Wednesday 13 October 2010

Do you make these mistakes when writing clues?

crossword-setter 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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Amrith said...

Thanks a ton for this.
I find that I have been guilty on all counts at one time or another :) I guess I could say that I am now ever so slightly better but then reading this only highlights what I think are right clues :)
Thanks again for the post.


Amrith said...

P.S The pic in the post was quite brilliant! I overlooked it at first :)


anax said...

A very appropriate and worthwhile subject Shuchi - many thanks for highlighting it.

I can add nothing really, except to say that even the most experienced and highly regarded published setters make mistakes from time to time. Among other tasks, crossword editors are there to see errors and ask for them to be corrected, but even editors are human and they too can miss mistakes.

If you're submitting a puzzle for the first time, or it's one of many, or it's just out there for test solving, don't be disheartened if errors are pointed out; it happens to us all, and far more frequently than you might imagine.

Shuchi said...

@Amrith: Thank you, especially for liking the picture.

I find that I have been guilty on all counts at one time or another - me too. It is very hard to get everything right, especially #3, #4 and #7 at the same time. #6 is my most common problem, clues get overly complex because I couldn't think of something simpler.

Shuchi said...

@anax: Thank you. This has taken me a really long time to write :)

Your comment opens another train of thought. I sometimes receive puzzles by new setters asking for feedback and I've found something interesting there. Those whose work is good easily acknowledge errors; those whose clues are raw are far more difficult to convince.

The usual response that this is just a matter of opinion - as they see it, such clues are all right.*

I think that if a setter's own take is different from the conventional ways of cryptic clues, then there is greater need to pay attention to solvers' feedback. Ultimately the audience has to appreciate the clues, not the setter himself/herself.

So yes, while I agree that we should not let the feedback dishearten us, we shouldn't go the other extreme either and dismiss it entirely.

[*The other response is that similar clues have been published in The Hindu, so this must be acceptable :(]

anax said...

An extremely important factor Shuchi.
Every setter starts with an arsenal of unpolished technique and huge enthusiasm. The relationship between technique and enthusiasm is often a troubled one, but they need each other. I believe in absolutely equality in marriage, but in this case technique has to wear the trousers and must give enthusiasm an occasional reminder about who's boss.
With time, it comes naturally, but (sticking relentlessly to the marriage theme) those who test solve or edit puzzles have to be seen as a sort of welcome mother-in-law who ultimately has the setters'/solvers' best interests at heart.

maddy said...

@Shuchi - This has taken me a really long time to write :)

This is a revelation.Your post seems so effortless and authoritative, one gets the impression that you have just conjured it up in a matter of minutes.
I guess the same goes for clues also. The best clues are those which appear so natural and deceptively simple that one thinks the setter must have come up with it in an inspired moment. It is almost impossible to imagine that he/she might have spent hours if not days fine tuning it.

Anonymous said...

Talking of the spelling of clues, I remember one of the older books (Doyle ?) spelling it as 'clews'.

Kryptonologist said...

A minor grammatical error in the last example:

Firm rejects leader's move (5)

The wordplay expands to:

Firm rejects leader is move

The connector 's casts the entire clue as a single wordplay sentence, which already includes a main verb. Thus you can't use rejects in this structure. A correct version would be:

Firm rejecting leader's move (5)

Shuchi said...

Thanks for spotting that, Tony. Post updated.

Long time...hope you're doing very well.