Tips for setters

Definitions first 

I learned long ago that it is a good idea to decide roughly how you’re going to define the answer before you start work on the wordplay. If you have several ideas, even better. There’s a good reason for this. The possibilities for defining a word are usually fairly limited, while the possibilities for wordplay are almost always far more extensive. So it’s much easier to make the wordplay fit the definition of a word than the other way round. Of course you can always tweak your definition, or change it altogether, if a better idea occurs while you’re developing the wordplay, but it’s a good idea to have a starting point. Once you’ve got that you can look at the structure of the word itself and see if it contains any elements which, in conjunction with the definition you’ve chosen, could make a coherent sentence.

Here’s an example using a clue I wrote for the FT and was particularly pleased with. I will point out that it’s very rare for me to look back on clues I wrote a while ago and think “Ooh, that was rather good, wasn’t it?” I usually do the opposite – I’ll see lots of things I don’t like and feel I could or should have done better. In this case, though, seeing this clue when the crossword was published brought back a pleasant memory of the sense of discovery I had when writing it. 

I had to clue JALAPEÑO and right from the off it looked like a horror of a word to clue. I decided on something cryptic like “hot stuff” for the definition and moved on to the wordplay. I concluded quickly that it would have to be an anagram so I started to investigate the possibilities. The letters of POLE came out fairly quickly, and I hit on “dancing” as a possible anagram indicator. There’s certainly a connection between pole dancing and hot stuff, but what of the remaining letters, AAJN? 

It didn’t take me long to see that these letters could spell out a girl’s name, Jana, and all that remained was to put the clue in order. That gave 

Jana pole dancing is hot stuff (8) 

which is pretty good, but I tweaked the definition to 

Jana pole dancing is something really hot (8) 

as I felt that this is more like something people might say. 

I will admit to a vested interest in the clue, as the name Jana does have a certain significance for me and the image the clue suggested meant a cold shower or two. Personal involvement shouldn’t affect a clue, of course, and I would still be happy with it if I had none. I did get a comment on the relevant blog from someone who thought it disgraceful that I used an anagram for such an “obscure” word. I can only suppose his idea of a good meal is McDonald’s or KFC, and that’s why JALAPEÑO is obscure to him! 

Not every clue will be a masterpiece 

It would be great to produce a set of clues where every one is a perfect sentence with a subject, object and verb. Where every clue evokes a vivid image and is breathtaking in its originality and skilful use of technique. Where there is no need for single letter indications (first of, primarily) and not a cliché (EX = old flame, PO = river) in sight. Oh yes indeedy, it would be terrific.  

Dream on. Such a puzzle doesn’t exist. And it probably never will. The finest setters of today, for example Anax, Monk and Paul, usually come pretty close, and I would hope that some of mine are sort of in the right ballpark. But the truth is, it is almost certainly not possible to achieve a set of masterpieces in one puzzle, unless you spend years writing one set of clues, and even then I’m not sure it can be done.

All words are clueable, but some more so than others. Those who comment on crosswords often don’t realise that it’s far more of an achievement to come up with a competent clue for an unfriendly word than to produce a good clue for a friendly one. In any one grid, there will be a mixture of both, however carefully you plan your gridfill. Take ENNUI and ETUI, which often force themselves into grids. These usually appear as hidden words, and there’s nothing wrong with that, though hiddens seldom are very interesting. There are obviously other possibilities, but the structure of these words means that you’re looking at “a bit of this and a bit of that” kind of clues, which, while perfectly sound, will never be paragons of cluemanship. 

With unfriendly words, there’s no point in spending hours looking for the perfect clue, as it’s often hard enough finding an adequate one. You are better off moving on to the words which have more possibilities for an excellent clue. The same goes for three-letter words which are necessitated by some grids. Solvers don’t care about them very much and however good you are as a setter, you’re unlikely to come up with anything for ATE, EAT or TEA that is so much better than what’s been done before. 

Unhelpful and unexciting words will always be unhelpful and unexciting, and as the man said, you can’t polish a turd. 

I’d also say that there are times you have to cut your losses even with friendly words. For example, you may come up with what would be a topical, humorous and grammatically perfect sentence if it weren’t for an unaccounted for Z and a couple of Us. It’s tempting to go on and on tweaking it until your head spins, and sometimes this produces the result you want. It usually doesn’t though, and I would say that if you’ve spent more than a couple of hours trying to knock the clue into shape and it still won’t work, it’s best to abandon the idea and try something else. 

To be quite frank, setters are not paid enough to spend the sort of time on a puzzle that it would take to produce a string of diamonds. There will be a few rhinestones in there, and that’s inevitable. It doesn’t matter as long as the diamonds sparkle and the rhinestones look decent enough. I know this might sound a bit trade unionish but I am not for a moment advocating laziness. I’m just being realistic and advising setters not to waste time trying to achieve the impossible. 

I’ll finish this section by mentioning that I don’t always take my own advice. I’ve been known to spend a whole morning trying to make the unworkable work, and to add that extra pizazz to an unfriendly word like, well, pizazz. When I started writing tabloid level puzzles for an agency in the early noughties, I had to clue the word UNDO. I’d used up my quota of hiddens so the next obvious possibility was something like 

Ruin a Parisian party (4) 

I decided that was way too mundane and boring, so I spent far too long trying to find a really great, knock ’em out clue. I can’t remember what I finally arrived at, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t any better than my original idea. A couple of weeks later, I came across a clue in an Araucaria puzzle which was along the lines of 

Ruin a Parisian party (4) 

If it was good enough for Araucaria it should have been good enough for me! 

Don’t be put off by comments on blogs  

This one is for those setters who have scaled the heights of Olympus and got on to the team of setters for one or more of the national papers. All of these papers’ puzzles – Times, Telegraph, Independent, FT and Guardian – are discussed on the relevant blog the day they appear (except prize puzzles, which are blogged when the solution is published in the paper). The format is much the same on all these sites: the blogger of the day writes an explanation of each clue in the puzzle, often with a few comments thrown in, and then the blog’s visitors can add comments. Nearly all of the bloggers and most of the commenters are fair-minded and polite, and if they have any criticisms they express them in a constructive and respectful way. It must be said, though, that some of what’s written on these blogs has caused annoyance and hurt to a few setters (and they’re just the ones I know about). 

Of course, free speech must always prevail – and real free speech means that people have a right to say what they like, however offensive or “politically incorrect” it may be, so long it’s not defamatory. Also, setters have to recognise that if you put work of any sort in the public domain, you’ll attract a certain amount of negativity. It would be naïve, arrogant even, to expect nothing but a stream of glowing eulogies. Crossword setters are in a rather unusual position though, in that these blogs usually provide the only feedback you’ll get from the public. Authors and musicians, for example, have plenty of negative things written about them too, but if they’re selling lots of books or records and watching their bank balances grow they’re unlikely to be all that bothered. The people who made the Lord of the Rings films won’t have lost a second’s sleep over the obsessives who decided they didn’t like the films before they’d even seen them, in the light of the films’ phenomenal success. For us setters, though, it can be quite disheartening to spend hours working on a puzzle for the benefit of solvers’ enjoyment – we don’t do it for the money as there isn’t much – when the feedback is minimal and some of what you do get is negative. 

Of course, just because feedback is critical it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of no value. For example, if nobody can parse a certain clue in your puzzle, it’s almost certainly too hard, or there may even be an error in it. That goes for whole puzzles too – if the overwhelming tone is that the blog’s contributors found it too difficult, it’s worth bearing that in mind. Many of the people who contribute to these blogs are experienced solvers and if they have struggled with the puzzle, you can be sure that the average solver will not have got far at all. Even so, it would still be worth consulting your editor before you alter your style. 

It takes some humility to admit defeat and if people say that they found a puzzle too hard, there is no reason to doubt their word. On the other hand, people who say that a puzzle’s too easy are rather less reliable critics. You only have the contributor’s word for it that he solved your puzzle in two minutes and seven seconds. Even if these comments are not from people showing off, they are inconsiderate. As I’ve said, many of the contributors to these sites are experienced solvers and just because they find a puzzle easy, it doesn’t mean that the majority of solvers will. I’m a fairly competent solver myself, after years of practice, and I sometimes hanker for the days when a Times puzzle would last me an afternoon. I now need at least ten of the things to occupy me for a two-hour flight, but I’m never going to suggest that the Times puzzle is far too easy and that they should make them harder on my account. It would be total selfishness. 

As a setter, you can happily ignore comments of this sort, but I didn’t know that when my first FT puzzle appeared towards the end of 2008. This was my debut as a crossword setter in a national paper (other than two Listener puzzles). It should have been a day to be proud of and to some extent it was, not least because I got some lovely messages of congratulation from setters andsolvers who knew me, but it was pretty much ruined when I looked at the “review” for the puzzle on the relevant blog. The blogger made a point of saying it was far too easy, and it probably was quite easy as it was my first puzzle and so I’d played safe. Still, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t any easier than many which appear in the FT. (In fairness I should point out that this blogger has been very supportive of my puzzles since then.) 

The comments about my first FT puzzle being too easy worried me, and I contacted my editor at the FT to ask his opinion. He told me to take no notice of the blogs, and to a large extent I agree with him. As I’ve said, there are some cases where negative comment can be useful to the setter – and you’d be a fool to ignore any praise that comes your way of course – but I strongly recommend that you don’t allow yourself to be influenced by people who for one reason or another feel it necessary to boast about how easy they found your crossword. 

I should repeat that the vast majority of bloggers, like good reviewers in any field, show their knowledge of and enthusiasm for crosswords in what they write, and do not allow their personal prejudices to become apparent. One or two, though, display (often irrational) bias against certain setters, sometimes to the point of being insulting. The resulting diatribes say more about the blogger than the setter, but they can still be hurtful and off-putting. If you are unlucky to come up against one these bloggers, my advice is to try to take no notice of what they say (easier said than done, I know) and hope that you’ll get a decent blogger next time. 

Much the same goes for the commenters. Most of them are fair and supportive, but as always, there are a few who aren’t. There is a (mercifully small) handful who take their inadequacies – cruciverbal and otherwise – out on the setter with a stream of invective or sometimes a single word like “Horrible!” Usually they disappear for quite a while after they’ve said their bit, even if called to account by the sensible posters, probably to let their brains cool down after such strenuous intellectual effort. It's debatable whether they qualify as trolls or not but you can safely ignore them, and nobody needs me to tell them that. 

Some commenters who have caused upset to setters are regular, bona fide posters who obviously have at least some idea about clueing. They are the people who delight in finding fault for the sake of it. It’s quite reasonable, of course, for posters to point out errors or mention clues which are blatantly unfair, but the serial quibblers, as I call them, go much further than that. They make petty and ill-informed criticisms which they could see for themselves are groundless if only they bothered to look in a dictionary. 

Actually, the SQs remind me of some of the people I encountered at the opera in London. There was a group of regulars who’d been going since the première of Don Giovanni, and during the intervals they would loudly denounce every aspect of the performance they could possibly find fault with. I used to wonder why they bothered going to the opera at all. SQs are easy to spot: their posts often start with “Not too much to complain about today…” or something similar. To be fair they can be quite polite and sometimes their complaints are justifiable, but usually their quibbles are unfounded, which makes them the cyber equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. After a flawless meal and impeccable service in a restaurant, your SQ will complain about the colour of the tablecloth. The restaurateur will ignore him, and you can too. 

It can’t be said too often that we’re talking about a minority here. Most of the contributors make a positive contribution and the blogs are a good thing for crosswords, especially for new solvers. It may be that I’ve underestimated setters’ ability to develop a thick skin, but I don’t think so, judgingfrom correspondence I’ve had with some setters. So I’ll finish by repeating the title of this section: don’t be put off by comments on blogs. 

How many anagrams? 

Where would the setter be without the anagram? After all, many words don’t break up neatly into separate components that can be exploited in any meaningful way. Often the only way to provide decent wordplay is to jumble up some or all of the letters in the answer, in order to link it to the definition with a sentence which makes some sort of sense.

There are, as I see it, three basic types of anagram clue. These are 

1. Full anagrams. This is where the answer is a direct anagram of another word or words, e.g. 

Strange green lady is very famous (9) LEGENDARY 

2. Nearly full anagrams. These involve an anagram of a word or words with one or two (often indirectly indicated) letters added or removed e.g. 

Writer of sonnets, very English eccentric (9) STEVENSON 

Missing note, clarinet spoiled concert (7) RECITAL 

3. Partial anagrams. Here only part of the wordplay is an anagram e.g. 

Drove badly? One’s exaggerated (8) OVERDONE 

There are more complex forms of anagram clues, but we needn’t worry about them here as they seldom appear in daily papers. 

Ximenes, in his book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword, states: 

The anagram clues I like best are of two sorts – those in which there is a really appropriate connection between the anagram and the definition, and those which come under my heading “&lit”. 

I agree. “&lit” clues, in which the wordplay overlaps exactly with the definition, most often require an anagram. An example is the classic  

I’m one involved with cost (9) ECONOMIST 

To exemplify the first part of Ximenes’s statement, look at these two clues. 

The new stadium is rebuilt for football team (4,3,6) WEST HAM UNITED 

Carthorse is ordered for the players (9) ORCHESTRA 

What a difference there is between the two clues! The first has a clear football connection and so is a very good clue, though it is so memorable that setters won’t be able to use it (or versions of it) very often. The second, apart from being such a cliché that any setter worth his or her salt would avoid it, is poor, even though it’s technically sound. I have spent my life listening to orchestras, and have yet to find any connection at all between a beast of burden and a group of musicians. 

I would add that some anagram clues are noteworthy if the anagram indicator has some surface connection with the anagram fodder and so creates a smooth, meaningful surface reading. For example 

Supply teacher makes some ground (7) 

There’s no connection between TEACHER and HECTARE but the misleading use of “supply” (adverbial form of “supple”) goes nicely with “teacher” and the surface evokes memories of how classes often play up substitute teachers. 

Good anagrams certainly have their place in puzzles as much as any other clue type, and crosswords would be much poorer without them. The problem with anagram clues is that unless the setter is careful, too many will appear in one puzzle. The result is that the puzzle becomes rather dull to solve, and it can look as if the setter isn’t really trying very hard, even if that’s not the case. So how many is too many? 

Ximenes suggests a maximum of four full anagrams and a couple of partials in a 28-word puzzle. Alec Robins (who set as Custos for the Guardian), in his excellent but sadly out of print book Teach Yourself Crosswords, advises much the same. These books were first printed in 1966 and 1975, but this advice is generally adhered to today. It is advice I try to follow, and a great many broadsheet setters use a similar anagram count. 

The only difference between then and now is that what I referred to earlier as nearly full anagrams are much more common these days. This sort of clue tends to be used when the definition can be connected nicely with an anagram, but there are one or two letters unaccounted for and these need to be added or removed. For the purposes of this discussion, these nearly full anagrams can be counted as full anagrams. In other words, your puzzle of 28-30 clues should contain no more than four full or nearly full anagrams, and two or three partials. 

It’s therefore wise not to use up your quota in the first seven clues of the puzzle! It’s not a bad idea to look through the words in the grid and decide which words, if any, look as if they are going to have to be anagrams, so you know how many you have left. For the other words I look first of all to see is there is a really good anagram that I can’t resist, and if not, I’ll use an anagram as a last resort. Partials are, I think, best left for intractable fragments of words that mean nothing and won’t break down easily any other way. For example, INTO A for words ending in -ATION.

Are these rules inviolable? Of course not. There are times you may have to increase the anagram count slightly, for example if the inclusion of a theme has left you with a higher number of intractable words than usual. I am writing this piece with broadsheet level puzzles in mind, and of course things are very different if you’re writing easy puzzles for magazines or local papers. These call for the most basic clues, and your options for abbreviations, indicators etc. are very limited. You’ll have to rely far more on anagrams in these puzzles than you would at broadsheet level. I’d still try not to use too many, though. 

A final aside about certain anagram indicators. There are a lot of related anagram indicators based on the idea of “mad” – such as crazy, cuckoo, out to lunch, nuts, bats, bananas, loony and of course mad itself. Recently there have been objections from the usual suspects that this mocks people with mental illness. Poppycock! All of these terms have secondary meanings which have nothing to do with mental illness and simply mean “out of sorts” in one way or another – I’m nuts about her, he drives me crazy, my parents got mad etc. I would bet my entire CD collection that not one single setter has ever used one of these words in a clue and thought “Ha! That’ll give people a really good laugh at the expense of those in psychiatric care!” 

Crosswords are intended for everyone, so of course taste and decency should be observed. But it would be a great shame for setters to lose these indicators, many of which offer great opportunities for misdirection, from their arsenal because some killjoys have nothing better to do than pretend totake offence on behalf of others. My advice is to exploit the richness of the English language for all it’s worth unless you’re specifically told not to, and if that happens you should protest vigorously! 


This one isn’t really a general tip, but it isn't a broad enough topic to merit an article of its own. There are two issues concerning capitalisation which arise in crosswords. 

1. Missing capitals 

Consider this clue for CLINTON: 

Customer ignores third of items on bill? (7) 

Is it fair to decapitalise Bill here? Ximenes says not, as does anyone who shares his view that cryptic grammar is important. That includes me. The “libertarians” will say that by taking this view I am being pedantic and anal retentive; what’s more, they will accuse me of trying to take the fun out of crosswords. Well, I certainly am anal retentive and pedantic when it comes to capitalisation generally. I do not take much notice of online postings or emails which omit capital letters for proper nouns or the pronoun I. I’m not talking about the occasional failure to hit the shift key here: we all do that from time to time, and spellcheckers won’t pick it up if the non-capitalised word means something in its own right. I’m referring to people who can’t be bothered to put capitals in at all and yet expect us to take what they write seriously. I don’t mind it so much in text messages – writing texts on many phones is a fiddly and laborious process and most texts are hastily written communications to be read once and forgotten about. Still, I always capitalise and punctuate in any texts I write, and may well be the only person on this planet who bothers to do this. But that’s all beside the point. 

In crosswords, the definition should be accurate. It can be misleadingly worded, as in the old standbys like flower (river), driver (golfer), or perhaps Nice chap (French male name). All of these obey Afrit’s injunction: You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean. Deliberately misspelling a word does not say what you mean, and although calling this a misspelling may be overstating the case a bit, that’s what omitting a capital letter amounts to. 

As for me trying to spoil the fun of crosswords, I deny it. In fact, I’m trying to do the exact opposite. Good crossword clues are all about clever, but fair, misdirection; when the penny drops I get that satisfying feeling of “why didn’t I see that before?” Clues in which I have to second-guess the setter because he or she has withheld important information (yes I know, that does sound a bit pompous) lead to me feeling that I’ve been cheated and wasted my time. That’s anything but fun! If I were the only one saying this it probably would be fair to accuse me of being a killjoy, but since the majority of crossword editors, all competent setters and, judging by comments on forums, a great many solvers too would be grossly underwhelmed by the CLINTON clue above, there must be a heck of a lot of us spoilsports around or, just perhaps, we’ve got a point. 

Of course that doesn’t mean that setters can’t exploit proper names that mean something in lower case too. One way round the capitalisation issue is to use a homophone indicator, e.g. 

Customer ignores third of items on bill, we’re told? (7) 

I’ve done this a few times in some of my earlier efforts but in recent years I’ve come to think it’s rather lame. A far better solution is to rewrite the clue so that the proper noun comes at the start of the sentence or after a full stop. Some clues lend themselves more easily to this than others, and it took a bit of thinking to rework my example. A possible way to put Bill at the start would be 

Bill for one customer doesn’t include tip for service? That’s acceptable (7) 

You may say it’s a bit wordy compared to the original and you’ll get no argument from me on that score, but it still misleads the solver into thinking of a restaurant tab rather than a person called Bill, and the necessary indication of definition by example (“for one” in this case) is quite neatly disguised by the surface. “Tip” is defined in Chambers as a small piece forming an end and the furthest part (among other things) but if you’re one of those who see it as an indicator for first rather than last letters, “at the end” after “service” is a viable alternative. The ON is clued by its meaning in the phrase “that’s just not on.” 

In wordplay elements, as well as definitions of the answer, capitalisation should never be ignored. Look at this: 

Criminal wants it with cream? (6) 

This is a very loose reworking of a clue that appeared in a national newspaper not long before writing this. The idea is that you combine IT with BAND, a reference to the 60s rock group Cream. The rather open-ended definition, along with a reference to a band that finished over 40 years ago, makes things pretty tricky, but would probably pass muster if it weren’t for the omission of the one vital piece of information we need – the capital C. I think this is about as unfair as it gets, don’t you? 

2. False capitals 

Here’s Bill again in another clue: 

Charlie intervenes in a matter for Bill (7) 

C in A COUNT gives ACCOUNT, which is a bill. But is it a Bill? 

Imagine someone writing a note to a friend: “Took the car in for a service and got a Huge Bill!” The friend may perhaps conclude that the car was serviced by a morbidly obese mechanic called William, but I think it’s unlikely. The meaning is clear. It’s not uncommon to capitalise for effect, especially in eye-catching headlines (Aliens Abducted my Hamster!), and also to emphasise a person’s importance (the Queen, the President). Capitalisation occurs in religious contexts (the Redeemer, the Saviour) and also in expressions that don’t involve people (the Grand Plan, the Big One etc.). And don’t forget that all nouns are capitalised in the German language. 

The general consensus from those who care about and understand cryptic grammar is that false capitalisation is a minor sin, if indeed it is a sin at all. Ximenes only really sanctioned it for nouns, but these days it’s accepted for pretty well any part of speech except perhaps prepositions and conjunctions, and there is nothing to be gained from giving those words false capitals anyway. Pronouns are capitalised when referring to God (He, Him, His etc.) and it would be a great shame if we couldn’t have, by analogy, 

Doctor Who harboured good and evil (6) 

This rather nice cryptic definition clue is one that another setter originally sent to me to ask my opinion on the false capital.

The following example shows that false capitalisation can be used in wordplay elements too. Back to our old friend Bill again: 

Rely on Bill’s relation (7) 

It’s quite common for Bill to turn up as AC in clues, as in this second clue for ACCOUNT. As an example of a capitalised verb, Port Said has turned up occasionally in the Times. It's not a reference to the Egyptian city – it indicates a homophone of a port somewhere else in the world. I can’t remember which, though I am pretty sure it wasn’t Dubrovnik or Dnipropetrovsk. 

I hope that I have managed to show clearly why there is a huge difference between omitting capitals and putting extra capitals in. There’s one other factor which mitigates – if mitigation is needed – the use of false capitals, and it arises from the tangential effects of using them. Capital letters stand out – that’s which the whole point of them. A capital letter in the middle of a clue grabs your attention and solvers soon learn that words which look like proper nouns on the surface – especially names – as often as not are to be interpreted with the capital ignored. This means that false capitals can actually make clues easier, and one really would have to be an anal retentive killjoy to complain about that!  

Love Thine Editor 

All the broadsheets, and some other major publications, have a crossword editor. But what does a crossword editor actually do?

“Takes out all my best clues, that’s what,” may be the answer from some disgruntled setter who’s just had a favourite clue disallowed, but that’s hardly fair. A crossword editor has numerous tasks to perform – far more than a literary or features editor, for example – and I’ll start by outlining these.  

First of all, he will correct typos or factual errors, such as a clue that defines Istanbul as a capital city. (I use the masculine pronoun because the great majority of crossword editors are men at the time of writing.) Let’s be honest here – we all goof from time to time, and a second pair of eyes looking at the puzzle afresh can save the setter a fair bit of embarrassment. 

That’s the basis of any editorial work, of course, but the crossword editor’s responsibilities go far beyond that. He has to check for errors in the cryptic part of the clues – for example anagrams that don’t work or stray letters – and not only that, he needs to check that each clue is fair and solvable. Something that’s obvious to the setter may be far too obscure or convoluted for even the best solvers; what’s more, there may be an issue of technique involved, such as a duff container-and-contents indicator or the wrong part of speech. 

Then, of course, the crossword editor has to make decisions on grounds of taste and decency. For example, he may reject a clue like 

The plane crashed – it’s a Jumbo (8) 

if there has been a recent air disaster, and quite understandably so. I avoid clues like this anyway, as it would be just my luck that it would appear in the paper on the day that a 747 went down. 

Another job the crossword editor has to do is schedule each day’s puzzle so that there is an overall balance of easy and hard puzzles, with not too many of one or the other in succession, and to decide which crosswords should be used as prize puzzles. 

I act as crossword editor for this site when I publish guest puzzles, and so I perform all the duties listed above except the last. My job is considerably easier because I only publish puzzles occasionally, whereas the crossword editor of a newspaper has to prepare six a week (Sunday puzzles too, in some cases). That’s why, to misquote Mark Twain, I shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me the crossword editor of a newspaper. Frankly, it sounds too much like hard work! 

Now that we’ve discussed the onerous multitasking a crossword editor has to undertake, let’s return to our disgruntled setter from the start of this section. If I’m honest, I’ve grumbled to myself a few times when I’ve been asked to redo a clue in whole or in part, but that soon passes and far more often than not I realise that the editor is right after all. I have been known to argue when a clue ofmine is queried, but only very seldom, and I am convinced that this is the best way to do things. There’s nothing wrong with defending the occasional clue if you feel really strongly about it, but if you do it too often, relations between you and your editor may break down to the point he regrets having you on his team of setters. By accepting you as a setter for his paper, he has put his faith in your abilities, and it is only courteous to repay the compliment by trusting his decisions in turn. 

A good editor will always consult with the setter before making any changes. The only exception is if he notices an error at the last minute and there isn’t time to discuss corrections with you. Resentment would soon breed if every time you looked at the published version of a puzzle you thought “Hey! I didn’t write that!” – and all the more so if the changes actually weaken the clues. Both the editors I work for, at the FT and Independent, almost always consult with me about any alterations to be made and I respect them for that; and as far as I know this practice is observed by all crossword editors at broadsheet level (and rightly so). 

Contrast that with the agency I used to work for, producing easy tabloid-level puzzles. I did quite enjoy writing these puzzles and I was grateful for the experience, but the editing there was a shambles, with clues (and sometimes answers) being changed for no apparent reason and without any consultation with me. I’ll admit that when I first started with them I did sometimes pretend I was writing for the broadsheets and put in some clues which were probably too advanced, but much of what was substituted was rubbish. Even when I gave them what they wanted – the sort of thing that makes the Sun puzzle look like the Listener – the meddling went on, and one particular howler was a clue for EGOIST. I can’t remember my original clue, but the substitution was 

I am the most important person in his life (6) 

You what? Even then I didn’t bother to argue; I churned out puzzles, took the money, and thanked my lucky stars that the puzzles appeared without identifying the setter. It is well-nigh impossible to have a decent working relationship with a crossword editor in a situation like that, but luckily it is inconceivable that such incompetence would occur in the sort of publications that carry quality crosswords, so I repeat my exhortation to respect your editor’s decisions in good grace and only query them if you really feel you have to. 

One other point, and I know this from my experience of editing puzzles for this site. There is no quicker way to annoy a crossword editor than to send in constant revisions once he’s prepared your puzzles for publication. Obviously it’s OK if you correct an error that neither of you spotted before, but if you send what amounts to a rough draft followed by a series of updates as you think of better clues, his patience will soon run out. 

So, love thine editor. He’s the boss, after all! 

The use of apostrophe-S 

The ambiguity of apostrophe-S is a great gift to setters. Apostrophe-S can mean three things in English:

· The possessive, as in Susie’s house 

· A contraction of “is”, as in Susie’s very pretty 

· A contraction of “has”, as in Susie’s left town 

In a cryptic clue, the apostrophe-S can have different meanings in the surface reading and the cryptic reading, for example: 

Girl’s song (5) 

for CAROL. Here the apostrophe-S reads as a possessive on the surface (a song belonging to a girl), but in the cryptic reading it stands for “is” (a girl’s name is also a word for a song). 

There are all sorts of permutations of these interpretations, but I want to concentrate on apostrophe-S as “has”. This is usually used to link wordplay elements together, for example 

Gangster’s weapon creating panic (5) 

Al Capone is alive and kicking in Crosswordland, and so AL + ARM gives us ALARM. I have deliberately chosen an example which needs a verb as a link word, to illustrate an important point. Undoubtedly 

Gangster’s weapon creates panic (5) 

is a more punchy sentence, but the clue doesn’t work on the cryptic level. On the surface, the apostrophe-S signifies the possessive, and that’s fine, but at the cryptic level there is a clash of verbs. If we expand the apostrophe-S of the cryptic reading, we get 

Gangster has weapon creates panic (5) 

and this clearly doesn’t make logical sense. Indeed, although apostrophe-S, when used in this way, is a convenient way of polishing up the surface reading, it does rather restrict the choice of link words you can use. There are plenty of examples where you don’t need a link word, and so the problem doesn’t arise, such as 

Limit prisoner’s punishment (7) 

which gives CON + FINE. On the other hand, you often do need some sort of link word, and using apostrophe-S as “has” pretty much limits you to the preposition “for” and the present participle (-ing forms) of verbs. If in doubt, it’s best to do what I did above and expand the apostrophe-S in the cryptic reading to “has” and see if it makes logical sense. 

There has been something of a backlash against using apostrophe-S as “has” to link wordplay elements together. I first saw this on a message board, and my reaction was initially one of annoyance. It’s easy for non-setters, or occasional setters, to call for well-established crossword conventions to be removed for reasons of pure pedantry, thus making regular setters’ jobs that much harder. Interestingly, the editor of the Times crossword contributed to the discussion, saying that he had banned this use of apostrophe-S in the Times puzzles. Personally, I would rather he’d banned the use of OR = “men” or “soldiers” which, despite OR (other ranks) being an abbreviation that most people will live their entire lives without seeing in any real life context, seems to appear in the Times puzzle pretty well every other day. Still, the discussion gave me cause to reflect and I have to concede that the objectors have a point. 

There are enough meanings of the verb “to have” to justify the idea that “A has B” means that A and B belong together. For example, “the house has a porch” implies that the porch is joined to the house. But would anyone say “the house’s a porch”? In current English, apostrophe-S to stand for “has” usually appears in verb forms, e.g. “he’s been lucky”. I struggle to think of any case where “has” in the sense of “possesses” is ever contracted to apostrophe-S. Not least because it can lead to misunderstandings; if your neighbour Bob acquires a Tamworth and you go around saying that “Bob’s a pig,” you may well find a very angry Bob on your doorstep! 

No setter should have any qualms about using apostrophe-S to mean the possessive or a contraction of “is”. When it comes to apostrophe-S to mean “has” as a link word, I think it’s a matter of personal preference. These days I try to avoid it, but that doesn’t mean you should unless your editor doesn’t allow it. But if you do use it, beware those dreaded verb clashes! 

Easy or hard? 

Several years ago I cooked Sunday lunch for a friend who had come to stay. I was a little miffed that as soon as I’d placed his plate of roast lamb in front of him, he put his head down and snarfed it up in little more than the time it took me to help myself to mint sauce. It’s not that I expected gushing praise after every mouthful – I’m no Gordon Ramsay after all – but a bit of appreciation for spending a couple of hours in a hot kitchen would have been welcome. 

 I think that setters must feel a bit like that when they learn that the crosswords they spent a long time preparing were similarly gobbled up in no time at all by solvers. It’s to be expected at crossword solving competitions – which are basically the cruciverbal equivalent of a pie eating contest – but it must be pretty disheartening to learn from online discussions about daily crosswords that several solvers polished off your cunningly crafted puzzle off in just a few minutes. 

The blog for the Times puzzle is called Times for the Times – and it lives up to its name in that commenters often give their solving times. The site’s administrators assure us that this is to give an idea of the difficulty of the puzzle rather than to enable solvers to show off, and although I’m sure that’s true I can’t help wondering how novice solvers feel when they come to the site for help. When I first started doing the Times puzzle it would have been more practical to measure my solving time with a calendar than a stopwatch, and if the blog had been around in those days I’m sure I would have been rather depressed to find that a puzzle I’d struggled with for hours took the slowest solver on the blog 21 minutes and 12 seconds! 

No doubt setters are aware that those who contribute to Times for the Times are an elite group of very experienced and able solvers, and at least a record of solving times is non-judgemental. Much worse are statements which airily dismiss the setter’s efforts as “far too easy” – sometimes in rather less polite terms than that. I’m not referring just to Times for the Times here – in fact that blog’s contributors appear to be less inclined to make such statements than those on other blogs and forums. 

I have had personal experience of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, my first FT puzzle received this treatment on the Fifteen Squared blog and yes, it did sting. Other setters have had it far worse – Rufus, who set most of the Monday Guardian puzzles until he retired at the end of 2017, received a constant barrage of sniping from a handful of posters who complained that his puzzles were far too easy for them. This in spite of constant reminders that his brief was to write easy puzzles to provide a gentle start to the week – and ironically those same posters were quick to complain when Rufus threw in a few difficult clues! 

My purpose here is not to suggest that solvers should all slow down and take a five minute break after solving each clue in order to savour it. Nor is it to suggest any sort of censorship on crossword forums beyond the necessary measures to avoid indisputably offensive content, although I do wish that some people would take more care over what they write. In any case I have gone into the issue of comments on blogs in a previous section of this page. No, the message I hope to get across is this:

Easy doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and hard doesn’t necessarily mean good. 

I’d go as far as to say that a bad hard puzzle is actually much worse than a bad easy puzzle. In fact, I’m not sure what would constitute the latter; a puzzle with fifteen hidden word clues and a plethora of anagrams of four- and five-letter words perhaps? Even something like that has something going for it, because the clues are at least solvable – not that I’ve ever seen such a crossword anywhere. On the other hand, I’ve come across a fair number of bad hard puzzles, some of them from respectable sources.

There are plenty of excellent hard puzzles too, of course. Setters like Dean Mayer (Anax, Loroso etc.) and John Henderson (Enigmatist, Nimrod etc.) mine the rich seam of English words with several meanings to great effect to produce clues which are fiendish to crack but absolutely fair and logical. Crosswords like Azed and Mephisto explore the more arcane areas of the English language but again are scrupulous in their fairness. On the other hand, there is no shortage of crosswords which are hard simply because the clues are badly written. 

Of all the crosswords submitted to this site over the years, I have never rejected a single one because it was too easy. I have, however, rejected quite a few because several of the clues in these puzzles contained poor cryptic grammar, inaccurate definitions or redundant words and therefore were, to all intents and purposes, unsolvable. Such mistakes from rookie setters are of course understandable – often curable, as well – and I am not mocking their efforts. After all, my first attempts at writing clues were bloody awful too. But it does prove a couple of vital points: a badly written crossword is far more likely to be too hard than too easy, and it takes far more skill to write an average easy puzzle than an average difficult one. 

There is a parallel here. It’s generally acknowledged that it’s harder to write books for children than for adults. For example, you can’t get away with long waffling explanations of a character’s motivation – you have to show it clearly in a few simple words. Likewise, you can’t get away with convoluted, long-winded clues or obscure abbreviations in an easy puzzle. I found this out for myself when I wrote tabloid-level puzzles for a media agency some years back, and that is why I admire setters like Rufus who, week after week, provided easy puzzles which were always fun, witty and original. 

Well-written hard puzzles are very satisfying to solve, and the Listener crossword is one of the best examples of this. It’s noticeable that even at this level there is quite a variation in difficulty from week to week. In the last couple of years (I’m writing this in June 2018) my solving time has varied from 30 minutes to about 5 hours, with one unfinished (I’m ignoring the numericals, which I don’t bother with). “Unfinished” is perhaps an exaggerated claim for a puzzle (Listener 4505, Wiggles by Sabre) which had such a fiddly and complex method of grid entry that I got nowhere with it and put it in the LIFE’S TOO SHORT file quite early on. An abject surrender after such a long unbroken run was disappointing, but I believe that we all need a reminder from time to time that we’re not as clever as we like to think we are. 

My favourite puzzle in recent years was Listener 4458, Difficulty by Chalicea. If you are interested in looking it up on the Times site and having a go, I warn you that spoilers follow. 

As Listeners go it was quite an easy one and as far as I remember, it took me less than an hour to complete. It was also one of the most breathtaking feats of crossword construction I have ever seen. The puzzle was based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, and the difficulty in question was that the owl and the pussycat wanted to get married but didn’t have a ring. Consequently none of the grid entries contained the letter O. That in itself isn’t particularly remarkable, given that there is grid filling software available, but what is absolutely incredible is that not only the answers, but also the preamble and clues contained no instance of the letter O either! To write fluent, fair and interesting clues, as Chalicea did, without using one of the most common letters in the alphabet is a mind-boggling achievement and must have taken many hours of work as well as great skill. When I wrote a post on the Crossword Centre’s message board to express my appreciation I tried to use the same trick, and although my message was only three sentences long it took me ages to come up with anything that made any sense. 

I mention this particular puzzle because some posters on certain forums dismissed the puzzle as too easy without, it seems, paying any attention to the skill and work that had gone into it. I have no personal quarrel with these individuals and don’t wish to start one, so I won’t name names, but I really would have thought that people who solve Listener puzzles would be a bit smarter than this. One concluded that this was “not a Listener crossword”. Excuse me? This puzzle was approved by the two Listener editors and appeared in the Times in the Listener slot, so it damn well IS a Listener crossword – whatever opinion one may have of it.

The Guidance for Setters document for the Listener crossword states that the essence of a Listener crossword is elegance and subtlety of theme and clueing, not difficulty per se. This puzzle had elegance and subtlety of theme galore, and although my initial reaction was one of fury at such rude comments, I now think it’s just a bit sad that even people with the ability to solve the Listener puzzle can’t see that easy doesn’t necessarily mean bad. 

Mozart’s music is easy to listen to. Does that mean that we should ignore the fact that Mozart wrote arguably the most sublime, perfect music in existence and dismiss it as rubbish because it isn’t as intellectually demanding as late Beethoven? 

Before I leave Chalicea’s excellent puzzle I should mention that it has inspired me to consider writing a puzzle along the same lines. All I have to do is find some piece of literature that justifies omitting the letter Q from the grid, preamble and clues… 

I fear that in general terms the failure of some people to appreciate the difference between easy and bad can have, and possibly has had, a malign influence on some setters. It’s interesting that in August 2016, the Guardian received a number of letters from disgruntled solvers complaining that the daily puzzle had become too difficult. It’s true that back in the 1980s there were several Guardian setters who produced relatively gentle puzzles whereas in 2016 there were only two (Rufus and Chifonie). It’s also true that the “libertarian” style of one or two of the recent recruits to the Guardian stable makes for harder puzzles (though not always for the right reasons). But is it entirely coincidental that pretty much since online crossword discussion began, “easy” setters have often been criticised while “hard” setters have got all the glory? Could that not have been a factor too – encouraging setters to up their game to satisfy a vocal minority? 

The honest answer is that I don’t know – but I hope not. As with any type of creative activity, people who feel pressurised into conforming to popular opinion (or perceived popular opinion, since crossword forums are not representative of solvers as a whole) rarely produce their best work. New setters sometimes try too hard to make their puzzles difficult in an effort to impress, and I was no exception. When I first tried my hand at writing puzzles, I gave them to some of my mates down my local boozer. I remember that one time I boasted that the puzzle I’d brought with me was so hard that none of them would be able to do it – to which one of my mates replied “Well, what’s the freaking point of giving it to us then?” That was me told, and I learned my lesson. (Actually my mate didn’t quite say “freaking” – but you guessed that.) 

My advice to any setter, but especially those just starting out, is that you should aim your puzzles at whatever level you feel most comfortable with. If you’ve got the sort of mind that naturally comes up with devilishly difficult clues, and/or complex multi-layered thematic crosswords, that’s terrific. But it’s equally terrific if you tend more towards relatively simple but elegant and amusing clues and puzzles. It would be a great shame if you were to abandon some well-written and original puzzles, in part or in whole, simply from fear that your solvers will find them too easy. No doubt some will, but you can rest assured that there are many more who will appreciate the battle of wits that your work offers. Try to avoid the temptation to inject a perfectly good clue with steroids until it becomes a monster, in the hope that it will pacify the small band of super-solvers who gather on crossword forums. It may well do so, but at the same time you will almost certainly alienate the majority of your solvers who want a bit of fun rather than the mental equivalent of a session in a boot camp. 

I haven’t always taken my own advice in the past, but after ten years of setting broadsheet puzzles I believe that I do practice what I preach. I don’t set out to write especially hard puzzles – though I like to think I use enough wiles and deceptions in my clues that they’re no pushover either. On the scaleof difficulty, I probably weigh in just on the hard side of medium. I far prefer that solvers will think “gosh, that was a good clue” rather than “crikey, that was tough.” No doubt many of my clues elicit neither response, but one can only try one’s best. 

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering what became of my greedy friend. The next time he came to stay I got a microwave meal out of the freezer.