For some reason several questions about grid balance have cropped up in the past month, and the best one to answer is the simple “What is it?”
Solvers very rarely mention the subject, but new setters have asked if good balance simply means a good mix of clue types. Mixing up clue types is good, of course, but what you’re achieving there is variety and, to an extent, style. It doesn’t necessarily create balance in the grid. So what is grid balance?
When setters use the term, what we’re talking about is the way in which a solver should be able to work through a puzzle steadily, without – hopefully – reaching an impasse where a region or corner of the grid remains blank. Novice setters especially can make the mistake of thinking hard=good and harder=better. That’s how I started and I got punished for it. The important thing to remember is that a brilliantly inventive clue is rubbish if no-one can solve it. In fact the ideal brilliantly inventive clue is the one everybody can solve although it is, admittedly, a rather rare beast. However, as a setter you can help. It doesn’t involve scrapping the clue and going for something less imaginative or challenging. Instead, it means doing whatever you can to ensure the solver is given as many checking letters as possible. Let’s say your bonzer clue has 7 letters and four cross-checking answers; my tip would be to make three of those clues easy and the fourth moderate. Even if the solver can’t work out the clue ‘cold’ it should be possible to pick one of very few answers that will fit and then work back through the clue to see how it’s constructed. A solver will usually forgive you if they get the right answer but don’t understand the clue; they’ll be less forgiving if the light remains as sequence of blank cells in an otherwise completed grid.
It’s also important to consider what letters will be available if the checking answers are filled in. Setters sometimes refer to the ‘SENORITA’ letters – by that they mean the most commonly used letters in English. For short answers especially, SENORITA letters can be less than helpful. If your clue masterpiece is to be solved for the pattern -A-E the solver is faced with a huge number of possibilities and you should save it for another time, but if the placement in the grid means you’ll offer F-K- then go for it; just remember to write easy clues for the answers containing F and K.
Grid balance is one of the hardest disciplines – it’s not hard to understand and implement, but it can be very hard to always keep it in mind. It’s a great skill and there are few setters who have it as a natural part of their armoury. To appreciate how effective and enjoyable it can be, I’d suggest solving puzzles by Don Manley (Quixote, Bradman, Giovanni) as it’s a discipline he has mastered perhaps better than anyone else. You’ll get stuck from time to time, but Don has perfected the art of gradually guiding you through the puzzle to completion.