We're coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and it's amazing how it's changed in that time. These changes are largely seen as positive steps towards enhancing the enjoyment of crosswords in modern times. If two-letter words hadn't been banned, we'd likely be sick to death of closed-off corners and many, many bigrams that would appear therein. Rotational symmetry lends a welcome aesthetic quality to the puzzle. The list goes on. To an extent, we should expect this evolution to continue. However, I've noticed a trend in some of today's puzzles that I believe is detrimental to the fun of crosswords and the art of their construction. In keeping with the manufactured outrage displayed on 24-hour news channels, I've dubbed it the War on Fill.
The "fill" simply refers to the words in the grid, typically excluding theme answers unless it's one of those themes that applies to the entire puzzle. Because it's at least the vast majority of the answers in a crossword, the bulk of the solving time is spent on them. Without the fill, simply put, you don't have a crossword.
I understand that a theme is the most memorable part of a puzzle and frequently provides the biggest aha moment. I agree that it needs to be good to consider the puzzle good. But the fill, being a more pervasive element, can impact your solving experience a lot more. You can mentally shove aside a weak theme and focus on everything else, but there's no getting around writing in all those shorter answers.
Thus, I hold that the fill is the most important part of a quality crossword. So I must ask: Why does good fill seem to be decreasingly prioritized in today's puzzles?
All regular solvers have seen their share of unsavory fill. The cheap partials (OF IT, IN NO, etc.), the abbreviations nobody ever uses in real life, the tired crosswordese, the boring obscurities. Some are merely little warts that can actually be very easy to figure out, while others can frustratingly keep the solver from full success. Naturally, some of these poorer entries are inevitable; the rules of American-style crossword construction are challenging and sometimes require concessions. (This is another reason some prefer cryptic crosswords, in which only about half of the letters need be crossed.) Plus, one's mileage may vary with so-called obscurities. ("How can it be obscure? I know it!") Even taking these factors into account, the fill in some recent puzzles has been, in my view, lackluster.
I don't mean to suggest that every puzzle I've ever made has been resplendent, nor that fill standards are gone completely, but I do think they've eroded quite a bit. It's possible that I, as an inveterate solver and occasional constructor, have become overly sensitive to this matter. I find it hard to believe, however, that the solver wouldn't enjoy the experience more if some of the junk were replaced, even if it were with ordinary, everyday words that aren't particularly peppy. You can always bring the liveliness in the clues.
Is it laziness? It does feel that way sometimes; on occasion, a corner seems so blatantly refillable with superior entries that one has to wonder why the constructor settled for his/her version. Even so, I don't think indolence is a fair charge to throw around; there's no real evidence to suggest it. (If you ARE a lazy constructor, though: Stop it. Stop it right now. Try harder.)
I believe the War on Fill is, at least in part, the result of how the crossword-solving community has evolved. Nowadays, several puzzles a day are available with just a few mouse clicks, and, through the blogosphere, solvers and constructors alike are deluged with opinions about all of them. All this content drives up the pressure on puzzlemakers to create something innovative. When you've seen your hundredth add-a-letter theme, it feels, and very likely is, less desirable for constructors to make and for editors to accept. Plus, it's natural to want to knock a tough crowd's socks off with something new.
As I implied above, people don't really remember a puzzle solely based on its fill words. The fill might be appreciated and enjoyed, but it's not what gets Puzzle of the Year nominations. An ingenious theme gets far more attention, and it's the starting point for making a crossword, so trying to make that stand out makes sense. I certainly sympathize; struggling to come up with good themes is a big reason why I haven't been constructing too much lately. The catch with themes, however, is that they still have to be molded to fit the crossword, and it can be very difficult to let go of a good one, no matter how it resists a smooth execution. This can lead to some strained shoehorning in the form of weaker fill.
It was a highly regarded member of the crossword community who said, "It used to be that if a theme didn't work, you wouldn't do it." It is very easy to slacken one's grid standards if one feels the theme is worth it. In my view, though, it usually isn't worth it. I've seen some themes that are, make no mistake, utterly brilliant, but the concessions made in the fill kept me from enjoying the puzzle. You might disagree and suggest that this is my problem, and I see your point. Obviously, I'm stating my opinion here. In the end, though, we're solving the crossword because we enjoy crosswords, and thoughts like "That's a thing?" and "Well, I guess that's right" lessen the joy of solving, no matter what genius lies in the theme.
I have even stronger opinions when it comes to themeless puzzles, in which innovation comes in the form of stacking fifteen-letter answers or using as few black squares as possible or what have you. I'll be blunt here: If I never see a quadruple-stack of fifteens again, it'll be too soon. Sure, it's eye-popping, but it's no fun at all to muddle through the inevitable handful of weak answers crossing the stack. My favorite American-style crossword is one that's tough as nails, well-filled, and fair. That's it. I don't need or want the grid to show off. I'll take a solidly filled 66- or 68-word puzzle over a sub-60-worder every single time with no hesitation.
So that's my take, for whatever piddling amount it's worth. I know I'll continue to put a lot of effort into turning out the best grids I can, and I hope my fellow constructors do likewise. Viva fill!