Who do you listen to?   5 comments

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?


Posted November 11, 2013 by Anax in Newsification

5 responses to “Who do you listen to?

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  1. Interesting discussion, but I don’t think your analogy holds. If you’re buying a mobile phone there’s a lot of technical stuff which will in the long run be important and which you can expect the staff in the shop to be more informed than the average punter, so their opinion matters more. You might actually end up getting a phone you don’t particularly “like” (in some aesthetic sense) because there are offsetting long-term benefits. In the case of the crossword, there’s no long term. The solver (ie the customer) either likes it or they don’t; and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how many solvers tell you the clue is beautiful, it hasn’t in this instance done its job.

  2. I think that the real issue is that there are a relatively small number of setters in the UK compared to the larger number of solvers. Both solvers and setters have increasing access to dialogue through the ‘net/blogs etal but the Troll element gets ramped up at the same time.
    I think Keith makes a reasonable point regarding liking it or not – I’ll try any crossword once or even few times. However if, as a solverer, I consistently don’t enjoy a particular setter’s puzzles then I will stop seeking them out.
    What I certainly will not do is drop in unsubstantiated comments like ‘Awful’.
    I personally believe that we should actively exclude people who refuse to back up their opinions on crossword or any other type of forum.
    Good solvers should appreciate (or not) a clue regardless of their enjoyment of it. The VALIDITY of a clue, however, has been checked by the professional setter and a crossword editor prior to publication and as such carries a deal of weight. In general that combination gets it right.

  3. Dean,
    Speaking as the setter you so flatteringly refer to above 🙂
    I think the ‘awful’ prospect this discussion touches on is the fact that quality cluemanship (which I defy anyone to tell me was not present in the puzzle you are referring to) and enjoyment, do not necessarily coincide.
    Having said that it does dismay me when I see unsubstantiated comments such as “awful” from people who are presumably pretty competent and experienced setters. I don’t think it’s on to exclude such views, but unless they can be substantiated they are not particularly helpful.

    I think the obvious lesson must be: if they can’t back it up, don’t listen to them.And that might apply to the compliments as well. Just occasionally I think I am going to go into “blogging purdah” but of course I never do and probably never will 🙂


  4. Is the crossword technically sound?
    Is it entertaining?

    For the first question (and the scientific aspects of setting), I would listen to an expert.

    For the second question (and the creative aspects of setting), I would pay attention to consistent feedback from a large section of my intended audience. There is more subjectivity and ambiguity with this one, and it is far harder to resolve. What is ‘entertaining’ anyway? If a couple of solvers say they found no pleasure at all in the crossword, for all we know they were having a bad day and the problem wasn’t even with the crossword. But if the responses are mostly negative, then as a setter, I wouldn’t dismiss that feedback outright even if unsubstantiated. Reasons for a negative response might be hard to articulate, especially for a non-expert, but the response can still be authentic.

    How much should setters let feedback on the creative aspects influence them? Not everyone finds enjoyment the same things. If an expert dislikes cryptic definitions or ‘very easy’ puzzles, and so does not find a Rufus crossword entertaining, should Rufus try to change his style? For many other solvers, that would be awful.

    [Replace crossword setters with film makers or novelists and we get dilemmas that every artist must grapple with. Fascinating questions, no easy answers.]

  5. Just to say, Dean that your Christmas crossword in the Sunday Times Dec 13 was very enjoyable and more doable than your usual Sunday Times crossword.

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