Some years ago, I was an active member of an online clue-writing community. Their protocol was: one member posted a self-composed clue, the next answered it and posted another clue, and so the chain continued.
We were all solvers there with next to no awareness about the intricacies of clue-writing. Our clues were frankly pretty awful, but we did not know it then.
The thing is, many solvers solve by instinct and experience of solving, without fully understanding the beauty and structure of clues. Here is my list of the usual traps we fall into when we move from being solvers to setters. I have done most of these, I confess (yes, even #5). If you make these mistakes too, check yourself now.
1. Your first impulse is to break the word into bits and use standard abbreviations to string a clue together
This is the easiest sort of clue to write, and comes to mind most naturally to the new setter.
Take this test: Write a clue for BARE. Did your brain toss back at you something like: Graduate engineer's bald (4)? That's a sign. Have a look at the recent clues you've written. If there is too much of charade with crossword abbreviations in your repository, it's time for you to break out of the habit.
2. You see a setter do something clever and strain yourself to write a clue using the same trick
The strain shows. You don't have to write a reverse anagram just because Paul Halpern did. Maybe you'll get a real chance to apply your newly found wisdom soon, or maybe not. Why not think of something original instead?
3. You use link words without considering their role in the wordplay
You might have grown used to ignoring small words such as "has", "over", "at", "should", etc. in clues when solving, but these words are not meaningless fillers. You cannot insert any word in your clue to help the surface. The good setter takes care that every word in the clue makes sense in the cryptic reading.
The next two clues for COACHING look almost identical but one is superior to the other. Do you see which one, and why?
Training company is suffering (8)
Training company's suffering (8)
As a solver you might derive CO+ACHING from both with equal ease, but while writing the clue you cannot afford to miss that "is" in the first version breaks the cryptic reading. The second version is better as it allows the connector to be interpreted as "has".
Make sure that every word in your clue can justify its presence, in both readings.
4. You don't notice the grammatical fit of indicators
Take this test: In this clue for ACHE - Sets right each misery (4), is the anagram indicator "sets right" all right?
If you answered yes, this one is for you.
The indicator "sets right" look fine on the surface but is not OK in the cryptic reading. A verb before the fodder needs to be written as an instruction to the solver. A small change can fix it: Set right each misery (4).
Review your clues to check if their indicators congeal grammatically, especially if you have used a combination of clue types.
5. You write indirect anagrams
In an indirect anagram, the anagram fodder is not directly present in the clue but has to be derived from the wordplay.
Consider these two clues for the word REALISED:
Direct anagram: Crooked dealer is apprehended (8) (DEALER+IS)*
Indirect anagram: Crooked merchant is apprehended (8) ((merchant = DEALER)+IS)*
Indirect anagrams are rare in published crosswords as they are unfair to the solver, yet this style of wordplay seems to hold an inexplicable appeal for new setters.
Unless your clue has an exact replacement (such as Iron = Fe, South = S) or you have some other compelling justification for it, don't use it.
6. You write "complex" clues
The best clues combine deception with simplicity. Do yours?
Take this test: Write a clue for PAST. Is this the kind of wordplay you've come up with: Former head of state taken in by someone dear with a change of heart (4)?
A long clue combining several clue types might be excellent too, but more often than not it is overkill and gives the vibe of "trying too hard". Keep it simple!
7. Your clue surfaces don't have meaning
Experienced solvers acquire the knack of looking right past misleading surfaces. Like Arjuna who saw nothing but the bird's eye, they see nothing but the cryptic meaning of a clue.
A most desirable trait for solving becomes problematic when carried forward to setting. To the focussed solver, the two clues below might seem equivalent as their structures are identical:
Firm rejecting leader's move (5)
Anchored rejecting head's move (5)
In both, the wordplay is (STABLE minus initial letter) and the definition is the verb form of TABLE (to put forward formally). But as a setter, you must do more than provide fair wordplay, you must also craft a natural surface for the clue. The first clue fares better on this count - it can pass off as a plausible statement about a company's reaction to its leader's proposal. The second is gibberish. Avoid the gibberish.
Doing well on all these counts? Congratulations. I recommend taking part in these clue-writing contests, if you aren't doing so already. All the best for your clue-writing efforts.
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