1. Symmetry. The pattern of black-and-white squares must be symmetrical. Generally this rule means that if you turn the grid upside-down, the pattern will look the same as it does right-side-up. This is referred to as rotational symmetry. Sometimes left-right symmetry can be used if your theme entries require it, but rotational symmetry is the norm.
2. Do not use too many black squares. In the old days of puzzles, black squares were not allowed to occupy more than 16% of a grid. That is still a good guideline, however, nowadays there is no strict limit, in order to allow maximum flexibility for the placement of theme entries. Still, “cheater” black squares (ones that do not affect the number of words in the puzzle, but are added to make constructing easier) should be kept to a minimum, and large clumps of black squares anywhere in a grid are strongly discouraged.
3. No unchecked squares. Do not use unchecked squares (also called unkeyed letters – letters that appear in only one word across or down). In fairness to solvers, every letter has to appear in both an Across and a Down word. This is the main distinguishing factor between American-style crosswords and British crosswords, where unchecked squares are permitted.
4. No one- or two-letter words. The minimum word length is three letters, and these should be kept to a minimum. In a 15x15 grid, 18-20 is about the maximum number of three-letter words you want, but that is a style point, not a rule.
5. All-over interlock. This means black squares may not cut the grid into separate pieces. A solver, theoretically, should be able to proceed from any section of the grid to any other without having to stop and start over. There are no isolated sections of the grid that do not connect to every other part.
6. Symmetry of theme answers. Long theme entries should be symmetrically placed. If there is a major theme entry three rows down from the top of the grid, for instance, then there must be another theme entry in the same position three rows up from the bottom. Also, as a general rule, no non-theme entry should be longer than any theme entry.
7. No duplicate words. Do not repeat words in the grid. This holds true for expressions that share a common word. SEE RED should not appear in the same puzzle with SEE OFF, or MUST-SEE. This is not a fatal flaw, however, especially for words like IN, ON, TO, AT, etc., but you don’t want to get carried away. Also, words in the grid should generally not appear anywhere in the clues, but certainly not in the same clue as the word. For example, you would not want to clue HOME PLATE as “Umpire’s home on the diamond.”
8. No made-up entries. Do not make up words and phrases. Except for theme answers where you might be making some wordplay, every answer must have a reference or else be in common use in everyday speech or writing. Common expressions that may not appear in dictionaries, such as DREAM ON, or ZOOM MEETING, are perfectly okay, and can even be desirable, but avoid entries like COLD PIZZA and PAVED ROAD, which are referred to as “green paint” (another example).
9. The vocabulary in a crossword should be lively and have very little obscurity. Entries should be “in the language” or idiomatic. Avoid overuse of crosswordese, abbreviations and proper names. Also, try to make the crossings fair. If there is an obscure word going across, make sure that all of the down entries crossing that word are common or inferable. Watch out for this in the case of “trivia answers.” Remember, the idea is for the puzzle to be solved, so you don’t want a frustrated solver who gets a sports name crossing a musician’s name, unless one or the other is extremely well known (i.e., even to those who are not fans of the sport or the musician).
10. Word count. This is a style point and not a rule. The fewer words in the grid, the harder it is to fill cleanly. But the more fun it is to solve, so a lot of constructors like to go for low-count grids. When submitting to a publisher, a 15x15 grid is usually required to have a maximum of 78 words. That is a typical Monday – Wednesday grid, and for beginners, it’s a good target to aim for. I think even 80 words is OK for a beginner, and will probably not be noticeable to most solvers. When you get above that, you probably have too many short words. On the other side, 76 words is pretty manageable, but when you get to 74 and below, it’s going to start to get trickier to fill the grid.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and many puzzles will not strictly adhere to these guidelines. For example, meta puzzles will often have theme entries that are not symmetrical or the longest entries in the gird because they are hidden or somehow part of the meta. But these are good guidelines to strive for and if you are violating them, you should have a good, and usually theme-related, reason for doing so.
Resources – Theory and Process.
Before you dive in and get started, here are a few links that walk you through the process of creating a crossword, from start to finish, along with a few others that I hope will give you some insight into the art-science of constructing a grid. Even if you are not interested in constructing crosswords, I think you will find this information interesting. Although you may have no desire to ever make a puzzle, getting yourself to think like a constructor will make you a better solver.
The New York Times series “How To Make a Crossword Puzzle." In 2018, Wordplay, the crossword blog of The New York Times, published this cool series where well-known veteran constructors create a puzzle from start to finish, with each team working on a different step of the same puzzle:
- Part 1: Ben Tausig and Finn Vigeland design a crossword puzzle theme.
- Part 2: David Steinberg and Natan Last design the grid.
- Part 3: Kevin Der and Paolo Pasco fill the grid.
- Part 4: Robyn Weintraub and Brad Wilber write the clues.
Patrick Berry’s Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. Remember those yellow and black “[Just About Anything] for Dummies” books? Well, puzzle maker extraordinaire Patrick Berry wrote one in 2003 on how to construct crosswords. Since I assume that is just about the nichiest of all niche markets, the book unfortunately went out of print after only a few years, but lucky for us, Patrick has made it available on his website for only $10. If you are familiar with Patrick’s work, it should not surprise you that this book is chock full exceptional information about all aspects of constructing crosswords: themes, grid design, fill, clue-writing, word lists, software, etc. If you are thinking at all about designing your own crosswords, stop reading this post and go buy this book immediately. It is delivered electronically in PDF format, so as soon as you pay, you can go download the PDF. It comes with 70 of Patrick Berry’s puzzles, so even if you are purely a solver, I think you would enjoy reading this book and getting some insight into Patrick’s puzzle-creation process.
Cruciverb.com is an online resource center for crossword puzzle constructors. Full access costs about $40 per year, but there is a ton of good information on the site available to non-subscribers. Start on the left-hand side of the home page under the heading RESOURCES. Here, you will find information on the specification requirements of various publishers, a detailed description of the various constructing software available as well as a version of the Basic Rules discussed above. The real gem of this section, however, is the Sage Advice link. This is a collection of articles by top constructors including Nancy Solomon, Rich Norris and others. The articles are short, so it will be worth your while to read them all, but my favorites are ”Theme Advice for Novices” and ”Letting Go”, both by Nancy Solomon.
Bloggers. Reading expert commentary about daily crossword puzzles is a great way to get a feel for what makes a good puzzle, such as what constitutes a “clean grid” or a “tight set of theme entries.” There is tons of commentary out there in blogs and on Twitter, but the three that I personally find the most helpful are:
- Crossword Fiend. Thoughtful commentary from various experts on most of the major daily crossword puzzles, along with a message board including solver comments.
- Xword Info Solution and Notes on NYT Puzzle. Includes background written by that day’s constructor (usually), as well as analysis by Jeff Chen. It is interesting to read about the construction of the puzzle in the words of the person who made it. And Jeff is an expert constructor who gives great insight and analysis of the mechanics of each daily puzzle.
- Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. Michael Sharp (aka Rex Parker) can be abrasive, harsh, overly critical and overtly political. It’s amusing to some (yours truly included) and off-putting to others. But if you can stomach it, his analysis of the quality of a crossword puzzle is usually spot-on. If you’re looking at a section of your grid and thinking, “Rex Parker would hate this,” then it’s probably worth your while to tear that section out and start over.
Finally, here are some sites that will actually assist you in creating puzzles. For now, I’m going to forego discussion of constructing software and word lists. This post is already turning into a treatise, and those topics are both well-covered in Partick Berry’s Crossword Constructing Handbook, and the Cruciverb Sage Advice page, each of which is discussed above.
Xword Info is a great site with loads of free information about the NYT Crossword available without having to register. The most valuable features (to me) are the daily analysis discussed above, the Answer / Clue Finder and the Puzzle Analyzer.
- The Answer Finder lets you search for any answer that has EVER appeared in a New York Times crossword puzzle. You enter search parameters, and it returns a list of answers including the puzzle date, a link to the grid, the clue and the author, going back to 1942! You can use ? to represent a single character, * to represent a string of characters, among other options (so, P??CH will return all instances of PORCH, PEACH, PSYCH, etc., and P*CH will return POWER LUNCH, PRIVATE BEACH, etc.). The Clue Finder works the same way, but searches clues instead of answers. It’s less useful in constructing, but still comes in handy.
- The Puzzle Analyzer allows you to upload a .PUZ file and the website will analyze your puzzle and present statistics on how your grid compares to NYT puzzles of every day of the week in terms of number of blocks, word count, average word length and Freshness Factor, which is a measurement of the liveliness of your fill. A grid with lots of crosswordese scores low on the Freshness Factor scale, while a grid with lots of unusual or unique words scores higher. It’s a really cool feature, and even if you’re not looking to publish a puzzle, it’s fun to see how your grid compares to published NYT puzzles.
OneLook. Most people are aware of this site. It works just like the answer finders described above, but instead of searching for answers that have appeared in crossword puzzles, it returns answers from dictionary searches. That can be both good and bad. Good because searching a wider array of words can return entries that may be fresher than those that have only appeared in crosswords. Bad because it searches slang dictionaries and abbreviation dictionaries and can return a lot of non-usable results.
Qat. This is like a more complicated version of OneLook. It doesn’t seem to cast as wide a net as OneLook, and it’s not as user friendly, but there is a lot more ability to refine your search parameters. You will probably need to refer to the instructions in order to make any use of this site.
These are some other useful online tools, but there are many others out there that do the same thing. These are just my personal favorites.
Word Hippo Online Thesaurus and other word tools
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I hope some of this is useful to you if you are thinking about getting into constructing crosswords. I like to encourage people to try their hand at constructing because I have found it so rewarding myself. For me, it is a logical next step for someone who loves solving crossword puzzles. Feel free to ask any questions or to add your own suggestions or favorite tools to this thread. Same for corrections or different points of view - I am not an expert, just an enthusiast! And always feel free to reach out to me by PM if you have any questions or would like to collaborate on a puzzle. I'm always looking for good ideas for a puzzle, so if you're not yet comfortable with constructing, shoot me your idea and maybe I can help you turn it into a grid.