And we start 2013 with a little grumble. Setters don’t expect to log on to forums and see their work greeted with universal plaudits, and we’re always happy to have our (hopefully minor) failings pointed out, but there is one comment that makes me grit my teeth.
It is along the lines of “This setter is trying to be clever for the sake of it”.
Such a comment makes a whole swathe of rash assumptions about what we do, how we go about it and why we do it; the worst part is that final assumption about what motivates us.
But let’s start by examining ‘clever for the sake of it’ in terms of the mechanics of clue-writing. The simple truth is that ‘clever for the sake of it’ is not a luxury we have. Every clue starts in the same way – an answer to be defined and broken down into wordplay components, these components also to be defined. We’ll jot down ideas, make lists of usable definitions, and eventually pick those which can somehow be strung together coherently and according to clue-writing rules. Clever doesn’t come into it. We’re not inventing new stuff – we’re just assembling components. Sometimes we get lucky and find a novel way of presenting an overall definition, but that’s not a case of inventing new words. It typically involves rummaging through the dictionary or thesaurus and finding something we either didn’t expect or simply hadn’t previously considered.
The accusation of ‘clever for the sake of it’ often comes as a result of craftily worked indicators which, if presented smoothly enough, can make a clue tough to break down. But the setter will have started with a (possibly very long) list of potential indicators for containers, anagrams, letter deletions etc etc, and the majority of them just won’t hang together with the coherence we seek. What we then do is narrow these lists down to ‘possibles’ and try to find those which best suit whatever image the developing clue has started to present. The important thing to remember, though, is that this ‘toolbox’ of devices and definitions is finite; by picking the right components we are not being ‘clever’ – we’re just being persistent enough to rummage through everything until we find the right bits.
As for motivation, ‘clever for the sake of it’ is just plain wrong and, frankly, a bit insulting. Successful setters are those who have taken the time to understand what works and what doesn’t, and our motivation is to write clues according to the rules – and nothing else. Crosswords don’t pay well, and the last thing a setter wants is for the editor to come back with a big list of problem clues to be re-written because they’re too ‘clever’. Put bluntly, we can’t afford it.
For all that, however, there is one area in which a setter really can display cleverness. The ideal cryptic crossword is one in which the answers gradually reveal themselves in different parts of the grid, so the solver never feels as if there is one sector which simply cannot be cracked. The ‘clever’ setter will latch on to areas which may be a little cut off from the rest, with perhaps only one answer forming a link to other areas, so will write a gentler clue for this single answer. Cleverness comes in writing a gettable clue for an answer where, with all checking letters in place, there would still be a large number of words that would fit. But for ‘clever’ we should read ‘conscientious’ because, ultimately, the clever setter is the one who takes a conscientious approach to filling and clueing the grid.