Meet the crossword setter, plant scientist Soup: ‘A successful clue needs pith and, ideally, humour’ | Crosswords

The Guardian’s newest cryptic setter, Soup, has been setting puzzles in this paper’s extraordinary monthly Genius series since 2016; he also edits 1 Across magazine and contributes to the 3D Crossword Calendars. Let’s meet Soup.

Hello, Soup. How did it all start?
I commissioned a puzzle from Araucaria for my best man’s wedding and asked if I could get him a bottle of something; he said the delivery cost would be extortionate, so why didn’t I come for tea? I was on cloud nine!

While I was there, with Rev John Graham, he bemoaned that he didn’t have anyone to set him up a website for his custom puzzles and typeset them into pretty PDFs … and our working relationship began.

I later sent him a puzzle I was proud of – which, with the benefit of hindsight, was awful. He was gently encouraging and eventually Tom Johnson gave me a slot in 1 Across magazine; then it was practice, practice, practice.

And why ‘Soup’?
My Latin teacher Mr Hughes was an old-fashioned schoolmaster who called the boys by their surnames – or more often by a nickname. My forebears were a dynasty in Market Harborough with powdered starch-based goods and they were particularly known for soups. Scott took some to the Antarctic and there’s a tin of Symington’s Soup in the Polar Museum in Cambridge.

So I was known as “Soup” in my Latin classes and I’ve kept the pseudonym as a nod to Symingtons past. I wish Mr Hughes had known – I suspect he would have been amused.

Bring on the soup … Photograph: Fudio/Alamy

What else do you do for a living?
I’m a fourth-year PhD student at Cambridge, looking at how to improve pollination. About a third of our food depends on insect pollination to some extent and as the population rises, we’ll need to grow more food – which means more pollination.

But insect levels are declining. While zoologists and ecologists are looking at reversing those declines, I’m coming from another angle: whether it’s possible to make flowers more efficient at being pollinated, and to give better nectar and pollen rewards to the insects that visit.

I made a short video with another student. Finding out something that nobody else in the world knows is amazing, and I love what I do.

Good lord. What makes a successful clue? Or an unsuccessful one?
Success: pith, and ideally, but not always, humour. Good grammar, on the surface and within the cryptic reading; a surface that has nothing to do with the solution.

Particular dislikes: the type of clue I call “single definition twice”, like using “dissident” to clue the REBEL part of REBELLION; inaccurate grammar for letter indicators – “even Stevens” does not mean TVN – that would be “evenly Stevens”.

Noted. Your Genius puzzles generally require you to write a bespoke program. Tell us more.
I usually start with a single idea, often transmuting some words into others: “I wonder how many words have a number in them” (CONE, FORT WORTH …) or “How many words are another word backwards?” (STRESSED; DESSERT). I was a programmer in a former life, so it’s easy to knock together something which can run through the list of about 60,000 relatively “normal” words and spit out those of interest.

Certain programs are easier than others: sometimes it involves messing about with individual letters. The output gives me a sense of whether a grid-fill will be possible. It usually is if I’ve got more than a couple of thousand words to play with, though once recently I only had 700 candidates. I was surprised that worked!

When you set custom puzzles, how do you approach the themed material?
Given enough options, it’s surprisingly straightforward. They’re usually for birthdays and so on; with a couple of pages of likes, dislikes, favourite foods and drinks and the like, I can usually get about two-thirds of the clues themed.

With more detail, it’s possible for every clue to have some sort of relevance. I was commissioned for the 20th anniversary of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series and that was an all-themer because there was so much to work with.

Finally, with your 1 Across editor’s hat on, what would you say to a new setter?
It takes time and practice. I’m always happier if the file’s called something like “puzzle50” rather than “puzzle1”. You need to set lots, get lots of feedback, and learn from it.

Clues must all be tight; if you think “I hope he doesn’t spot that”, he will. There’s a new self-publishing community called MyCrossword which looks really good.

Finally, an interesting daily exercise for aspiring setters is to pick a word at random, and write 10 different clues for it.

Many thanks to Soup, whose suggestion for our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to is from OK Go.

All Together Now by OK Go

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

Here is a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.

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