When we began contributing crosswords to The Nation, one of the first things we did was to create a spreadsheet to contain every puzzle entry and every clue we wrote. This was the first time either of us had undertaken to create crossword puzzles at an industrial pace, and we wanted to be sure we didn’t start duplicating clues without realizing it.
It’s a massive file now—4,000 clues and counting—and having it around has turned out to be mostly a blessing, but hardly an unmixed one. In its primary goal, which is to keep us from inadvertently repeating ourselves, the clue archive has proven to be indispensable. Neither of us has a particularly infallible memory for such things, and a quick check of the archive has saved us from embarrassment on more than one occasion. It’s especially likely that a witticism or piece of wordplay that appeals to us today may turn out to have held similar appeal two or three years ago, when we first thought of it.
Having a record of our previous efforts also gives us a helpful incentive to try new things that might not have occurred to us otherwise. Often, the first clue we write for a given entry adopts the most obvious strategy—the best-known anagram, say, or the charade that yields a particularly felicitous surface. When we come back to clue that entry a second or third time, we’re compelled to seek out an alternative—a search that is often surprisingly fruitful. For example, Puzzle #3252 included this clue:
SEMAPHORE Communication between ships and shore about excellent chart (9)
When the same entry arose again in Puzzle #3315, we took another look at it and found the makings of an &lit. clue:
SEMAPHORE Ultimately, communicate with a visual representation, perhaps received by shore! (9)
Finally, having a full roster of old clues on hand makes it easy to dig up examples of a particular type of clue or a specific element of wordplay. Many of our blog posts have been helped by our ability to comb the clue archive for material.
But at the same time, there’s something slightly inhibiting about having to check with our past selves before writing new clues. Sometimes the nagging voice of conscience—“Didn’t you just do something like that eight months ago?”—can become an intrusion, and sometimes worrying too much about the risks of duplication stifles the enjoyment of both constructor and solver. So we try not to be too doctrinaire about any of this (you may have noticed that we’re not especially doctrinaire about anything). We don’t look up each entry in the file before clueing it; that would be ridiculous. More often, we use the spreadsheet to confirm or disconfirm a general sense of déjà vu about a particular word. And there have been occasions, when enough time has passed, when we’ve simply given ourselves permission to write a clue that isn’t too different from an older one. After all, if we didn’t remember, how likely is it that solvers will?
This week’s clueing challenge: Write a clue for ARCHIVE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.