How are croswords made?

So that thread on the NYT crossword puzzles over in CS made me think of something I was thinking of this week at work, since I have started doing crosswords myself (I suck at them, and can, at best, get about half of the words in the local papers easy crosword.) Btu I still wonder how they go about making them.

When I was in college, I was an editor for a student magazine, and we had a guy who wrote crosswords (I was told he is actually an amazing crossword writer and solver and has placed in several competitions for both.) His crosswords all had themes, of course, and some were even more interesting (he had one where one clue cold spawn two answers, and depending on which one you went with, decided the answers you’d use for the other clues near it.) I remember hearing that he used some kind of software program, and that the program actually made the grid and filled in the words, and he just wrote the clues, which to me seemed like a cop out. But then, if he uses themes and multiple answers and whatnot, obviosly he must have some control over the words in the puzzle. So does one just tell some software to make a puzzle, and to be sure to use a certain list of words?

Years back, I wrote crossword puzzles that I managed to seel to various publications, including the New York Times.

Initially, as a rank amateur, all I did was photocopy existing grids from newspapers, and start filling in entries of my own, with a pen or pencil. Once I was confident that I’d written some decent puzzles, I sent them to some crossword editors (including Will Shortz of the NY Times, Stanley Newman from Newsday).

The bad news is, they all shot me down. The good news is, they were all very nice about it. They sent me the standards they require their writers to follow, and they gave me a lot of feedback about precisely what they liked and didn’t like.

They also recommended some software that I could use to construct puzzles. Nowadays, most of the serious constructors use computers to construct the puzzles… though there are still some very good constructors who prefer to work low tech, and still use the old pencil & paper approach.

Some software packages are simply tools to help the constuctor do the work on his own- but some packages practically write the puzzle for you. With THOSE packages, the constructor just enters 3 or 4 long theme words/phrases, then lets the computer fill in everything else. At that point, the constructor’s job is simply to come up with clever clues for the words the software has loaded into the grid for him.

Now, while that may SOUND like a cheat, let me remind you that a large number of words and phrases show up in MOST crossword puzzles, whether you use a computer or just a pencil and paper. There’s just no way around it. A computer and a human being are equally likely to used “EDIT” and “UMA” and “ELIA.” The only thing a human can do that a computer can’t is come up with a new twist in the clues.

      • There are computer programs for that now.
        -Not that everyone who creates crossword puzzles uses them, but a lot do, at least partly. The programs have built-in dictionaries with clue lists and while creating, it can sort lists of words by positions of key letters. It’s almost like cheating.

Also I thinks Cecil answered this in one of the books–IIRC–where someone asked “how do they make crossword puzzles that are always symmetrical” or something like that…

You come up with the theme, then the themed words, then design the grid around getting the themed words in there.

Then you either turn to software to fill in the rest (results as good as the NYT crossword probably never come from software - even the “ordinary” words are often interesting, involving unusual letters), or do it by hand.

twickster could probably best fill in how much software would help a professional crossword constructor - I know when I made a couple of crosswords by hand, it took me over fifty hours. But for all I know, she could fill out the “boring” parts of a grid as well as the software in as much time as it would take to enter all the grid info into the software, and for a bit more time, do a better job than the software.

There’s an interesting article about one veteran compiler here, which while not answering the OP, does shedsome light on the people behind the puzzles.

A guy I klnow has done some crossword puzzles for a professional publication. He uses commercially-available software. There’s one that will generate an entire symmetrical puzzle all by itself, but the hitch is that he has limited input. He specifies certain words that he wants to show up in there (and he generates the clues for them), trhen punches it in and the software incorporates those words into a symmetric puzzle, adding most of the other words and clues. The other option is that he provides all the words and clues. Since he hasn’t made any effort to make sure he has words of the right length to construct a tight, symmetric puzzle (let alone getting them to fit togetrher), the software generates a “skeleton”-type puzzle.

He does this on a few off-line minutes. It’as not New York Times puzzle quality. Or even Boston Globe quality, but it works.

I don’t know much about commercially available programs – the software at the puzzle factory was custom-written.

In general, however, I will say that I could* recognize machine-written “fill” (as it’s known), because, as Bup points out, a person can tell the difference between an “interesting” word and a boring one, and a machine cannot (unless you’ve instructed it to weight different letters differently, and I’m not aware of any program that does that).

Basically – think Scrabble point values: “FEZ” is a more interesting word than “TEN,” and if the words directly under it are AVA and RAP, it’s a “better” choice, since you’d have FAR/EVA/ZAP (instead of TAR/EVA/NAP) reading down. Kind of a lame example, but I hope that gives you an idea.

As as speed is concerned – yeah, it’s all about practice. I could probably do the fill on a 15 (15x15, or daily-sized) crossword in, I dunno, half an hour or so.

*remember, I’ve left the biz


Thus use of past tense in post.

I think it’s all about memorizing. Crossword puzzles often use repetitive words or words with letters they need and putting difficult clues on them. “Oreo”, for example.
Puzzels that use foreign words, to me, are a cheat. They should be in englsh if published in an engllish speaking country.
BTY I’m not a very good puzzle solver, but have lot’s of fun with them. :slight_smile:

I start with a grid that has been given to me, add a bunch of seed words that I think are interesting, follow a theme or are mildly topical then use software to fill. Once this is done, since it is usually crap, I rework the fill, delete fill, add fill, … continue iterations until an acceptable quality is reached.

I added my word and clues to the software and taken out a lot of rubbish words that came with it.

Hardest part is when you receive a grid that has dreaded two and three words spaces - these don’t have many ‘reasonable’ and original words to fit. It is terrible to see words like ash, asp, ode, etc, … overused. I end up using abbreviations, names or acronyms.