There’s much demand for Crossword puzzles, and unlike other puzzle types like sudokus or mazes, it takes skill to create a great crossword puzzle. I’m by no means an expert, but as part of the research to create crossword software, I decided to document what I’ve learnt. This overview can be applied to all ways to create the puzzles, manually or supported with software.
Each crossword puzzle starts with a word list. Usually you’ll have different lists:
- A themed word list, for example: “expensive cars”, “Christmas”, “nature”, or any topic that you want to focus on,
- A dictionary, or ‘generic’ word list, that can be used for the clues.
For specific types of puzzles, such as Criss Cross, the word list may also include the clues for the words, for example: “Sudoku: Logic puzzle with numbers”. Many Criss Cross puzzle generators require the word list to include the clues as well. For regular Crossword puzzles (e.g. New York Times style, also called ‘American Crossword’), it’s more common to have a separate word list without clues, and a ‘dictionary’ list, that has the clues for millions of words.
Creating the puzzle
The next step is to create a puzzle. Obviously this really depends on the type of puzzle that you create. For now, we’ll discuss Criss Cross and American Crossword.
If you’re using specific Crossword software (such as Puzzle Maker Pro – Criss Cross), the exact workflow will be determined by that product. However, if you create puzzles manually, there are several options:
- Using a pencil and paper – definitely use a pencil, so you can erase words, instead of having to start all over if you reach a dead end
- Using Excel – you can resize the columns in Excel to make a natural looking grid, and you can also add border lines and change the color of cells in Excel
- Using a table in Word or Powerpoint (or in other products) may help you to add and remove letters without having to erase your pencil writing multiple times
Creating Criss Cross puzzles
For Criss Cross puzzles, you’ll usually create a word list of 10 to 20 words, and then place all these words in the puzzle. Many software options require you to have the clues as part of the word list. If you create the puzzle manually, that’s not required.
- Create the empty grid for your puzzle, for example a 20×20 grid. This will help you position the words;
- Clean up the words, e.g. remove spaces and other symbols, so you’ll know the exact length of each word. Although this is not strictly required, it makes it easier to see right away whether a word will fit;
- Start with the longest word, and put it exactly where you want it;
- Add the next word, and make sure it overlaps with the first word – if you don’t make sure of this when you add a word, you may end up with multiple separated ‘word islands’.
- Rinse and repeat
Creating American Crossword puzzles
For American Crossword puzzles you may use a themed word list. In general, the longest words in the puzzle should be part of the theme. If the longest word would be ‘Halloween’, you should not include 9 letter words (or longer) that are not related to the theme.
- Set up the grid – using the size you want, e.g. 20×20, and then add the blocking squares to delimit the words. The grid should be symmetrical, and obviously you’ll need to take the length of the words on your themed word list into account;
- Add the words from your themed list. It’s best if these can also be placed in overlapping positions, but not a hard requirement. However, you’ll need to add all these words before starting to add generic words;
- Add words from a generic dictionary (usually online or specialized software) that will help you to find words with an ‘E’ on 4th position and a ‘Z’ on 7th position. (This is just an example, you may need other letters)
- Sometimes you may need to remove some already placed words because there’s just not a good word to add. This may happen if you already placed the word before, since it’s not good practice to add the same word more than once. Or the only word that fits is a word that you definitely don’t want to use in a puzzle. (You’ll also find that you’re become more demanding when you create more puzzles – at first “AAA: Battery type” will do, but after time you’ll expect more variety and challenge yourself to do better).
Depending on your workflow, you may be able to add or change clues for the words after the puzzle is created. For regular ‘American’ Crossword puzzles, that’s the only way to do it. For Criss Cross, you be using a word list that includes clues.
Why you should pay attention to the clues for your puzzle
There are different ways to create puzzles, and different levels of quality that you may pursue. I grew up with crossword puzzles (or actually: when I grew up, my mom solved the puzzles and sometimes asked me the very easy words) where almost every puzzle would include words like “unmeasurable number”, and I would remember that would be ‘PI’. (Even though I didn’t know exactly what it was used for at the time.
However, when you’d want to submit your puzzles to the New York Times (to make money), you’ll definitely have to do better. Once you’re puzzle is done, and you’ve made sure most of the words are interesting and not just the ‘same old same old’, you’ll also want to manually adjust the clues. For example, for a word like “SUDOKU”, you can use clues like “logic puzzle”, “puzzle with numbers 1 to 9”, “modern puzzle using latin squares”, “puzzle with 81 squares”, and so on. This makes your puzzles more interesting and challenging.
Puzzle Maker Pro software for Crosswords
Finally a few words about our software:
Based on the research we did for crossword puzzles, we decided to support several workflows for our software:
- For Criss Cross puzzles, you can start with a your own word list that includes clues, and then generate puzzles and a puzzle book very fast,
- For Criss Cross puzzles, you can also start with your own word list that has clues for some words (or none at all) and then add the clues after the puzzle is generated (but before the puzzle book is generated)
- You can even add a ‘main’ (or: dictionary) word list that will be used to find clues. This way you only need a list of words, without clues, to generate puzzles
- When editing the clues for your new puzzles, you can automatically add these clues to a ‘custom’ word list, that can be used for reference or inspiration when you create more puzzles
- (Unfortunately we do not include a generic dictionary at this point in time).
This means: if you already have word lists that contain clues, you can start generating complete puzzles and puzzle books quickly. Otherwise, the software helps you to build your collection of words and clues, speeding up future puzzle creation for you.