Let’s make our own crosswords!

Stumped on what to get the puzzle lover in your household? Well, if didn’t find anything in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, why not make a special crossword just for them?

It’s the perfect do-it-yourself gift, and I’m happy to show you how! Welcome to PuzzleNation Blog’s How to Make a Crossword!

1.) The theme

The most important part of a crossword is choosing a theme. If you’re constructing with ambitions of submitting to the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, you’ll need something inventive and tricky up your sleeve. 

But if you’re constructing for a friend or loved one, the theme is easy: make it about them!

Come up with your theme entries. For a gift puzzle, these could be hobbies, nicknames, favorite sports teams or TV shows, anything about them, really! Be sure to come up with several pairs of the same number of letters. (It’s a necessity when it comes to crossword symmetry.)

Choosing theme entries is often something done in tandem with choosing a grid, since word placement is a crucial part of building any grid.

For my example puzzle, I’m using a list of celebrity names.

2.) The grid

Constructing a grid from scratch can be tough, so I’d recommend first-time constructors check out sample grids. You can browse the newspapers until you find one that suits your needs, or you can let the Internet do the work for you! CrosswordGrids.com has a selection to choose from, for instance. If you’re using a construction program like Crossword Compiler, you can browse options for grids as well.

If you’re looking to start regularly constructing crosswords, I’d suggest building up a library of grids with various theme-entry lengths. (My personal grid library is organized by theme layouts, so if I have two 11-letter entries and two 10-letter entries, I can flip to a 10-10-11-11 in my folder.)

Here’s the grid I’ve chosen for today’s puzzle because it fit the theme entries I wanted. (Ignore the red box. That’s simply Compiler’s cursor.)

Now, I know all that white space to fill can seem intimidating, but placing the theme entries not only helps to guide the fill (the process of completing the grid), but breaks up that white space into manageable sections.

Here is the same grid with the theme entries placed:

3.) The fill

Filling a grid by hand is time-consuming but worthwhile, because you can be creative with using pop culture references, proper nouns, phrases, abbreviations, and whatever else the grid demands.

Since I was using a demo version of Compiler, I opted to try out its Autofill feature to see what my options were. As you can see, I ended up swapping the locations of SILVERSTONE and CHAMBERLAIN to improve my chances of a successful fill.

After settling on the fill for the center section (spreading from bottom left to top right), I started working on the fill for the top left portion.

Here’s the best fill the program could offer:

But I wasn’t satisfied with it, so I began tinkering on my own.

That’s probably the most daunting part of making your own crossword, but there are numerous resources available to the aspiring puzzle creator.

Not only are there Autofill programs like the one employed by Compiler, but there are also websites where you can input letter patterns and see what your options are. Both Onelook.com and Xwordinfo.com are terrific resources.

Here’s the result of my own tinkering:

There would be further gridwork throughout the editing process, as I eliminated abbreviations, vocabulary I gauged as too difficult, and grievous examples of crosswordese.

Don’t get discouraged! I had to try lots of different word combinations to make it come together. All of which was time well spent in my opinion.

Here’s my completed grid:

As you can see, including phrases and pop culture references definitely helped out, especially at middle left where JAWAS was a handy inclusion, as well as bottom center where IFI and AFOOL are crossing.

Which brings us to the grand finale.

4.) The cluing

Now, cluing takes on an entirely different dimension if you’re hoping to publish your crossword, versus the cluing style you’d use for a homemade puzzle for a friend or loved one. When it comes to published puzzles, your clues need to be interesting, engaging, and more than a little crafty.

(Note: It’s true that the theme is often what sells your puzzle to editors like Will Shortz, but a reputation for clever cluing is always a good bonus.) 

For instance, a puzzle of celebrity names could prove a bit boring when it comes to cluing, but I chose the entries I did intentionally, because I already knew the clues I wanted to write for them. (These clues were based on a series of outstanding puns a friend of mine made on Twitter.)

My theme is Celebrity Groupings, and the clues reflect that.

17 Across: A ____ of tuxedo belts
8 Down: A ____ of discarded Old English words
53 Across: A ____ of shriveled utensils

In this instance, the clues make all the difference.

Of course, if you’re making a crossword as a gift, the above still applies. Cluing makes all the difference. You can tailor the clues specifically to the intended recipient. Inside jokes and references should run rampant, even for the words used in the fill.

For 37 Across, you could say “What Uncle Rob does for at least three days longer than necessary.”
For 39 Down, you could clue it as “General Kittybuns’s sign of pleasure.”

Have fun with it! If you can make them laugh or say “Oh yeah!” and remember a fun moment while they’re solving, it makes the gift even more special.

And if you do try constructing your own, let us know how you did! We’d love to see what our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers come up with!

[Stay tuned, aspiring constructors! On Thursday, I’ll be posting part 2 of today’s How To, featuring advice from published constructors and puzzlemakers!]

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

Hmmm… 4 letter word. “Pointers.” .. Oh! “Tips!”

A few weeks from now, we’ll be celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and in celebration, PuzzleNation Blog will be focusing on crosswords for the entire month of December!

And what better way to start than highlighting some tips for crossword solving?

Whether you’re diving right in with a Sunday New York Times puzzle or just picking up the Monday puzzle in your local paper (or the puzzle on one of those page-a-day calendars), here are some helpful hints to sharpen your solving skills.

–Puzzles in the newspaper tend to get harder as the week goes on. Saturday puzzles are usually the most difficult, so if you’re just starting out, Monday and Tuesday are excellent puzzles to try out.

–Whether you’re solving with pencil or pen, write softly. This will make it easier to erase mistakes or to write over them, depending on your writing implement of choice. Newspapers and puzzle magazines aren’t made from the hardiest paper, and it’s easy to tear a hole with an eraser unintentionally, or fill up a tiny square with one or two false starts.

–Don’t be afraid to use the margin to list possible answers before committing to filling in the grid. Some clues lend themselves to multiple interpretations — “cleave” could be a clue for “cling” or “split,” for instance — and sometimes it helps to keep potential answers nearby to be eliminated later.

–Remember, you don’t have to start at 1 Across and work your way through the list consecutively. Let your eyes jump around the clue list. Look for something you know.

–Look for quotation marks and blank spaces. Quotation marks usually indicate film, movie, or song titles, and blanks often involve completing titles or phrases. (A clue with quotation marks AND a blank is a prime candidate for early gimmes.)

–Similarly, keep your eyes peeled for hints within clues. A foreign word in a clue indicates a foreign word answer. An abbreviation hints at an abbreviated answer.

–Verb tense can be helpful as well. “Broke down” is past tense, so an -ed ending is likely. “Breaking down” implies an -ing ending, while “breaks” could mean an -s ending. (Be careful, though. Craftier constructors may use phrases as answers, so “appends” could have an answer like “tacks on.”)

–Keep an eye out for question marks, since these indicate that a pun, joke, or some form of wordplay is afoot. (For examples of some cunning clues, check out this collection of constructors’ favorite clues.)

From The West Wing:

Jed Bartlet: Three letters. “It may be bitter.” “Tea,” right?
Abbey Bartlet: “It may be bitter?”
Jed: Yeah.

Abbey: “End,” you idiot. “Bitter end.”

–Once you’ve placed a word you feel confident about, check the words nearby, especially the clues for words crossing your entry. Just one or two placed letters can make a big difference when figuring out other entries. Similarly, focusing on an individual section instead of the entire grid can make a puzzle less daunting.

–As you grow accustomed to solving crosswords, you’ll probably discover some words you only encounter while puzzle-solving. We refer to these words as “crosswordese,” and while many constructors have made a concentrated effort to eliminate crosswordese entries whenever possible, some invariably slip through the cracks. Familiarizing yourself with the worst offenders is often helpful.

–Keep solving!

It’s easy to get frustrated, especially if two proper nouns are crossing, or if you haven’t been able to suss out the theme of a given puzzle just yet, but don’t give up! Take a break for a few minutes, or invite someone to solve with you. Say a few clues out loud and see if that sparks anything.

Good luck and happy solving to you!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! Be sure to check out our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, featuring dozens of terrific puzzle books, games, and products!

You can also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!