How to construct a crossword puzzle

If you are seriously interested in learning to construct crosswords, there are books and other resources (including mentors) that are incredibly helpful. If you just want an overview of the process, you’re in luck! The folks at Mental Floss have run two articles on that this week alone.

The first one, by a freelancer who does editorial work for the New York Times, was a sorry attempt. It talked about Will Shortz … but then everything went haywire. It said that Will has reviewed hundreds of crossword submissions in 21 years. Actually, it would be close to 8,000 accepted puzzles and probably well over 50,000 rejections in that timespan. And then … the author proceeded to explain the steps for making a criss-cross puzzle. ”

Next, you want to gather a list of words. Depending on level of difficulty, you might want your words to be short and easy or the kind of words you need a Ph.D. in English to know. If a holiday is near or if you know a lot about a certain subject, go with a theme.” Wait, what? “Once everything is laid out, black out the remaining squares.” No mention of symmetry or the actual way that a crossword grid is designed. And then! The last sentence is “If you think your finished product is good enough, the Times will pay you $300 for daily puzzles and $1,000 for a Sunday puzzle.” Um, Shortz doesn’t accept criss-crosses.

Once the crossword people heard about this article, the uproar was swift and highly entertaining, and Mental Floss pulled the feature off its website. (The link above is for a cached version of the page, including comments at the bottom.)

Matt Gaffney responded by pitching an article to Mental Floss that would actually explain how crosswords are made, and the magazine bit. Within a day, Matt had constructed an aptly themed crossword and run it through test-solvers; he wrote his article, and Mental Floss posted it quickly. “Editor’s Note: Last week, we published an item on how crossword puzzles are made. As many, many readers pointed out, we didn’t have our facts straight. You deserve better. So today we’ve enlisted the help of professional crossword puzzle writer Matt Gaffney. Matt currently creates crosswords for The Week, New York Magazine, and  Washingtonian, and he also wrote our book of crosswords. Let’s try this again.” You can solve the puzzle before reading by printing it out from the link at the beginning of the article, or you can just read and perhaps learn. Great work, Matt!

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4 Responses to How to construct a crossword puzzle

  1. john farmer says:

    Well done, Matt!

  2. sps says:

    Wait, Matt wrote their own book of crosswords and they didn’t connect the dots and go to him first? Oh well. The article was great–nice work, Matt!

  3. Bencoe says:

    People still make crosswords? I thought they were automated.

  4. David Benkof says:

    To me, the best part was how making a crossword puzzle involves plenty of “coming up with acronyms.”

    What what what? I’ve been constructing for more than a dozen years, and I have never once invented an acronym.

    Maybe next they can write an essay about how to design a skyscraper written by a kindergartner.

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