Constructing a Cryptic #4: Clue Writing

This is part 4 in a 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.

In a way, getting good at clue writing comes before any of the steps I’ve mentioned previously, although I have posted about them in the order that I have since that is the order in which I tackle things when actually making a puzzle. But of course you can always practice writing cryptic clues well before you make your first puzzle — in fact, that’s why #crypticclueaday exists. (I started it as a challenge to myself to write a cryptic clue every day for the month of August 2019, and I found that I didn’t want to stop!)

Here’s how I think about clue writing when I’m making a whole puzzle, as against my daily clues:

I generally do not clue a whole puzzle in one sitting. Cryptic clue inspiration on command is not something I have (which is why I’m glad I run #crypticcluecontest instead of participating in it!). Instead, I’ll typically have three to four puzzles in various stages of completion in the hopper at any given time, and I might do a cluing session in which I write five or six clues each for two or three different puzzles at once. My subconscious often works on the more intractable clues between sessions and sometimes I’ll be able to come up with something right away on a second sitting that was eluding me the first time.

Mistakes I have made and learned from:

  • Using a clue in which any part of the wordplay has the same etymology as the definition. This is varying levels of no-no: Some editors won’t let you do it at all, and some will allow it if there’s been a great deal of drift in meaning between two words even though their root is the same. I now use pretty extensively for checks – it has a lot more information on word origins than, my definition resource of choice.
    • IMPORTANT! “Same etymology” is not the same as “same meaning”! For example, let’s say you wanted to clue CONTRACT as a combination of CON in its “scam” sense and TRACT in its “parcel of land” sense. If you look at the etymologies, the CON in both CONTRACT and CON(fidence, since CON ARTIST is short for CONFIDENCE ARTIST) comes from the same Latin root of com (“with”), and TRACT as a standalone word comes from the same Latin root of trahere as the -TRACT in CONTRACT. You might not guess that just from looking at the word CONTRACT.
    • A rule of thumb of mine: Always do an etymology search if you are breaking up a word into components that match up to individual syllables. But even if you’re breaking up on other lines, it never hurts to check.
  • Not being careful enough about extraneous words. “It makes the surface sense more natural” is not sufficient justification to add a connector word. The cryptic reading of the wordplay must literally produce the answer word. 
    • Some extraneous words, such as “with” or “and” in the context of a charades clue, are okay because they don’t change the cryptic reading of the clue in any way. But if the added word would have to be ignored to produce a correct answer, it shouldn’t be there. (I will get to a post with examples of good and bad ways to do this eventually.)
    • Some connector words work in only one direction, such as “of” and “from.” You get [defined word] from [wordplay fodder], not the other way around, so your clue should not be of the pattern [wordplay fodder] from [defined word], as an example.
  • Trying to talk myself into the naturalness of a surface sense. If even as I’m writing the clue, I think, “this is kinda clunky,” time to start over. From Nate Cardin: “The best advice you gave me when I was starting up was to step away from clues for multiple days and then come back to see if the surface sense still made sense to me. If it doesn’t, edit or change the clue.” Yup, I still do this – see above re: not cluing a whole puzzle in one sitting.

Next time: Some excellent cluing advice from Nate himself!

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