How Crossword Puzzles Are Really Made


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.


If you’d like to solve the puzzle discussed in this article before reading further, click here.

When I tell people at parties that I write crossword puzzles for a living, by far the most common question they ask is, “Would you excuse me for a moment?” If that level of social esteem sounds like something to which you might aspire, follow along as I construct a crossword puzzle from start to finish.

OK, the real first question they ask at parties is, “Which do you write first, the clues or the grid?” Answer: neither. The first thing you do is come up with your puzzle’s theme.

A crossword puzzle’s theme is some unifying motif among certain answers in the grid, generally the longest answers. Crossword themes range from vaguely comprehensible to hellishly complex. For this puzzle we’ll stick to the former.

With an eye toward impressing the client, I decide right off the bat that MENTAL FLOSS should be one of this puzzle’s theme entries, and therefore search for a way to incorporate that phrase into a wider, hopefully amusing pattern. A few minutes of theme-storming later and I spot the TV show ALF bridging the two words in "MENT AL FLOSS." That’s kind of amusing, and my spidey-sense tells me there could be something theme-worthy here.

I decide that this puzzle’s theme will feature two-word phrases bridged by a one-word TV show title. Hidden words are a common theme gimmick, and if I can come up with a fitting title that explains the wordplay involved—something like “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” playing on how the show is “interrupted” by the break between the two words—then we’ll be golden. And I’ll put circles in the grid to highlight the shows, since it’d be tough to understand the theme without them.

Time to make a list of all the one-word TV shows I can find. Google and Wikipedia are my friends here, but my BFF today is IMDb, specifically this page. After 30 minutes of list-scouring, I’ve scribbled down the best few dozen candidate shows, so it’s time to look for the ones that can hide in a two-word phrase. Three-letter shows like ALF or CSI (in "TRAFFI C SIGNS," say) are fine, but it’d be much cooler to use four-, five-, or even a six-letter show if I can find some that work. The phrases I settle on need to be symmetrical in length so they can offset each other in the grid. So if I'm going to use the 11-letter MENTAL FLOSS in the top left, I'll also need an 11-letter entry in the bottom right as its mirror image. The only exception is an entry going across the middle of the grid, which provides its own symmetry.

When I’m done paring the list down, my theme entries look like this:

MENT AL FLOSS hiding “ALF” (11 letters)

JOE L OSTEEN hiding “Lost” (10 letters)

ALABA MA SHAKES hiding “M*A*S*H”(13 letters)

S WING STATE hiding “Wings” (10 letters)

LI VE EPISODE hiding “Veep” (11 letters)

So that’s a decent set, and I like the mix of recent and old-school programming so everyone from teenagers to Baby Boomers and beyond can relate.

I didn’t get my six-letter show, but had a few close calls: COM BAT MANEUVER isn’t quite strong enough (just 75k Google hits) for “Batman,” and “Roswell” came within one letter of being a killer seven-letter show hidden in HE RO’S WELCOME. Can’t get everything you want in life, but this is still a B+ group. Did I miss any good ones? Let me know in the comments if so.

Black square placement is next, guided by some long-established rules: Entries must be at least three letters long, so no TV Guide-style two letter words allowed. The grid must have “180-degree rotational symmetry,” meaning that if you turn it upside-down, the pattern of black squares will remain the same. And finally, the maximum word count permitted in the grid is 78.

With theme entries and black squares placed, my grid looks like this:

Now for the toughest part of the process: Filling the grid, and not just with words that fit but with ones that are fun as well. "AREA" and "ARIA" and "ONO" and "ERIE" are all perfectly good words, but they also appear so often in crosswords that it’s tough to come up with an original clue. You know how many times I’ve scoured Yoko Ono’s Wikipedia page looking for something new to say about her? A lot of times.

Another common party question: “Can’t a computer just fill the grid for you?” Answer: Yes, sort of. A few holdouts (like myself, about 25% of the time) still use graph paper and pencil to fill their grids, which has its own advantages (your brain has fresh entries that haven’t made it into databases yet) and disadvantages (it takes longer, and you might miss something obvious the computer finds in two seconds), but mostly, the process is semi-computerized now, a dance between the human brain’s judgment and the silicon monster’s brute force. You still need both to get a good final product, but autofill programs are gradually making the human contribution less and less important.

I start my fill-work in the center of the grid, a common divide-and-conquer strategy which will leave me with the more blocked-off edges to knock out later. If I start at the edges, I might later find it impossible to finish the center that connects them all, and then I’d be back to square one (rim shot).

The center is also a logical place to begin here since there are three theme entries running through it, which constrains my fill choices. The peripheral sections all have just one or two themers in the area, which makes life easier for me out there.

After about two hours I’ve got a fill I’m satisfied with, especially considering the five theme entries (which is on the high end). As with the theme entries, the fill has a decent balance of contemporary ("HBO," "OMG," "GOLD’S" Gym) and classical ("KABUL," "PARIS," "LBJ"). I'm not too thrilled with having to use the obscure "CIS," the abbreviation "ONT," or the partial "DEO," but that’s how it has to be with crosswords, and I've kept the dreck to a minimum. Plus there’s some catchy stuff in there, like "EASY NOW," "CON JOB," and the cross-referenced "STEELY / DAN" to balance it out.

Now it’s time to clue this thing. I aim for that same mix of old and new, with a few misdirecting clues thrown in to keep the solver on notice. My favorites are [Word that reverses to a “Seinfeld” character] for "REMARK" and [Felt something on your head?] for "FEDORA."

Sometimes, a marginal entry can be rescued with a good clue, like ONT here. Abbreviations are considered suboptimal, but this one is saved by the misdirecting [Neighbor of N.Y. and Minn]. Hopefully you were trying to envision what U.S. state could possibly border both of those.

Finally, it’s time to fact-check all my clues. Crossword editing tip: check everything, especially the clues you know something about already. That’s where the errors come. For instance, I’ve read three or four Michener books, but "IBERIA" at 2-Down isn’t one of them. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; my original clue referred to it as a Michener “novel,” since all of his books that I’ve read have been novels. I checked this one to be safe—and sure enough, Iberia is a work of non-fiction.

The very last step is a quick test-solve to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It all looks good, so I export the puzzle into a tidy e-file and send it off to my editor at 17-Across (which rhymes with its answer, "MENTAL FLOSS").

Total time elapsed, from theme concept to clicking “send,” is a little under six hours. And here she is: