Constructing a Cryptic #5: Thoughts from Nate the Great

This is the last (for now) in my series of posts 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.

Well, except that this post isn’t about what I think, it’s my paraphrasing what the wonderful Nate Cardin, cryptic constructor and now editor, thinks.

I showed my initial thoughts on cryptic puzzlemaking — the material from which the previous posts in this series was built — to Nate. Nate is one of the reasons I’m so glad to evangelize for cryptics; I had a smidge more experience than he did when he got started, and I was able to give him a bit of guidance which he has taken and run with and then some. (If you don’t already have a subscription to The Browser, where he and I are both regulars, what are you waiting for?)

Anyway, I’m paraphrasing some of the responses he had and I want to specifically credit them to him because hell, I want to try some of these techniques now!

Nate’s clue-writing tips:

  • When writing a clue, figure out the definition half first, then build surface sense and clue around that with the wordplay. (Stella note: Interesting! I do not always start with the definition half when clue writing, but I can see how that would be easier much of the time. I’m going to try this!)
  • Make the straight (definition) end of clue fair to the solver, even if it is a bit cheeky or tricky. You can use a larger group to define an example in cryptics in a way that you can’t in vanilla crosswords, but don’t be so vague that the solver can’t feel sure when they have the right answer.
  • Vary wordplay in your clues, but limit how many hidden words, double definitions, and homophones you use (1-2 each max per puzzle). (Stella note: These clue types tend to be noticed by solvers when they’re used in excess, and although I’ve seen some exceptions, this is a good rule of thumb for how much you can get away with with most editors.)
  • Anagramming long entries is tricky. If you anagram an entire entry of 10 or more letters, it’s likely to produce a less-than-natural surface. So, if you have a puzzle with multiple long entries, don’t fully anagram all of them even though that can seem at first like the easiest way to handle them. Can you anagram part of the entry and use a different wordplay technique with the other part(s)?
  • Strive for an average clue length of 6 words, which is what the greats Cox and Rathvon do. Very long clues can be a slog for solvers to figure out. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be variety in clue length (note from Stella: in fact, an editor once told me to “let my clues breathe,” that they on average were too SHORT! so…YMMV), just that you shouldn’t be writing a novel every time.

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