Soup (Editor of 1 Across) writes…
Compiling crossword puzzles is an art and, like most things, one gets better with practice. I remember very well completing my first puzzle, and being unbelievably chuffed with myself that I’d filled a grid without using any obscure African tribes, Australian fish or grasses found on the steppes, and that I’d got a set of clues which (so I thought) were brilliant. Then I showed it to a compiler friend, who gently pointed out that I had 12 three-letter words, some terrible definitions and lots of superfluous words (plus one or two good clues) and that I should have another go. I was so deflated – it was, after all, the best puzzle I’d ever compiled, by definition – but I got out the pencil and plodded on. The second puzzle was awful. The third was a little better. By the time I got to the fiftieth, I was beginning to get somewhere. It is highly unlikely that we’ll publish the first puzzle you’ve written; almost all of our compilers (even the new ones!) have had puzzles on several other outlets first, where they can interact with solvers and find out what distinguishes a perfectly decent clue from a really good one. In terms of submission to us, keep your powder dry and wait till you’ve got a themed puzzle where you’re really very happy with every single clue, not just most of them.
When you’re sending a puzzle out to the world, you need to be really happy with it. If there’s anything in it which you’re not sure would pass muster, don’t publish it; have a re-think and fix any problems first. The solver will spot things that you’re not happy with, and be dissatisfied!
Over my time here as editor, and having looked at other people’s puzzles a lot, there are some guidelines which are becoming clearer. In this page I’ll try to elaborate on them.
Different publications have different ‘house styles’ for what is allowed and what’s verboten. The Times, for example, only allows names of people who are dead; most newspapers have sets of specific grids which must be used, and so on. Different publications have differing views on what is ‘fair’ in a clue – some will allow ‘redhead’ as a clue for ‘r’ while some are strict that it should be “red’s head” for the cryptic grammar to work properly. Sometimes, different setters within the same paper have different rules – for example, a couple of setters whose clues are known to be on the looser end of the Libertarian-Ximenean spectrum might be allowed ‘winter’ in a clue to mean ‘w in ter’ (ie ‘twer’), but most wouldn’t use that.
The 1 Across house style is pretty much ‘anything goes’, but that should be tempered with a cautious ‘within reason’. If, when setting, you find yourself thinking ‘I wonder if people will like [x] or hate it?’ it’s probably best to seriously consider replacing it with something else; if you decide not to, then don’t go too overboard on oddities in the rest of the puzzle.
There are a few things which I do get quite strict about, though. It all really boils down to having good cryptic grammar. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is a tendency to get initialisms wrong. This is where people use eg ‘leading politician’ to refer to the letter P (ie the lead in the word ‘politician’). But that’s not what ‘leading politician’ means – you’d need to have ‘politician in the lead’, ‘politician’s head’, ‘top of politics’ etc. It’s the same with clues where you’re taking alternate letters: ‘odd fellow’ doesn’t mean ‘FLO’, whereas ‘fellow, oddly’ does.
Now to the clues themselves. I really don’t like clues with too many extraneous words in them. Occasionally a ‘for’, ‘makes’, ‘becomes’ etc. is necessary for the surface of a clue to make sense, but eliminating as many of those as possible makes for tighter clues. By way of example, a recent clue ‘A question one had about water’ (being AQUA) was changed during editing to ‘A question on a liquid’. In the first version of the clue, ‘had about’ was superfluous – the ‘had’ looks like it could be an inclusion indicator, and the ‘about’ looks like it could be part of the definition (making the definition ‘about water’, perhaps), both of which muddy the understanding of the clue. In the edited version, there are no unnecessary words. Also, try to avoid old chestnuts: girl’s and boy’s names are often overused (poor old Ed, Sue, Sian etc. need a break); compass points likewise, and so on.
One thing to note on themes where ‘x answers are of a kind’ is that it makes for a much more satisfying solve where, when the solver has worked out the theme, you have to work to get the rest of the answers, rather than just write them in. (By way of example, in the early days of setting, I wrote a puzzle whose answers included MONTY, PYTHON, FLYING, CIRCUS, and the names of the six actors within it; because of how they were referenced in the puzzle, once you’d got any of the words, it was easy to see what the theme was, and you could pretty much write in all the other nine answers, so the joy of the theme was lost.)
Lots has been written on these rules (see, amongst others, Alberich, who’s a Ximenean, and a lot from Big Dave including a very helpful PDF); this is just a short starter guide. You’ll find your own style, but it’s important to know what different people consider the rules to be, so that if you break them, it’s with malice aforethought rather than by accident.