Never knowingly undersolved.

Cryptic crosswords article

Posted by neildubya on December 17th, 2007


There’s an article on cryptic crosswords and the competition they face from <affects disdainful look> Sudoku in the Independent today:

It’s a bit depressing really.

18 Responses to “Cryptic crosswords article”

  1. Jon says:

    Depressing, but perhaps not surprising. Sudoku are certainly a lot more accessible, if not particularly satisfying. Once I’d realised I knew how to solve a Sudoku in the Independent, I lost interest. On the other hand, the fact that I couldn’t solve a single clue in the Cryptic intrigued me. That’s also the weakness of the Cryptic Crossword – it can sometimes seem too hard, impossible to penetrate for the beginner. Even people I know who have a passing interest in crosswords will not try the Cryptic, because “I can’t do those”. Perhaps there’s some merit in grading the crossword in the same way that the Sudoku is – Easy, Medium, Hard. After all, the would-be solver, taking his first glance at a Cryptic, has no way of knowing that he’d be better off starting with Dac or Virgilius (who is the only Independent setter I manage to consistently do well with) rather than Scorpion or Nimrod. Or do you just advise them to start with the Telegraph instead, and not bother buying The Independent until they’ve got a bit more practice in?


  2. Chris says:

    I think that’s a good idea actually, with the caveat that what is one person’s tricky crossword can be another’s easy one and vice versa – although in general, it’s certainly possible to grade them in that way.

    Despite really enjoying the likes of Cyclops and Everyman, I avoided the Guardian crosswords for a long time after I got into cryptics because I’d glanced at them a few times and found them impossible. It was only when I stumbled upon (I think) a very solvable Bunthorne one day that I realised that not all of them were equally difficult, and I started looking at them more regularly and getting to know the solvers and the like (which obviously is very important – Cyclops isn’t an easy solve but once you know a setter’s language, it becomes much easier).

    If I’d known from the start that I could see an easy crossword on some days and a more difficult one on others, I’d have found it much less daunting. In addition, perhaps having a very brief guide to some of the standard cryptic crossword conventions beside each crossword ranked “easy” would also help blood some novices who might otherwise not even try solving one.

  3. nmsindy says:

    From my own experience, I would not recommend grading crosswords. My experience was that there is quite a long learning curve before a puzzle is fully solved and understood for the first time. But, once that stage is reached, solving gets easier.

    For those starting, I’d recommend going for easier puzzles at first (Daily Telegraph, Everyman in Observer, Quixote in IoS) and buying one of the how-to-solve-crosswords books eg Don Manley’s, Derrick Knight’s etc.

  4. Mitch says:

    Cryptic crosswords are not dying out. But it doesn’t help when crossword editors don’t even bother to reply to new submissions. I am constantly trying to break into this elite little band of compilers, and have submitted two different ones to the Indy and Guardian, with repeated reminders to the editors. But if they choose to ignore new compilers (I’m not new, just returning to the scene after a 15 year hiatus) then is it any wonder we lose interest?

  5. Quixote says:

    Contrary to what you might think there has always been a steady stream (albeit a trickle) of new setters. The trouble is that the numbers applying hugely exceed the vacancies. But I don’t think the high number of frustrated would-be setters is a problem in the overall picture of what the journalist was writing about. That said, keep trying!

  6. nmsindy says:

    If memory serves, Hugh Stephenson, Guardian Crossword editor before Sandy Balfour addressed this issue in a note to website subscribers. I think he said puzzles arrive on his desk every day and that most of these are publishable. He then went on to say, if I recall, if you think you can set, send in six puzzles. This would suggest the door is (slightly) ajar.

    I think it’s supply and demand – only so many puzzles can appear and if more are available than that it’s pick and choose. And, to make life easier for an editor, it’s better that there are regular setters. Solvers can get to like them too and not wish to see them disappear.

    Just like for everyone else, there are only 24 hours in an editor’s day.

    I think I recall a Times Crossword editor saying it’s easier to win the National Lottery than to become a Times cryptic setter.

  7. Colin Blackburn says:

    On the tack of introducing new people to crosswords it’d be nice to see one of the papers have an introductory series. Relatively easy puzzles introducing new clue types day-by-day separate from the main puzzle. Would any of them be prepared to spare the half a page needed and commission someone like Don to write the series?

  8. Michod says:

    I can’t help feeling that the runaway success of sudoku should be an opportunity, rather than a threat. Once people get the puzzle habit, surely some of them must tire of the predictability of sudoku and be tempted to sample something a bit more challenging. Sadly, there’s no evidence that’s happening, but is there a way we could encourage it? Like offering old crosswords to sudoku magazines to put in as free tasters? (Sorry if I sound like a drug dealer trying to tempt the kids to move on to harder stuff!)

  9. petebiddlecombe says:

    I’m not as pessimistic as Manu Joseph about the future of cryptics. It’s not too hard for new solvers today to discover some of the places on the internet where you can get help. When I started, I came close to giving up on cryptics a few times for lack of a source of good advice – ironically, reading those notes in the Times about 46% of competitors solving championship puzzles inside half an hour did nothing for my confidence.

    I guess we have to convince potential solvers that cryptics are worth trying, and that regular attempts to solve will get you there in the end, though it may take months or years to finish the Times/Guardian/Indie regularly. I think the biggest barrier is new solvers not understanding the solution the next day, so I’d replace the “scribble pad” space with a brief explanation for just a few well-chosen answers in the previous day’s puzzle (or a note about the theme). That’s probably more achievable than a ‘cryptics for beginners’ series, good though that would be.

  10. Douglas says:

    Speaking of cryptics, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon have set a cryptic in the Sunday, December 16 issue of the New York Times. I made an unsuccessful attempt here. If you visit, you have to promise not to laugh at my patheticness (is that a word?)

  11. Testy says:

    The threat of Sudoku does worry me and I think the crossword community (and I guess this largely means the editors and setters) need to try to come up with ways of bringing in a new generation of solvers.

    Perhaps the newspapers ought to try out some new ideas:

    1. I’m all for the idea of grading the crosswords to let beginners know the best place to start. OK it might be a fairly subjective rating but I’ve heard many people say that they struggle with supposedly easy Sudoku and whiz through the hard ones. Why not just give it a try for a couple of months and take it from there? (It’s funny that Nmsindy is not in favour of grading them but still suggests starting with easier ones)

    2. How about publishing the answers in the same edition of the paper (although on a different page) rather than the next day so that a beginner can do a bit of cheating or try to work out why the clue gives that particular answer. OK this would put paid to the premium phone line but you could just do it, say, once a week on the “Easy” day to give the beginners some help.

    3. Regarding Sudoku’s ability to attract sponsors, how about offering to have crosswords sponsored by a company where the crossword is themed around the sponsor or gets a mention in the clues/lights somehow? I seem to recall one by Eimi in the Indy a while back.

    4. Have more competition crosswords with decent prizes to attract people. In order for this to be financially attractive to the papers this could be in the form of a premium rate number to call (e.g. with a word made up from shaded cells in the completed grid).

    5. In the past people have commented on pop culture references in crosswords (both for and against) but I think that it is crucial that crosswords reflect the current times. Most people think that that they don’t stand a chance unless they know everything about Greek mythology, Shakespeare, 19th century poetry etc. I don’t think that means the crosswords need to be dumbed down, just a change in emphasis on the assumed fields of knowledge. However, this may be more of a problem in perception rather than reality.

    6. I like the idea of publishing a guide to crosswords. The weekend Indy has done similar things in the past (haven’t they done musical instruments, chess and languages) so how about a brief crossword manual, e.g. an abridged version of Don’s book.

    7. Make the crosswords available on-line….that includes you Indy (and FT, you needn’t look so smug, yours just looks like you’ve selotaped a bad photocopy to the screen…are you familiar with the word “interactive”?)

    8. Best of all, why not publish the web addresses for helpful websites (such as Fifteensquared) that solvers can go to for further clarification? Since these are non-profit blogs surely there should be no problem in advertising them and it can only help generate interest in crosswords.

    Given that the way crosswords are published hasn’t changed in decades these suggestions may seem drastic but some of them are really pretty minor and simple to implement.

    C’mon! The world of crosswords could do with a bit of a shake-up.

  12. Mitch says:

    Thanks to Quixote and Nmsindy for the kind words and vote of confidence. I will keep persevering, but it seems a lot more difficult to get accepted now than it was 15 years ago, when I was a regular compiler for two national papers.

    On the subject of the article, I would say that the publications have got it about right. I obtain a number of different types of publication just to compare the standard of crossword, and I think, overall, the paper sets the standard according to the reader. When I set the News of the World crossword many years ago, the then crossword editor told me I had to make the clues easier, and put “anag”after an anagram. I don’t think the Guardian or Indy would have to stoop to those measures! Having said that, I agree with previous comments regarding some sort of help in knowing what to look for in solving a cryptic, such as how to spot an anag indicator etc.

  13. nmsindy says:

    Some very interesting points in Testy’s post. I fear tho a lot of them will come up against the problem – there’s no space in the paper. Re printing today’s answers on another page, don’t forget they’re already available on a premium rate line!

    Re Greek mythology, Shakespeare etc, that was true once (esp for the Times) but I think not in more recent years.

    Maybe we’re in the age of instant gratification so something you sit down to and spend a lot of time at before ever getting to solving a full puzzle correctly will lack appeal.

    However, I do not think Times and Guardian would be running their crossword sites if they were not earners and I’m not as pessimistic as some here. I think it’s an age thing to a certain extent (as essentially a sedentary activity).

  14. petebiddlecombe says:

    Douglas: see comments added to your blog posting.

  15. eimi says:

    Like Pete, I’m not overly pessimistic about the future of crosswords. I spoke to Manu Joseph for nearly an hour and covered a number of areas, but his piece concentrated on the narrow crosswords v sudoku conflict, which exists only in a few areas. I regret that crossword books are getting less shelf space in bookshops these days, but there are still a number of crossword publications available from online stores.

    Testy makes some good points. I’ve made it clear to Indy compilers that I welcome references to popular culture as they are more relevant to much of the Indy’s readership than classical mythology or the Bible. We don’t need to dumb down, as he says, but we need to be more relevant.

    There are developments in certain areas he mentions, but I can’t mention them here yet.

    Testy is also right about the sponsored crossword, but that was a bonus – an additional crossword alongside the normal one. I’m not sure I’d be happy about having the daily cryptic including a word from our sponsor.

    I believe that the standard of crosswords in the “quality” papers has never been higher. This should be cause for a little optimism. We just need to help people find out, and this site has a part to play in that.

  16. NealH says:

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of the easier crosswords that were printed in free publications and the like are disappearing. For example, there used to be an easy cryptic crossword in the Metro free paper, but it disappered to make way for Suduko. I’m sure this trend is in no way related to the fact that a Sudoku can be generated by a computer program, whereas even an easy cryptic requires someone to write it.

    Easy crosswords like that might have given people a taste for them and encouraged them to move up to more difficult stuff, but now the only cryptics they’re likely to see are those in broadsheets, which are too advanced for most beginners. It’s a bit like having a ladder with lots of rungs that people can climb up and then replacing it with one whose first rung is twenty feet off the ground.

    I would personally like to see more hybrid crosswords i.e. mixtures of simple definitional and cryptic clues. Definitional crosswords still seem to be very popular, but most people who do them would never even attempt the cryptic crossword because they just think it’s beyond them. A grid which has mostly definitional clues but with a few cryptic clues that can be solved fairly easily once the other answers have been completed might pique some interest in cryptics and give people the confidence to try them out.

  17. Cruciverbophile says:

    I’ve only just found this excellent site so first of all, thanks to all involved in running it. I’d like to respond to Mitch (post no 4) and say that he is not alone in experiencing problems getting any sort of feedback from the crossword editors of the papers he mentions. I accept that unsolicited puzzles sent to these papers can technically be called junk mail but on the other hand it is hard to believe that masses of letters from wannabe compilers arrive every day. Even a standard rejection slip would be adequate as a matter of courtesy if the sender includes a prepaid envelope.

    More on topic, I am not too worried about the fate of cryptic puzzles. They have always been and probably always will be a minority interest and I suspect that most of the people who rush out to buy books of sudoku puzzles would not necessarily have shown an interest in cryptic puzzles if Sudoku did not exist. It is heartening to see sites like this one (also Crossword Club and the Guardian crossword message board) which prove that there are some very keen enthusiasts out there. One only has to look at the huge number of complaints made to the Times when their software was playing up to see that the days of the cryptic puzzle are far from over.

  18. BrianR says:

    If I’ve posted this in the wrong site then please forgive me.

    Looking for a “Log-on” button on
    Cannot find it.

    Please pass this on to the webmaster.
    (A puzzler never gives up.)

    Regards, BrianR

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