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Dictionaries And Help With Writing Crossword Clues

For anyone who has written crossword clues, or anyone who is about to, there is one great realisation that dawns on you fairly on in your clue-writing career: dictionaries are surprisingly ineffective at helping you write crossword clues.

There are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, dictionary definitions tend to be quite long and rambling, and certainly far too long for most puzzles, particularly quick crosswords which are the most popular crossword variant both to be solved and seen in publications. These tend to require short and snappy definitions, so dictionary definitions tend to be of little use here.

Secondly, and much more frustratingly for crossword compilers, dictionary definitions are extraordinarily uninformative for a really large number of words. You soon realise that you didn't learn what a large number of words meant from the dictionary. This is because there is a huge amount of circularity in dictionary definitions: for instance virtually every part of a word is simply defined by its root, thus "quietness: the quality or state of being quiet", and "lawyer: a person who studies law". If you don't already know what 'quiet' means or anything about the concept of 'law' these aren't much help. From the point of view of the compiler, the one thing you can't do in crosswords is to use part of the solution word in the clue, for obvious reasons, and so such definitions don't help with clue-writing at all.

Thirdly, there is a problem not just with circularity, but that many dictionary definitions essentially state the obvious, or use one of both words in a compound noun in the definition: thus "bedroom: a room for sleeping in": now no-one writing a crossword clue should accept using 'room' in a clue where the answer is 'bedroom'. No doubt some dictionaries go further and define a bedroom as a room with a bed in it!

In summary, most words that are easy to clue have lots of fairly obvious synonyms that you can use. Most difficult words - when you perhaps look to the dictionary to help you come up with an idea for a clue - either have a circular definition or use part of the solution word in the clue, and are therefore not much use for crossword setters.

None of which is to say that dictionaries aren't of some use to setters (for one thing, seeing if a word appears in it, whether it is hyphenated etc) but it is just that when it comes to the clue writing process, dictionaries are not very useful at all.

Are you a crossword writer? If so, how useful do you find dictionaries in writing your clues? If not very useful, then what tools do you use - other than your own brain - to help you write your clues?

Date written: 28 Apr 2015

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