Constructing a Cryptic #3: Grid filling

This is part 3 in my series crystallizing my thoughts on cryptic construction so that new constructors can learn from it. You’ll notice I’m putting this info up here on Tough as Nails, not anywhere affiliated with AVCX: That’s because these are my personal thoughts, not to be taken as editorial standards, and not everything I do will apply to every constructor. YMMV.

If you’re just coming in, check out my earlier posts on making and seeding a cryptic grid.

Once you have your seeds in place, it’s time to fill the rest of the grid. When I do this, I evaluate my options for cluing potential as I fill:

  • Does a word jump out at me as breaking up nicely into two or more words for charades, or one word inside another for container/contents?
  • I’ll run options through the Internet Anagram Server to see whether any interesting anagrams emerge.
  • I avoid compound words, unless I can immediately see a Spoonerism or a way to break up the word in a way other than the break between the two words that form the compound. Otherwise I find that compound words are often a pain in the ass to clue.
  • Words and phrases with lots of common letters and/or a fairly high vowel-to-consonant ratio have more anagram potential than, say, something like BACK SQUAT, as much as I love back squats.

But the major point here is that I’m thinking about clue potential, not the inherent interestingness of the entry itself, with every single slot as I am filling it, well before I have actually started writing the clues. It is quite a bit easier to tear out and redo a corner with a cryptic grid than with a vanilla grid, but it’s quite painful to do so after you’ve come up with good clues for answers that cross a word you decide you need to get rid of.

Nate Cardin put it this way: vanilla crossword constructors always get asked the question, “What comes first, the grid or the clues?” In that context, the question generates an eye roll because anyone who’s tried making a vanilla crossword knows the grid is first. But in a cryptic, the clues, at least a few of them, are the starting point. And they’re something you focus on throughout the development of the puzzle, not just after the grid is done, because they’re the heart of the solver’s experience.

I also work my way from the longest entries to the shortest ones when filling the grid, since long entries tend to be harder to clue than shorter ones. It’s more important that I have several options to choose from in the slots of 8+ letters in length than in the 4s, 5s, and 6s.

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