Like solvers, crossword setters are always learning. Even if we have a thorough knowledge of the technical rules, sticking to them is no guarantee that our work will entertain, or even meet overall satisfaction.
That’s where the blogs and message boards come in; the internet is awash with feedback on puzzles, which is a marked difference to only 7 or 8 years ago when there was pretty much nothing at all. In terms of solving pleasure, we can – almost instantly – find out what is or isn’t working. That doesn’t always mean we’ll change what we do, but it does mean we have the opportunity to do so.
Ah, but if only it was that simple. All of this feedback is great, but it’s often confusing too, because what is immediately apparent is that views on puzzles/clues are hugely diverse. I won’t give details as it’s a live puzzle as I write this, but a very recent clue was one I’d worked out in my scribble pad – that is, outside the confines of a working grid. I was very happy with it. It had a nice ‘lift and separate’ element (an apparently stock phrase which many solvers would not suspect had to be split up), a cutely skewed def and a short, very natural reading which could have been lifted from a story or newspaper headline.
‘Awful’ was how one commenter described it. On the puzzle as a whole there were comments like ‘no pleasure at all’, ‘I am no fan’, ‘not one ounce of enjoyment’. In fairness there were compliments as well, and this is the point… well, part of it; not the main one.
To use the ancient terminology, good and bad comments go with the territory. As setters we expect it, and in some ways it’s the best sort of result. 100% dissatisfaction and we’d know we’d got something seriously wrong. 100% approval and we’d be in ‘pleasing everybody’ country; although that sounds great, in reality it would pigeonhole the puzzle as bland. So a mix of responses is generally best. But let’s say you have a puzzle where the responses from solvers are mostly negative.
A highly respected setting colleague posted a hugely complimentary message about this particular puzzle on Facebook, and here’s where it gets interesting. At least, it puts a devil on the shoulder.
So there I am, reading this comment, thinking to myself “Well, whatever the solvers are saying on the message board, here’s a setter who knows the ins and outs of top quality clue-writing. He’s an expert, so he should know”. That devil on my shoulder goes along with this. “Listen to someone who really knows”, he says.
But should I? Yes, in this instance setter has become solver, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a setter. He is viewing the puzzle with an expert’s eye. Ah, but 99.99% of solvers are not setters, and my job is to entertain them. If, for whatever reason, one of my puzzles fails to do that, whose opinion matters most?
As it happens, it’s quite rare for another setter (especially one on the same team, although that wasn’t the case here) to publicly comment on colleagues’ puzzles so, almost without exception, it’s solver feedback we read. By sheer weight of numbers that makes it the most revealing. Yet setters know far more about the long process of puzzle creation; using the right grid, getting the right balance of clue types, spreading the difficulty levels across the puzzle so that areas are gradually opened up, watching those checking letters to see where we should ease up or go tough. And, dammit, knowing what makes a good clue. These are the technicians. So does that make their opinions more important?
Put it this way. If I had my eye on a new smartphone I wouldn’t scour the internet looking for opinions of others who had bought the same model; I’d go to a phone shop and seek the advice of staff who deal with phones every working day.
I’m not saying crosswords work in the same way, but it does lead to the same question.
Who do you listen to?