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How to Construct a Professional

Crossword Puzzle

AMERICAN CROSSWORD puzzles conform to a set of established rules. The most popular of these rules are the ones formulated by Simon & Schuster, the original crossword puzzle publisher, and enthusiastically embraced by most markets.

Know the rules. To begin with, a puzzle should fit into one of five grid sizes: 15×15, 17×17, 19×19, 21×21 and 23×23. Many publications accept 13×13 and smaller, but 15×15 and larger sizes are generally accepted as standard, with 15×15 being the most common size.

The diagram (placement of black squares within the grid) has to be diagonally symmetrical. If a black square appears in the upper left hand corner, there must be one in the bottom right hand corner, and so on throughout the diagram. (Puzzles that are horizontally symmetrical are sometimes permitted, but rarely.)

Two-letter words are not allowed, and even three-letter words must be kept to an absolute minimum. Every letter square must be part of both an Across and a Down word; letters not interlocked in this way (unkeyed) are forbidden.

Except for theme entries which are given a greater degree of creative latitude, all words contained in the puzzle grid must be referenced: for the most part in standard dictionaries, atlases or encyclopedias, but almanacs, specialty dictionaries, thesauri, movie guides, works of literature, text books, concordia and a wide range of print sources are fine. Common expressions that may not necessarily appear in dictionaries—“dream on,” e.g.—are perfectly okay, but don’t get carried away. “Cold pizza” is clearly a stretch.

Do not duplicate words in the grid. This holds true for expressions which share a common word. SEE RED should not appear in the same puzzle with SEE OFF, or MUST-SEE.

Themes are the newest development in crossword puzzles. Although not required, themes are increasingly preferred by more and more publishers and solvers alike. In a really well-constructed crossword, the longest words are related by topic or reference. This is the theme. Themes make crossword puzzles a lot more fun and interesting. Themes can range from the ordinary, like people with animals in their names (Stephen HAWKing, Thomas WOLFe), to “twisted” movie titles that elicit funny definitions (Mr. Holland’s SOUP, The SORE Tattoo).

Begin with the grid. When I construct a puzzle, I first pick my grid size. This can be dictated by the theme (three or four 12-letter theme words are hardly enough for a 21×21 puzzle), or the market (most newspapers accept only 15×15 puzzles for the daily editions).

I find it handy at this point to draw up a list of as many possible theme words/phrases that I can think of, sorting the list according to word length. It makes it easier to juxtapose various theme words or replace any later if I have to. Let us say that I want to make a puzzle themed with computer terms, which I will define using wacky puns. First I develop a potential list of thematic words and phrases coupled with their letter counts, and tentative definitions. It looks something like this:

INTERNET [ 8] “Cooperative fishing trawlers?”
MOUSEPAD [ 8] “Where Mickey Lives?”
DIRECTORY [ 9] “Facts on files?”
HARDDRIVE [ 9] “Tough job for a trucker?”
MICROCHIP [ 9] “Snack food for an amoebae?”
SELFSERVE [ 9] “Autonomous Web site?”
MONITORLIZARD [13] “One who scrounges for CRTs?”

Position theme words. Next, I position my theme words on the grid, careful to avoid any situations which result in two-letter words or other troublesome figure1juxtapositions. Additionally, I keep in mind that I must maintain a diagonal symmetry with the theme words. Having done this, I fill in only those black squares demanded by the theme words (Figure 1, at right).

After satisfying myself that no awkward traps have been inadvertently set (such as words that end in Q, or KX or IY pairings), I then complete the diagram by arranging the rest of the black squares. This task can be made even more interesting by trying to come up with a pleasing design in addition to following the rules!

Incidentally, most professional markets establish limits as to the number of black squares allowed in a puzzle. Simon & Schuster prefers that about one-sixth of the total number of grid squares be black. Other markets are more lenient, but if a puzzle clearly contains too many black squares nobody will want it. Around one-sixth is a good target.

Here’s the finished grid with the thematic entries placed according to diagonal symmetry (Figure 2, below right). Four Down theme entries and three Across theme entries is pretty impressive for a puzzle of this size. Because MONITORLIZARD figure 2extends the full width of the grid and is situated in the exact middle, it complies with the rules of symmetry by itself and does not require a “mate.” You can also readily see that some of the black squares, such as those to the left of M and O in MOUSEPAD, and to the right of E and T in INTERNET were required in order to eliminate two-letter words.

The secret to designing a good grid is to break it up significantly enough not to have to fill in mammoth sections of white. (Just try to complete a solid 6×6 block!) On the other hand, you don’t want to overdo the black squares or break up the grid to the point it resembles a Scrabble board. Remember, half the satisfaction a solver gets from working a puzzle is being able to remark in amazement, “Wow! how’d they do that?”

Complete the grid. Now comes the most enjoyable part: filling in the rest of the squares with legitimate words, abbreviations or phrases (Figure 3, below right). It usually takes me a good three or four hours to put together a 15×15 puzzle.

During the construction, I sometimes discover that my original grid design contains problem sections and has to be altered. This is perfectly normal, as longfigure 3 as the revisions maintain symmetry.

Try to use words that are fun and interesting. Nobody is going to delight in ABLATE or MYOCYTE, although “ugly” words are often unavoidable. Words like BATMAN or FUZZBALL can be enormously entertaining.

Digital dictionaries that come on CD-ROMs with wildcard search features are invaluable construction tools! So are disk-based libraries.

At this point, I am at last ready to think up the definitions, or clues. For many constructors, writing the clues is the final step. Therefore, it may also seem like the easiest, but this is far from the case. Boring clues, too many obscure clues, over-used clues can all lead to a puzzle being unceremoniously rejected by a puzzle editor. “Girl’s name” is a definite no-no. “Australian dog” elicits yawns. “Chelated hydrocarbon.” You see the point?

A good mix of clue styles ensures success. About one-third of the clues should be straightforward: “Hammerhead” for SHARK, “Vidalia or Spanish” for ONION, “Exhausted” for TIRED. Another third should be clever: “Bamboo eater” for PANDA, “They’re sold in lots” for USED CARS, “Farm animals” for ANTS. The rest of the clues can include fill-ins, names, crosswordese and, of course, clues for the theme words. “Return ___ Jedi” is a fill-in. The answer is OF THE. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow ___ Bikini” is also a fill-in. You figure the answer. “Actress Winona” is a name clue for RYDER. “Novelist Koontz” is a name clue for DEAN.

Crosswordese encompasses all those bizarre animals, genuses, weights, and the like, which are only found in crossword puzzles. Words like ADDAX or BAHT or ITEA, while perfectly acceptable, should be kept to a minimum.

One final caveat. Trademarks have been creeping into more and more puzzles recently at an alarming rate. My advice is to avoid them. After all, they are legally protected, use of which could result in lawsuits. And why give away free advertising, anyway? end


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