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!]
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