B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  


IX. Try Writing Your Own

Here's how I write a crossword from scratch.

To get started, create a grid.  This alone is damnably difficult, because you have to follow all the rules I gave above.  In fact, I've found it so time-consuming that of the half-dozen or so puzzles I've written I've used the same basic grid for every one, because I really don't want to have to go through all that work again.

And then, of course, at some point you have to make sure you've got the clue-numbering exactly right, which is tedious but at the same time wholly unsatisfying.

One solution to the problem of creating a proper grid is simply to copy (in the sense of "swipe") grids from real New York Times puzzles, which brings up an interesting question: The filled-in puzzle grids are copyrighted, of course, but what about the blank grids?

Update of December 1999 on the question whether NYT grids are copyrighted:  No.

Anyway, once you've decided on your grid, generate a list of theme answers you want to consider adding.  The longer this list is, the easier your subsequent work will be.  Also making your work easier will be using as few uncommonly used letters as possible.  For example, if you're dickering between adding the answer QUIZZICAL and the answer UNCERTAIN, you should definitely start with UNCERTAIN.   If you want to show off your puzzle-writing prowess, go ahead and use QUIZZICAL, but realize that only experienced players -- and everyone who's ever tried to write a puzzle -- will appreciate your extra effort.

Then just bear down and start filling in answers that intersect those theme answers.  Do not worry about the clues till you've filled in the grid completely, because filling in the grid is by far the tougher task.  By far.

If you've beavered away for too long on a particular area of the grid, you might have to face the fact that a theme answer will have to be replaced, which of course messes up any other work you've done in areas that intersect whatever you're replacing.  It's hateful, but sometimes you have to do it.

Electronic word list.  Particularly helpful is coming up with words that intersect right is an electronic list of words, whether the specialty handheld kind or just a plain old computer with the proper software.  You can get by without one, and you may certainly congratulate yourself for writing a complete puzzle without one, but if you already own one and you don't use it, you are a true fanatic.  Writing good crossword puzzles is hard enough.

If you have such a list of words in some electronic form, you already understand why it is practically essential to writing crosswords.  If you don't know how they can work, here's the feature that you would use most:  If you've filled in, say, "__ E R __ __ S," you can enter "?ER??S" into the computer and tell it to show you all the words that fit that pattern.  Using the Franklin Crosswords Puzzle Solver, about $50, I found 72 answers that fit, and it took me about two minutes to enter the template, wait for the processor, and scan through all the answers.

But realize that no such electrified word list, no matter how many words it contains, will contain more than a small fraction of the possible answers.

  • One reason to look beyond your electronic dictionary is that it won't contain all the foreign words you know.  For example, most Americans know that "está" as in "¿Cómo está, usted?" is a word in Spanish, but you won't find it in any dictionary of English.
  • A better reason to look beyond your electronic dictionary is that it won't contain all the proper nouns, such as "Cher" and "Sheryl" and "Shirley."
  • The best reason to look beyond your electronic dictionary is that any answer may consist of more than one word.  Obviously no electronic dictionary is going to contain the answer to the clues "Cat on a ---- Roof" or "Cat on a Hot -----."

As you're choosing your answers, keep in mind the level of experience of your intended readership.  The puzzles I've written were for people whose crosswording experience is no different from that of the general public, so I made each puzzle as easy as I possibly could, and at that I'm sure most of my special group of readers did not even attempt them.

Once you've finally gotten the answer grid filled in, the easy work starts -- defining the clues.  If you're an experienced New York Times crossworder solver, you'll have little trouble inventing clues that conform to the proper style and character.  If you really want to get everyting right you have to pay attention to the fiddly stuff, such as whether it's "Eskimo's home, Var." or "Eskimo's home: var." or "Eskimo's home: Var." (It's the last one.)   For more information on writing clues see here and here.

Generally speaking, you want each clue to be as short as possible consistent with how difficult or clever you want it to be.  NYT crosswords are expected to be quite easy on Mondays ranging through quite hard on Saturdays.

There are two ways to make a puzzle more difficult.

  • The obvious one is to use lots of obscure answers (and get them to intersect a lot), such as in the Hardest Puzzle.
  • The less obvious and much easier way is to use obscure clues for non-obscure answers, such as in The Hardest Puzzle.   For example, for the answer MUSIC don't use the clue "The Sound of ------," use the clue "St. Cecilia's sphere." For the answer COLUMBUS don't use the clue "Italian who discovered America in 1492," use the clue "Caesar's male pigeon."

Writing even small, crappy crosswords is hard, as you'll find out if you dare to try.  Writing big, good ones is an art that few people appreciate.

And yes, there are plenty of software packages out there that do much of the tedious (grid-contructing and clue-numbering) and difficult (filling in partial patterns) work for you.  If you want to write a crossword, you'd be a fool not to use the software and the dictionaries and the word lists that are available.  To find such software (there's a lot out there), tell your favorite search engine to look for "crossword AND software" or some such thing.  For my more specific recommendations on crossword-playing and crossword-constructing software please go here.

Read this book.  And there's at least one book out there you should read, titled THE COMPLEAT CRUCIVERBALIST, by Stan Kurzban and Mel Rosen, published in 1980 according to the copy I'm looking at right now.  Better yet, read the updated version, titled RANDOM HOUSE PUZZLEMAKER'S HANDBOOK, by Mel Rosen and Stan Kurzban, published in 1995 according to the copy I'm now looking at at this moment.  If you want to learn more about American-style crosswords (not to mention cryptic and diagramless and acrostic crosswords) and how to solve them and how to construct them and how to market them, you'd be a fool not to acquire a copy of one of these books.  Unfortunately, they're both out of print as of this writing, but if you have access to a great library system like I do, you can get hold of one if you try.

But there's no software or book that does the hardest part of all when it comes to writing crosswords, which is being fun and entertaining and witty and clever with the symbols of writing that we humans use.  Symbols that are nothing more than squiggles of black on white.


B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E