In the Mind of a Cruciverbalist

Crosswords. A common type of puzzle, seen in newspapers very often. They always look intimidating to solve, with so many words to fill in, and sometimes a bit of confusing wordplay that can take some time to get used to. However, some of you might start to wonder how things go on the other side of things… how do people make a crossword? Here is where I will explain my methods, although other people may have different ways of going about this.

Before I get into this, I have to clarify the difference between two types of crosswords: American-style and British-style crosswords. In an American-style crossword, every letter in the grid is a part of two answers (one across and one down). This is not true in British-style crosswords; British-style crosswords can have letters that are only part of one word. However, British-style crosswords have a more strict rule on what kinds of answers are allowed (for example, no abbreviations or acronyms, which show up frequently in American-style crosswords). Multi-word phrases can appear in British-style crosswords, but usually not as frequently.

As my crosswords are of the British-style variety, I should first list some rules for British-style crossword design:
1) The grid shape (the pattern of black squares) must have 180-degree rotational symmetry. That is, if you ignored all the letters and numbers, then the shape of the grid must remain the same if you rotate it 180 degrees.
2) Every answer is three or more letters long.
3) For the most part, all words should have at least half of their letters checked (intersecting another word). This is more of a guideline than a rule, and sometimes it’s okay to round down if necessary, but the existence of this guideline is to give people a chance of solving a word by having more letters checked, at least in regular crosswords. (Note that this rule is not as important for Code Cracker puzzles, because the process of solving words in those puzzles is not highly dependent on having checked letters. On a related side note, these Code Crackers were a big inspiration for why I decided to make crosswords here!)

So now we get to the actual process: How do I make a British-style crossword? Usually, I start with at least one of these two steps:

A) Design a grid layout.
B) Think of a crossword theme, or at least a few words you want to include for inspiration.

You could do these in either order. A typical British-style crossword usually has words going across every other row, and words going down every other column.
crossword_grid_ExampleTemplate
A “simple” grid like the one on the left side here is the basis of many British-style crosswords. You can start with a grid like this and black out more squares to make word lengths shorter (for example, the Code Cracker linked above is formed with this template; see the grid on the right side, with the extra black squares shaded in). Alternatively, you can start by placing words on the grid and filling in black squares as you go along (while making sure to follow symmetry rules). Note that this grid layout may still not be easy to fill as there are a high number of words with 9-10 letters; most of the time, word lengths will usually average at approximately 7 letters per word.crossword_grid_ExampleTemplate2
In these grids, there are more black squares and fewer long words. The one on the right has more words in total, but many of them are short words, so this kind of grid is easier to fill.

If you want, you can shift the pattern of black squares up and/or left one space (in which case you’d have an extra row or column of black squares arranged similarly, and fewer lines of answers in the grid).

A few of my guidelines and strategies:

– I usually try to build the crossword “contiguously” (always place words intersecting with words you already have); one exception is when I start with a theme, I may place the longest theme words first even if they’re not intersecting, and then build from there.

– I usually look at least one step ahead before placing a word. That is, I look at which letters end up in checked positions to determine if there are any spots that may be hard to fill. If a word looks like it may end up creating too many problematic spots, I may try to think of a different word.

– When building contiguously, I usually try to fill in the most difficult spots first. Usually, the first priority is words that have the most checked letters already filled in, but also look out for long words, rare letters (Q, etc.), or unusual word endings (for example, even a letter like O or I can be difficult to find if it’s the last letter of a word).

– Most of the time, I try to include every letter of the alphabet at least once in a crossword. Usually, I would do an “alphabet check” after every ~25% of the crossword I fill in in order to see how many letters I’m missing, and if possible, I usually try to find words that cause the rare letters fall on unchecked spaces (the obvious troublemakers most often being J, Q, X, and Z).

– If you find out something doesn’t work early on (before you have too much of it filled up), feel free to modify the pattern of black squares to fit your needs. Just make sure the change works symmetrically as well.

– Sometimes, if you just think of a word that you think is really interesting that fits with some letters that you have on the grid, feel free to go ahead and put it in and hope for the best that it works out… I once did put the elusive tuatara in one of my crosswords… ;)

I’ll end this here as this post is getting long, but feel free to check out my latest puzzle (and I apologize in advance to anyone who struggles with 11-Down). In my next installment, I will go through a more in-depth analysis of how I went about making that puzzle. Until next time… mwahahahaha. ;)

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About AuroraIllumina

Meow! AuroraIllumina may or may not secretly be a cat in disguise... they choose not to confirm or deny that.
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