things that stand out as offering good clue potential. As soon as I see something I try to get the clue written, although sometimes it’s a case of just noting an idea to be returned to later.

How long does it take to get a full set of clues?

In a 28-answer puzzle I’ll have the grid filled and, typically, around 24 clues written in two days but, no matter how well I think I’ve chosen the answers, I will always end up with four or five problem clues where I just can’t see anything. It is by no means unusual to spend three or four days just getting this little grouping polished off. That sounds like some kind of hell and, to a degree, I suppose it is. Ultimately, though, it can prove to be extremely rewarding, because discovering a really good clue to an apparently intractable set of letters can be genuinely thrilling. I always find myself banging on about a clue I wrote for EXPORT DUTY [Charge traffic cops on departure (6,4)], but only because it’s such a great example of how despair can turn into utter delight. I must have spent two days on that one, but when the clue finally fell into my lap it turned out to be perhaps the best of the set for that puzzle.

That, for me, is the real buzz about crossword setting, the thing that makes the mental punishment worthwhile. Those database clues that got me started on the grid fill – well, in a way it’s a little bit like cheating, but in truth it’s no worse than a student going into a lecture having done his homework. The actual creation of cryptic clues is not confined to building a crossword; indeed many setters ensure that, wherever they are, they have some means of jotting down wordplay ideas. You can be walking along your local high street and spot a word on a poster and notice something about it that’s interesting – and you’re not likely to have a crossword grid in your hand when it happens. So these little snippets of cleverness can muscle their way in at the beginning of a crossword, but the greatest satisfaction comes when you find a really good clue against the odds.

No – actually I’m lying. The greatest satisfaction comes when solvers tell you they’ve enjoyed the torture you’ve inflicted on them. Everybody has good and bad things to say about the Internet, but thanks to its presence in our lives there is a level of communication between solvers and setters that didn’t exist even ten or fifteen years ago. Yes, the Internet was around, but it still felt pretty experimental and unsophisticated, and active contribution to blogs was by no means common. For many setters now, though, the exchanges of praise, criticism, questions, comment – even simple contact – has turned this strange little world we inhabit into a thriving and enthusiastic community.

What you have to remember is that setting crosswords is – it has to be – a very solitary occupation. A ringing telephone can utterly destroy the thought processes. It is thanks to the blogs and crossword websites that we recluses keep in contact with those who share our passion for wordplay.