January 4, 2001

Crossword Constructor

From Blank Page to Puzzle  

Do you enjoy working crossword puzzles? If so, you are familiar with the challenges of solving them. But what challenges are involved in constructing a crossword puzzle?

Professional crossword puzzle constructor Gayle Dean took some time off from her letters and squares to share some inside information on constructing crossword puzzles. Here are the basic steps, as outlined by Dean.

The first thing that Dean does when she begins building a new puzzle is to decide on the theme, which provides the long words or phrases that "hold the puzzle together." Crossword puzzles have not always had themes, but over the years themed puzzles have grown popular with solvers and puzzle publishers alike.

A theme may be something like puns on popular movie titles (e.g., Clue: "Where does one dispose of old trees?" Word: FORESTDUMP). Dean once did a puzzle that had no E's in the grid or the clues. ("E" is the most common letter in the English language.) Will Shortz, the New York Times puzzle editor, called it "quite a feat of construction."

crossword puzzle

The next step is setting up the basic grid. Puzzle editors generally dictate the size of the grid, based on their publishing needs. A typical daily puzzle in a newspaper will have a 15x15 square grid. Dean roughly places the theme entries into the grid, balancing the spacing as she goes. Then she begins to mark in the black squares, which according to accepted publishing rules must be diagonally symmetrical. If there is a diamond of black squares in the upper left corner, the same diamond must also appear in the lower right corner.

Look at the following grid:

  • Is the symmetry a line symmetry or a rotational symmetry? If the concept of symmetry is new to you, see the Tangible Math activities, Line Symmetry and Rotational Symmetry before trying to answer the question. (These SimLibrary activities require Logal Express. Get a free trial subscription.)

As Dean marks preliminary placement of the black squares, she makes sure that she is not creating combinations that will be impossible to fill, like a six-letter word that begins with Y and ends with J. Often she moves the black squares as she fills in the puzzle, but she must maintain the symmetry. Crossword publishers set a limit on the number of black squares in a puzzle. For example, Simon and Schuster prefers that no more than about 1/6 of the puzzle grid contain black squares.

  • How many squares are in a 15x15 puzzle? If Simon and Schuster is the publisher, how many squares can be black?

  • How many squares are in a 23x23 puzzle? If Simon and Schuster is the publisher, how many squares can be black?

The next big challenge is filling in the rest of the puzzle with legitimate words, abbreviations, phrases, and proper names. Dean prefers to work from "the bottom up, filling in the endings first." Even an experienced professional constructor like Dean sometimes finds that she has worked herself into a corner and cannot finish filling a given section of a puzzle. In that case, she must erase the entire section and begin again.

For many years Dean constructed the puzzles using paper, pencil, and a clipboard. She would fill in the black squares and number the grids by hand. Today there is a choice of software packages that help automate these tasks.

Record-Setting Puzzle

The Guinness Book of World Records awarded the World's Largest Crossword Puzzle to one built by Robert Silgenbauer. The puzzle was a 111x111 grid covering a 4-foot square. The puzzle contained 4,018 words and included a 32-page booklet of the clues and a 12-page answer guide. You can view a photo of the World's Largest Crossword Puzzle, a title that held for many years.

Applying the Rules  

Crossword puzzle publishers generally abide by the following rules about crossword puzzle construction:

  1. Two-letter words are not allowed, and three-letter words must be kept to a minimum.

  2. Every letter square must be part of an Across word and a Down word.

  3. Except for themed words that allow for word play, all words must be verifiable in a dictionary, almanac, movie guide, concordance, or other reference work.

  4. Common idioms are acceptable (e.g., Watch your step), but the constructor must be careful not to stretch the usage.

  5. Crosswordese—those real words like "addax" and "duad" necessary to finish the fill—are acceptable but should be kept to a minimum.

So, are you ready to try your hand at constructing a crossword puzzle? To get you started, we are supplying a 9x9 grid—too small to get your finished puzzle published in most newspapers, but large enough to present a challenge. Here is a suggested puzzle theme: Winter Blues.


If you manage to construct a puzzle, fax it to us at Riverdeep: 800-564-2587. We will publish completed puzzles. Want to measure your performance? Dean says that it takes her about 2 to 4 hours to construct a daily 15x15 grid puzzle.

3 Across: A Smart Board Game? (10 letters)

The final step in puzzle construction is writing the clues. Dean explains, "Cluing is very important. A puzzle's difficulty level is determined by the clues, rather than by use of obscure words in the fill. For an easy puzzle, TEE might be clued straightforwardly as 'Golf peg.' For a more difficult puzzle, it could be clued as 'Driving platform?'"

According to constructor Sam Bellotto, puzzle editors and solvers alike are likely to reject boring clues, too many obscure clues, and over-used clues. He recommends a mix of clue styles:

  • traditional, e.g., "hammerhead" for SHARK
  • clever, e.g., "They're sold in lots" for USEDCARS
  • fill-ins, e.g., "Gone ________ Wind" for WITHTHE
  • names, e.g., "Sullivan and Harris" for EDS
  • clues for the theme words, "Where Mickey lives?" for MOUSEPAD

Learn More

  • Gayle Dean is currently working on two new crossword puzzle books with her colleague, Richard Lederer. Read about Lederer in the Riverdeep Current archive article, "Speaking with the Verbivore."

  • You can find both word and math puzzles in Riverdeep's mywave Bytes section.

More Links

  • Read Sam Bellotto's detailed account, How to Make Puzzles.

  • Find a daily crossword puzzle at CNNfyi.com.

  • Want to improve your crossword puzzle solving skills? Visit Today's Hint from Stan, which examines common crossword puzzle entries and the different clues that may be used for them.

  • Did you find constructing a crossword puzzle too difficult? Discovery School's Puzzlemaker will help you build word searches, cryptograms, letter tiles, fallen phrases, and criss-cross puzzles, as well as math puzzles and mazes.


Related Resources

  • Gayle Dean has published puzzles in many magazines and books, including the 101 Crossword Puzzles for Dummies® series.

  • If you are interested in purchasing a software package to help in crossword puzzle construction, try Crossdown, created by veteran crossword constructor Sam Bellotto.
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