I was delighted to read about New York Times setter Rob Baker, whose debut puzzle was recently published. Delighted because Rob, a teacher in Illinois, submitted his first puzzle in 2007 and has declined to let 30-odd rejections diminish his enthusiasm.
I’d also be interested to see those 30-odd puzzles. And – it should be stressed – there are many reasons for setting crosswords besides publication in a newspaper. A tribute to someone, perhaps; to see whether you’re up to it; or simply for the delight it might bring yourself and others.
These sundry reasons are reflected in the 500-and-counting puzzles at MyCrossword, a site created by Raider, AKA Tom Blackwell, who has set for the Independent, including that paper’s first puzzle of this year.
For a setter, MyCrossword’s interface is staggeringly user-friendly: you click on “Create crossword”, choose a grid and the process is already under way. A year and a half since it began, I spoke to Raider about the site.
Tell us about the niche that MyCrossword fills so nicely.
I tried my hand at setting during lockdown and struggled to find a free resource to both set and publish. Some blogs have components to host puzzles, but those require a reasonable level of technical expertise. I wanted to make setting available to everyone with a free user-friendly web-based tool.
All the puzzles are self-published. Some might see the lack of an editorial process as a flaw, but I think it’s the site’s biggest strength. Most setters are learning and they crowdsource feedback. I’ve enjoyed watching everyone learn and improve.
Nowadays, the sort of thing you do involves looking after a community of human beings. How do setters and solvers avoid behaving as horribly as many people do online?
I worried about this before launch, and wrote community rules and developed functionality for reporting bad behaviour. However, MyCrossword users have defied internet convention by being unfailingly supportive and generous, with no moderation required.
Almost every puzzle gets feedback, often thanks to a small band of committed solvers. It helps that most people play both sides of the game. It’s easy to pick holes in someone else’s work, but if you know you’ll also be on the receiving end, you think about how you express criticism.
It feels as though there are as many participants setting for the pleasure of it as there are setters hoping to catch the eye of a newspaper or magazine editor.
It certainly doesn’t feel as if setters are vying with one other for newspaper slots. It’s rewarding to see others enjoying something you’ve made, so thanks and constructive feedback are very important. A few users have had puzzles published in the Independent, so it’s also a proving ground for ambitious setters.
We all make mistakes. Have you noticed any that happen often among first-time setters?
Some are tempted to use indirect anagrams, which are unfair and never popular.
One thing I’ve learned to avoid is imprecise single letter selections. Consider this clue from my first puzzle:
Dodging left and right, heading towards forest (12)
That’s SIDESTEPPING – SIDES (left and right) + T (heading towards) + EPPING (forest). When Tramp was kind enough to take a look, he pointed out that “heading towards” doesn’t indicate the letter T in a precise way. The words that stuck with me are:
Enigmatist once told me: ‘Start motor’ does not mean ‘what starts motor’, ‘start of motor’, ‘start to motor’ … What I learned is this: you need to read ‘motor’ as ‘(the word) motor’.
I changed the clue to read “heading to the forest” and have followed this rule ever since.
Very nice. You won’t blush if I remark that the site is staggeringly user-friendly. Which newspapers’ puzzle sections have you been impressed or inspired by?
Thank you! I’m a software developer and user-experience designer by trade; keeping things clean and consistent is a big part of my day job. I agonise over typography, colours and spacing, and this was no different with MyCrossword.
I’m a big fan of the wonderfully elegant New York Times Games site, the gold standard of puzzle user experience as far as I’m concerned.
You offer your code for other developers to use. That seems a decent thing to do.
The site is completely reliant on open-source libraries, so it was only fair to give something back. I’ve built an updated version of the Guardian’s crossword grid component and added some bells and whistles such as “reveal letter”, an improved anagram helper and some other bits.
You can find the package here if anyone would like to contribute, or use it in their own work. I was hoping that the Guardian developers would consider using the new component but, alas, not yet. If you wanted to give a nudge, though, Alan …?
I think you just did. Without asking you to play favourites, can you recommend a straightforward and an unusual puzzle that have appeared recently?
Ah, now this one’s tricky. There are so many brilliant puzzles to choose from and the standard is consistently high. For a recent straightforward crossword I recommend #500 by Meles or #512 by Widdersbel. For an unusual one, #505 by Conto is good fun.
Anything else to tell us?
There’s a huge backlog of features that I’d like to add and I’m starting work on an improved version of the site later in the year. If any React developers are interested in getting involved, get in touch on Twitter as I welcome any help.
Many thanks to Raider. I’m off to solve #505. If you have any favourite MyCrossword puzzles – or have created any – please mention them.
Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at alanconnor.com
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop