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Real Rules of the Puzzle

You can read my list of rules for New York Times crossword puzzles, or you can read the actual rules as mailed to me by the NYT crossword editor, Will Shortz.  (I recommend that you do read my list of rules as well, because even though several of them do not appear below, they do appear to be rules that all crossword constructors follow.)

The list arrived in two pages, which I reproduce below verbatim.


  1. The pattern of black-and-white squares must be symmetrical.  Generally this rule means that if you turn the grid upside-down, the pattern will look the same as it does right-side-up.
  2. Do not use too many black squares.  In the old days of puzzles, black squares were not allowed to occupy more than 16% of a grid.  Nowadays there is no strict limit, in order to allow maximum flexibility for the placement of theme entries.  Still, "cheater" black squares (ones that do not affect the number of words in the puzzle, but are added to make constructing easier) should be kept to a minimum, and large clumps of black squares anywhere in a grid are strongly discouraged.
  3. Do not use unkeyed letters (letters that appear in only one word across or down).  In fairness to solvers, every letter has to be appear in both an Across and a Down word.
  4. Do not use two-letter words.  The minimum word length is three letters.
  5. The grid must have all-over interlock.  In other words, the black squares may not cut the grid up into separate pieces.  A solver, theoretically, should be able to able to proceed from any section of the grid to any other without having to stop and start over.
  6. Long theme entries must be symmetrically placed.  If there is a major theme entry three rows down from the top of the grid, for instance, then there must be another theme entry in the same position three rows up from the bottom.  Also, as a general rule, no nontheme entry should be longer than any theme entry.
  7. Do not repeat words in the grid.
  8. Do not make up words and phrases.  Every answer must have a reference or else be in common use in everyday speech or writing.

The above rules apply to almost all crosswords in all publications.  The attached style sheet lists some more special rules of The New York Times.

Note: Random House Puzzlemaker's Handbook by Mel Rosen and Stan Kurzban (Times Books) contains detailed advice on creating and selling crosswords.  This is the best starting point for new constructors.

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The New York Times looks for intelligent, literate, entertaining and well-crafted crosswords that appeal to the broad range of Times solvers.

Themes should be fresh, interesting, narrowly defined and consistently applied throughout the puzzle.  If the theme includes a particular kind of pun, for example, then all the puns should be of that kind.  Themes and theme entries should be accessible to everyone.  (Themeless daily puzzles using wide-open patterns are also welcome.)

Constructions should emphasize lively words and names and fresh phrases.  We especially encourage the use of phrases from everyday writing and speech, whether or not they're in the dictionary.  For variety, try to include some of the lesser-used letters of the alphabet -- J, Q, X, Z, K, W, etc.  Brand names are acceptable if they're well-known nationally and you use them in moderation.

The clues in an ideal puzzle provide a well-balanced test of vocabulary and knowledge, ranging from classical subjects like literature, art, classical music, mythology, history, geography, etc., to modern subjects like movies, TV, popular music, sports and names in the news.  Clues should be precise, accurate, colorful and imaginative.  Puns and humor are welcome.

Do not use partial phrases longer than five letters (ONE TO A, A STITCH IN, etc.), uninteresting obscurity (a Bulgarian village, a water bug genus, etc.) or uncommon abbreviations or foreign words.  Keep crosswordese to a minimum.  Difficult words are fine -- especially for the harder daily puzzles that get printed late in the week -- if the words are interesting bits of knowledge or useful additions to the vocabulary.  However, never let two obscure words cross.

Maximum word counts: 78 words for a 15x15 (72 for an unthemed 15); 140 for a 21x21; 168 for a 23x23.  Maximums may be exceeded slightly, at the editor's discretion, if the theme warrants.

Diagramless CROSSWORDS

Diagramless specifications are:  17x17 grid with twists and turns; a theme; about 74-90 words overall; and a fairly wide-open construction.  Shaping the grid to relate to the theme is welcome.


Use regular typing paper (8" x 11").  Type the clues double-spaced on the left (no periods after the numbers), answer words in a corresponding column on the far right.  Give a source for any hard-to-verify word or information.  Down clues need not begin on a new page.  Include a filled-in answer grid with numbers and a blank grid with numbers (for the editor's use).  Put your name, address and social security number on the two grid pages, and just your name on all other pages.  Send to:
   Will Shortz, Crossword Editor
   The New York Times
   229 West 43rd St.
   New York, NY  10036
Please include a stamped return envelope -- or e-mail address -- for reply.


$125 for a daily 15x15; $600 for a Sunday 21x21; $150 for a diagramless.

Update of July 4, 2005: If you do the math you'll see that a Sunday NYT crossword now pays nearly five times as much as a daily.  You can learn why here.

Update of January 2, 2006: The new NYT rates are $135 for a daily (up by $10) and $700 for a Sunday (up by $100).  The daily's price went up 8% in six months, and the Sunday's went up more than twice that.  Yay again for us players.

Update of June 3, 2007: Rates for NYT crosswords have risen again.  Sunday puzzles have risen nearly 43% to $1,000, and dailies have risen just over 48% to $200.


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