When people hear that I make crossword puzzles with the help of a computer program, they’re usually surprised by how easy it must be. And while it’s true that I’m grateful not to be constructing in the era of graph paper and leafing through dictionaries, it is harder than it may sound.I thought it could be fun to go behind the scenes of this week’s crossword, so I’ll use it as an example for my process. Mild spoilers follow, so I suggest you flip to page 7 first and return here for the inside look.
I started this week staring at a blank 5-by-5 grid, racking my brain for a unifying concept. If I can get two or three interesting, related entries, I’m happy.
As it happens, the crossword you see was my second attempt. After 40 minutes of work, I had finally come to a grid I liked — only to realize that I’d created a remarkably similar theme just eight months ago. Back to the drawing board.
I finally settled on money-related slang to anchor the puzzle. This came together much quicker than usual, and in just 30 minutes, I had a puzzle ready for testing. A typical week ranges from 20 minutes to two hours, so the crossword gods, as they say, were nice this week.
Most of my work is to sort through grid permutations and weed out “junk” entries. The system’s dictionary uses a list of words I’ve input from various sources, numbering somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, and after I’ve put in the first entries, it’ll spit out the possible solutions for the rest of the grid. It lets me know if the grid is currently unfillable, which helps to know where to put black squares.
Most of the words the system automatically suggests are junk: words that are too niche or old, and most people wouldn’t have a reason to know. This week, I passed on words like ROLEO (a logging contest), AGUES (another word for fevers) and BTHU (an abbreviation for British Thermal Units that no one uses). They were too out-of-reach and not sparkling enough for a mini crossword.
Then, it’s time for the clues. The only wordplay or misdirection this week was with 5-Down appearing age-related — recovering from a misdirect is really satisfying as a solver.
For me, crosswords started with solving in high school, and after about a year of attempting them nearly daily, I started dabbling in construction. I bought the software, Crossfire, in 2019 for $50 — a worthwhile investment.
I’ve made a few larger 15-by-15 puzzles, and those are a more significant undertaking. I’ve submitted a couple to the New York Times, and lead editors Will Shortz and Joel Fagliano said they “loved the concept” and gave some helpful tips. I revised one of my submissions, and after resubmitting, they said that they enjoyed the theme — but in the meantime, they had published another puzzle with a similar concept. Oh well. I’ve got some more in the queue that I hope to have time to work on and submit.
I also tried a national crossword scholarship for three years straight, and after two second-place finishes, I won last year. Practice helps; I’ve definitely gotten better over time.
Stephen King said that if you want to be a great writer, you should do two things: “read a lot, and write a lot.” My advice for aspiring constructors would be very similar: solve a lot, and construct a lot.