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The Isolated Word – a setter’s blog

Posted by tenfour2 on 3 March 2010

The Isolated Word is the third puzzle I’ve had published in the Listener. I’ve had about half a dozen published in the Magpie as well. For each of those puzzles I’ve started setting about ten others (often abandoned at a very early stage when my incredibly brilliant idea just wouldn’t work because there simply aren’t enough 7 letter words ending VZJ) . And for each puzzle I’ve ever started there have been at least ten ideas that have occurred to me for a crossword, some good, some incredibly bad. So it’s true to say that I’ve had a lot of ideas for crosswords in my time, which is my excuse (pathetic as it is) for not being able to remember precisely how it was I got the idea for this one.

I’ve always had a soft spot for acrostics ever since I read Contracrostipunctus in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach as a teenager. I think the idea of having an acrostic in the clues convey some information necessary to finish off the puzzle was the starting point, but I knew that there would have to be some way of indicating that an acrostic was key to solving the puzzle – the guidelines for setters specifically state “Puzzles should not rely upon solvers making unsignalled observations such as noting informative acrostics in clues.” I think (but it’s little more than an educated guess) that from there I had the idea of using 8 clues to indicate one of the letters of ACROSTIC, and from there the idea of having the clue numbers tie in to the final grid. I remember coming up with ARISTOCRATS as being the key word from a very early stage (although it’s not the longest word you can make using only those seven letters; ARISTOCRATIC and STRATOCRATIC are longer. I also toyed with COAST-TO-COAST as having some lovely possibilities, but of course that lacks Is and Rs). The joy of ARISTOCRATS was the lovely word NOBS – I had already decided there had better be some confirmation of the theme word in the grid, and the temptation to leave the solver with N?BS at the end with its five different possibilities was too great to resist.

My first idea for the position of ARISTOCRATS was to break the symmetry of the grid slightly and have the isolated word at the bottom, in order not to have a “crossword of two halves” as the final grid was so close to being. In the end I decided to keep the traditional symmetry and take the slight hit on grid connectivity. And so the grid that would eventually be used was drawn up. Incredible as it may seem, it was only at this point that I realised there was going to be a problem with my idea of using the clue numbers – the repeated C in ACROSTIC. Luckily the solution was obvious – have both the across and down clue concerned carry an extra C. Since a grid with 25 Cs would be a bit tricky to engineer, I went for one containing 13 – how hard could that be to manufacture?

Turns out that it’s a lot harder than you think! Like trying to fit an ill-fitting carpet, I could get the letter count right for the Cs but be stuck with a repeated count for some other letter, or I could get the rest of the counts distinct and be way off my target for the Cs.  C isn’t an easy letter to tweak in an unch or two either, as it’s far from the commonest letter in English. After many (too many!) abortive attempts, a rethink was in order, and instead I went for a C-less fill in the grid, leaving only one C in total. Much easier! After a couple of tweaks to get distinct letter counts, I had my first grid done:

The Isolated Word - first grid fill

There are many setters who will tell you that writing the clues is their favourite part of the whole process, which is only sensible. I am not one of these setters. Quite often I get the grid filled and then just leave it there for weeks at a time. This time however, I was keen to crack on with them as there was an extra challenge – namely having each clue start with a certain letter.

It was easier than I thought it was going to be. I knew that the X for 11 across was always going to be a stinker, and I’m quite pleased with the solution I came up with. But the fact that RENAL was an anagram of 12 across (LEARN) and required a clue beginning with T was a pure fluke, as was the fact UTOPIA’s clue had to start with a U which allowed me to construct (though I say so myself) a quite neat &lit (thank you, Thomas More for deciding to make Utopia an island).

When it was finished, I duly sent it to my test solvers. I am extremely lucky in having two of the best solvers in Listener-dom for my test solvers, and their feedback has made each and every one of my puzzles far superior to the mess I send them. They are also invaluable when situations arise like needing a copy of the original grid for a blog!

That stage duly completed, I sent it to the Listener editors, and crossed my fingers.

The answer I got back was a “Yes, but…”. Nice idea, definitely got potential, but we really don’t like that ugly abbreviation (GDNS) in the top corner. The editors had even sent me a modified grid with about half a dozen entries changed to prove that it could be done. There was a certain amount of wry satisfaction gained from observing they had slipped up slightly – two of the key letter counts were exactly the same.

So farewell GDNS and hello (or g’day) to G’DAY. NERO has to go because I need to tweak the O count, so NERD will have his day instead. The changes to the grid had implications beyond those entries that were changed – the letter counts were also different, which meant that in some case special clues had to be made normal, and normal clues had to be made special.  I was pleased that I could keep STAR(R)ED, but sorry to have to change the T count from 15 to 14, as this meant the natural reading clue “Major bone left in fish” had to become the slightly clunkier “Major bone left in headless fish”. Ho hum. Where I was more fortunate is that most of the other clues that the editors didn’t feel were up to standard were for that NE corner, so I would have had to rewrite them anyway.

With those changes made, the puzzle was, of course, accepted. All that was left to do was wait to see when it would be published. Apparently it was originally intended to be earlier in 2010 than it ended up being, but once Jago’s Boxing Day puzzle came out with its acrostic, it was decided to leave a longer gap. This suited me fine, as both of my other puzzles were published in January, so it was nice to have a different month!

I was concerned that too many solvers would spot the acrostic before solving many (or any!) clues, but I needn’t have worried. From the feedback I’ve seen, not many did, and a satisfactory number reported kicking themselves when they finally did see it.

I also expected a few people to fall into the semi-deliberate trap of putting LASS for LAGS. Not many, because the letter count should put errant solvers straight (ditto for anyone who put TEASEL instead of TEAZEL). As it was, there were far more lasses (and teasels) than “a few”. There were also about twenty wrong guesses for the isolated word, ranging from the reasonably sensible to the downright bizarre.

The other thing that became obvious from the feedback was that a lot of people had found the puzzle quite easy (although not everyone had a problem with that by any means!). I knew it was fairly straightforward, but I don’t mind being thought of as an easy setter. In fact, I take a bit of pride in it – almost anyone could write a puzzle that would defeat everyone. I like to think it takes a bit of skill to make a puzzle that is tractable but still enjoyable. I hope that this puzzle fitted that bill.

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One Response to “The Isolated Word – a setter’s blog”

  1. Shirley Curran said

    Many thanks, Ten-Four. Indeed, it was enjoyable and not too easy for newer solvers – and, fortunately, there are quite a lot of us. I was intrigued to learn about the exchanges with Mr Listener (and didn’t much like the G’DAY that resulted 🙂 )

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