How to Make a Crossword Puzzle

  1. Pick a Theme

    1. Themes can be anything--word play, rhebus, quotes, holiday, and puns are common ones but anything is fair game. A theme is heart of the puzzle, something that makes it more than just mechanically filling in squares. Be creative!

    2. You must be able to come up with enough theme entries, so a theme should be too obscure. A 15x15 needs at least 3 (if they're long) or more. And having more possible themers than the minimum is helpful in case you get to a particularly difficult corner of the puzzle, or to help in working out symmetry.

    3. Many themes contain a reveal, an answer usually towards the end of the puzzle that helps explain the theme.

    4. Not all puzzles have themes. NYT Fridays and Saturdays are usually theme-less. They are usually lower word count (and quite a bit more difficult to construct)

  2. Narrow Down Theme Entries

    1. After brainstorming many entries based on your chosen theme, count and annotate how many letters in each entry

    2. From your pool of themers, start pairing them off based on letter count. Since puzzles are symmetric, for every 13-letter themer in the NW corner, there needs to be a 13-letter themer in the SW corner, etc. If you have an odd number of themers, the unpaired themer should contain an odd number of letters (so it can go across the middle row or column) note: This only applies for diagonally symmetric puzzles

    3. Keep number of themer squares in mind. Fitting 5 15-letter themers into a 15x15 puzzle is a challenge. Similarly, 9 9-letter themers in a daily would make for a grid that is difficult to complete.

  3. Layout Grid

    1. Using graph paper or the digital equivalent, layout your theme entries. Usually themers don't go on the top 2 (and therefore bottom 2) lines.

    2. Keep in mind the standard guidelines for American crossword puzzles:

      • no words of less than 2 letters

      • each square must be reference by 2 clues (one down, one across)

      • Most puzzles are symmetric about the diagonal access. Occasionally the are symmetric about the vertical access. Very rarely are they not symmetric.

    3. Once themers have been place, add in remaining black squares. More black squares generally mean easier to construct though somewhat less desirable to solve/publish. Many publishers have word count and black space caps (e.g. 78 words and 38 black squares).

    4. The black spaces can be changed during construction of the first half of the puzzle, so don't worry too much about getting the grid perfect on the first layout.

  4. Fill

    1. Start with the hardest areas first. These would include words that cross multiple themers or areas with many long answer side by side. It's much easier to find the areas that don't work early on so you can go back and tweak black squares or themer placement.

    2. Use an online crossword dictionary to help. I use

    3. When possible, avoid crossword-ese, words that appear with more frequency in crosswords than in real life (OLEO, OBI, RIA, etc.)

    4. Avoid Naticks, squares where 2 obscure answers cross.

    5. Think ahead about the impact of a word in a particular location. e.g. Words ending in “I”, “u”, and “”v” aren't very common, so try not to paint yourself into a corner

  5. Cluing

    1. The difficulty of a puzzle is often determined by the clues, not the grid.

    2. Use a healthy mixture of common cluing tactics: fill-in-the-blank, synonyms, examples, word play, referential, etc.

    3. Take your time with this part. With the real difficult part over (grid construction), it is easy to want to race through cluing to be done with it all. But good clever clues can be what makes or breaks a puzzle.

    4. Walk away for a time and come back and see if you can improve some clues. By walking away, you can switch from “constructor mode” to “solver mode” and better see what a solver would like and not like.

Crossword Construction Resources

Puzzle Making Workshop - The Foundry Makespace – April 12, 2015 Rod Kimball and Wren Schultz