How to Make a Great Crossword Puzzle

If you’re a logophile, or word-lover, then you know that there are few greater joys than completing a crossword puzzle. The clever mix of clues and cunning use of simple and play-on-words answers mean you can spend hours lost in thought and word definitions. If you’re one of the millions of people who love spending Sundays with the New York Times’ Crossword Puzzle, the next time you want to flex that puzzle-solving muscle, consider making your own. Here are six steps to creating a great crossword puzzle.

Narrow Down Your Audience

The first step in making a crossword puzzle is choosing an audience. You’ll make a very different kind of puzzle if your audience is kids, college students, adults or industry-specific employees. The audience will influence the level of difficulty, theme, answers and clues. If you want to try and sell your puzzle to a specific publication, make sure you are familiar with the types of puzzles that publication usually includes.

Choose a Theme

With your audience in mind, choose a theme that will link the answers in the puzzle. It can be something as simple as “house.” This theme would then guide the creation of the puzzle, meaning the long answers in the puzzle would have to do with parts of a house. You can be more creative than this too, but when first starting out it’s easier to keep your theme simple. The best themes are narrow and consistently applied throughout the puzzle.

Another common way to choose a theme is to pose a question. The answer to the question would be made up of the longer answers in the puzzle. With this kind of theme, sometimes people are able to answer the thematic question before they can solve the individual clues.

You can draw inspiration for the theme from your favorite puzzle makers, everyday objects around you, subjects you’re passionate about or even your kids. As you brainstorm about your theme, list all related words that come to mind and their letter count. This will help later on with answers.

One caveat to this step is that not all crossword puzzles have a theme. However, picking a theme will make the other steps easier. Themes also make the puzzles easier and more enjoyable for your audience.

Design the Grid Layout

Once you select a theme, the next step is setting up the grid. The grid is the mix of black space and white boxes where your audience will fill out answers across and down. It’s best to start small and then work your way up to more complex grids. In general, grids are symmetrical, but some puzzle makers get creative and use grids that look like animals or other shapes.

To this day, the New York Times follows the same rules established by the paper’s first crossword editor, Margaret Farrar:

  • Use an odd number of squares on a side
  • The grid should have 180-degree symmetry
  • Black squares should make up no more than 1/6th of the grid
  • Word count should be between 72 (if no theme) and 78 (for a grid with 15 squares across)
  • The theme-based answers should be in symmetrical positions in the grid

Of course, you don’t have to follow the New York Times’ example. As you work on crosswords yourself, take note of the layouts of those puzzles. Try out different layouts and see which one you like working with or is most appropriate for your desired audience.

Fill in the Grid with Answers

The next step is creating the answers. Yes, you decide on the answers before you come up with the clues. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is how you ensure that all of the words will fit into the grid.

Here are some general rules of thumb for coming up with answers:

  • Start with the longest answers first
  • Then work across and down until you hit a corner
  • Do not repeat answers
  • When choosing answers for the words that go across, follow a pattern of “vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant” or vowel-heavy words since they will give you more flexibility for words that go down
  • If a word going across requires specialized or advanced knowledge, keep the words going down a little easier
  • Consonant-heavy works are more difficult to work into a puzzle
  • Theme-based answers should have the same letter count (contributes to the symmetry of the puzzle)

It can also be fun to try and work in a “marquee answer” or an answer that is a new phrase, something relevant to the news or pop culture, etc. You can also try to work in secret messages in your puzzles too for additional fun.

There are autofill programs that can fill in the grid for you, but it’s more fun to come up with the answers yourself.

Create Clues that Tie to the Answers

Writing clues is probably the hardest part of the puzzle. While you can put straightforward clues such as “equipment used in baseball” for a three letter answer of “bat”, the real fun of crosswords comes from making the person solving the puzzle really think. You want the person working on the puzzle to spend enough time solving the clues so that they feel clever and smart when they figure out the answer, but not so long that they get frustrated and abandon it.

Clues should be entertaining and witty and make liberal use of gimmicks and wordplay. If you are trying to come up with a new word or definition, check out WordsAPI. Our tool can help you find related words, definitions and more with our easy to use API for the English language. It’s a fun way to play with the English language – something that every great crossword puzzle maker does.

After you’ve developed a knack for writing clues, you can then advance to the New York Times’ standard of never repeating a word in the answers or the clues.

Review the Puzzle to See if You can Make it Better

With a draft of your theme, grid, answers and clues complete, take time to review your puzzle to see if anything can be tightened up or made more relevant to the theme. Let a friend test it out and ask for feedback.

Also, be sure to fact check your clues. Even if a clue and answer come from your area of expertise, it’s always good to double-check.

Get Started on Your First Crossword Puzzle Today

No matter your motivation – for fun or for publication – you can start working on designing a great crossword puzzle today. If you love the English language and playing with words, making puzzles is a fun and easy way to indulge in this passion. Making puzzles can also help you build skills to complete puzzles more quickly and easily. With a better understanding of how puzzle makers think, you’ll be better able to intuit answers and solve clues.

As with any new skill, it’s best to start small and gradually increase the complexity of your puzzles. As you make and complete more puzzles, you sure to become a cruciverbalist in no time.

Have you ever made a crossword puzzle? What tips and tricks can you share?