Crossword Hobbyist is the best way to create fun and educational crossword puzzles.

How to Make a Crossword Puzzle:
THE MINDSET, THE RULES, AND TIPS

 

OVERVIEW

This article offers guidance on constructing a professional crossword puzzle. To solve professional crosswords, visit the puzzle list. To start making a newspaper-style puzzle on Crossword Hobbyist, or and visit your 'My Puzzles' page.

 

THE MINDSET

The first thing you should know about making a newspaper-quality crossword puzzle is that it’s tough!  Creating a good puzzle can be more challenging, and more fulfilling, than solving one.  It can take an experienced puzzle creator three or four hours to make a standard 15x15 puzzle, and it can take beginning puzzle makers twice that.  So have fun.  Don’t expect to finish in a single sitting.  Relax.  Grab a nice hot cup of tea, or a glass of wine.  Put on some Beethoven.  Enjoy the journey.

 

THE RULES

Crossword Hobbyist’s puzzle creation tool has indicators to let you know whether your grid meets the basic rules about how crossword grids should be arranged, but the finer rules are left to human judgment.  The main rules are listed here:

  1. Grid Symmetry: Your grid should be diagonally symmetrical, meaning that it looks the same when turned upside-down.  Put another way, if the square six from the left and four from the top is black, the square six from the right and four from the bottom should also be black.  Crossword Hobbyist’s puzzle creation tool has an option to automatically color the mirrored square for you so you don’t have to worry about this.
  2. Grid Connectedness: The white squares in your grid should all be connected to each other.  This means that getting an answer in one corner of the board can eventually help the solver (however indirectly) get an answer in the other corner of the board.  Ideally, there is no section of the board that is only connected to the rest of the board by a single word – although this is not a hard and fast rule.
  3. Word Length: All words should be at least three letters.  All letters must be “keyed”, meaning they are in an across word and a down word.
  4. Black Square Frequency: Historically, crossword creators were encouraged to limit black squares to no more than one sixth of the grid, or about 17%.  While limiting black squares is encouraged, there is no longer a formal limit on how many your grid can have.  However, large clumps of black squares are strongly discouraged.
  5. Word Count: The New York Times requires all their weekday 15x15 puzzles to have no more than 78 words, or 72 if the puzzle has no theme.  Crossword Hobbyist gives you a word count that you can look at or ignore.  In general, puzzles with fewer words and more whitespace are more connected, and more challenging both to write and to solve.
  6. Duplicate Words: The same word cannot be an answer to two separate clues.  This also applies to components of compound words and multi-word answers.  For example, you cannot have one answer be COW MILK and another be CASH COW.  You could, however, have an answer COWPER (in reference to the poet), because the words are etymologically different.
  7. Theme Entries: Many modern puzzles have themes, which usually unify the longest clue-answer pairs in some way.  For example, all theme answers could be novels by a single author, a particular type of pun or wordplay, or some other conceit.  There is fairly wide latitude as to theme choice, but some general guidelines apply:
    1. Placement: With some exceptions, there should be no non-theme entry with a length equal to or longer than a theme entry.  Unique, short theme entries often receive special placement (e.g. the first or last across clue, or the center of the puzzle) to get around this rule.
    2. Difficulty: Puzzles at or below a Thursday level of difficulty (including Sunday) usually have themes.  More challenging puzzles are less likely to have a theme, although they will usually contain at least as many long words.
  8. Word Choice: There are a number of guidelines as to which words are preferable to use:
    1. Crosswordese: Try to minimize use of words that are more common in crossword puzzles than outside of them:
      1. SSE as Hamburg to Leipzig dir. is acceptable, but uninspiring.
      2. INAS as Former JPMorgan Executive Drew and Others  is acceptable, but the “and others” construction is awkward.  Additionally, while figures from pop culture, politics, business, and current events can and should be used, the puzzle creator should try to avoid obscure figures or au courant answers that may not be guessable in five years’ time.
      3. While the band ELO was quite popular in its day (as was storing needles in an ETUI), try to avoid answers known far better to crossword solvers than to others.
    2. Spelling Variants: Usually indicated by “(var.)” in clues, spelling variants should be kept to an absolute minimum.  Any UK spellings must also be indicated in a clue, although there is more latitude in how these are indicated.  For example, HONOUR could be clued as Regard highly (Brit.), or Knighthood, for one.
    3. Obscure Answers: Somewhat obscure answers are fine if they are interesting.  QUIDNUNC for Nosey person is delightful, ILI for Kazakh river should be avoided.
  9. Clue Conventions: There are a number of clue conventions that should be followed in fairness to solvers.  The challenge for the solver should be in figuring out the clue, not in figuring out whether you’re following convention.
    1. Conjugation: The answer should be the same part of speech as the clue.  For example, Writing implements can be PENS or PENCILS, but not PEN or PENCIL.  Went, in a way could be WALKED, but not WALK or WALKING.
    2. Names: Whether a first or last name is used in a clue will indicate what will appear in the answer.  For example, Microsoft CEO Steve’s predecessor will be BILL, not GATES.  But Former Microsoft CEO Bill will be GATES.
    3. Clue-Answer Difference: No significant word in the answer will appear in the clue.  For example, Box on a TV Set will not be SET TOP.
    4. Abbreviations: Abbreviations in the answer are almost always indicated in the clue.  UMICH could be Spartans rival: abbr. or Sch. that's blue and maize, but not Spartans rival or School that's blue and maize.  This is optional for words that are more common in their abbreviated form: OPEC can be clued as Oil export grp. or Major oil exporter.

 

TIPS

The first thing you should do when creating a puzzle is decide on a theme and, if applicable, brainstorm theme words.  Keep in mind that grid symmetry means that, if you have one theme word that’s 11 letters long, you will need to either have another 11-letter theme word to place in the opposite spot or place the 11-letter word in the center of the grid.  This means you should brainstorm more theme entries than you will actually use.  The scratchpad at the bottom left of the Create Puzzle screen is good for recording your theme ideas and how many letters each has.

Next, you should place your theme entries in your empty grid, and place black squares only where necessary to allow these theme entries.  Afterward, you will probably notice some other places that black squares should be to avoid creating a difficult area for yourself, and you should try filling in other black squares as necessary.

Once you have your theme entries placed and many of your black squares laid out, look for the most problematic section of your puzzle.  This may be caused by an unusual combination of letters or an unusual letter in a difficult place in a word.  Try to tackle this section first: if you need to modify your grid or theme placement, it’s better to know this now rather than when you have a lot of other sections filled in.

When filling in your grid, a dictionary with a wildcard lookup is an invaluable tool.  You can find one here: http://crosswordtracker.com/.  If you’re stuck needing an answer that has to fill in IX__, you can simply type IX?? into the ‘answer’ field of their lookup tool, and find that IXIA has been used in crosswords a number of times, and see the clues that other creators used for it.  You can look it up in a dictionary, Wikipedia, or Google to decide whether it is an answer you are comfortable using.

Speaking of Wikipedia and Google, they are also invaluable tools in finding words.  If you have a section that will work out great if only INI is a word, you can plug it into Google or Wikipedia and see if you get a usable result.  In this case, the top result is a configuration file format that most Windows users will have come across at one point or another, and would be usable in your puzzle.  If you’re looking at ILI, on the other hand, the best you can find is that Kazakh river and you’ll have to keep working.

Creating clues usually comes last, and can be the most fun part of creating your puzzle.  You’ll want to think about how difficult you want your puzzle to be, and write your clues accordingly.  The trickiest clues have many possible answers, and even many possible interpretations of what the clue could mean.  The simplest clues, by contrast, are fairly straightforward and can often be filled in immediately by experienced solvers.

Crossword Hobbyist will provide a preview of your clue-answer pairs before you publish your puzzle, so you can double-check that everything matches up.  In particular, double check the references on any multi-clue answers (e.g. “With 40-down, some clue” and “See 39-down”).

After publishing, be sure to share the link to your puzzle (e.g. CrosswordHobbyist.com/8) with your friends and family!

NOTE: To create a newspaper-style puzzle on Crossword Hobbyist (instead of a standard puzzle), go to your My Puzzles page and click the “Create Newspaper Puzzle” button.

Selling Puzzles Created With Crossword Hobbyist

You can try to sell the puzzles you create on Crossword Hobbyist to newspapers. The New York Times pays $300 for each daily puzzle and $1000 for each Sunday puzzle it accepts, and other publications have their own comparable (though somewhat more modest) payment rates.

Some publications prefer paper submissions, while others accept a number of digital formats. Users of Crossword Hobbyist can submit to any major publication using the widely-accepted .puz format, or a printout.

Most publications require that submissions not be publicly available anywhere else. When you hit the "Publish" button on Crossword Hobbyist, you will have the option to add a password to your puzzle that will prevent your puzzle from being publicly visible to other Crossword Hobbyist users. You can even share the link to your puzzle (and the password) with friends and family, and make changes based on their feedback, without running afoul of publication requirements.

You can find a list of publications that accept puzzle submissions here.