People always ask me how I got started writing puzzles, and to be honest, I can’t really remember! I have been creating puzzles for longer than I can remember, starting with simple mazes and find-a-words when I was a child. I taught myself as I went, and developed my skills gradually over the years.
Learning to write puzzles
There are a few resources out there about writing puzzles. There are very few books out there on how to actually go about writing crosswords, creating find-a-words, drawing mazes and so on. Mostly you have to ‘pull apart’ puzzles and figure out the logic of how they’re done for yourself. The puzzle of how to write puzzles is part of the challenge I enjoy!
My book Word Searches For Dummies includes a chapter on how to write your own word search puzzles, using pencil and paper. Good cryptic crossword books are Teach Yourself Crosswords by Alec Robins (out of print), and Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword by D.S. Macnutt. The newest kid on the block is Puzzlecraft, by Americans Selinker and Snyder. I’ve not read it yet, but if you want to learn to write puzzles, it would be a good starting point.
This is an interview I did with Russell Woolf in May 2012, with the ABC radio Perth about being a puzzle writer.
How do I write a crossword?
These are the basic steps I follow when writing a crossword:
- Design the grid. It must have a pattern of black squares that is symmetrical, and fair. No two-letter words are allowed. Words should have at least half of their letters checked (crossed over by a word running in the opposite direction) — these are the rules for the British-style grids that I write, anyway.
- Fill in the words. I start with the longest words in the crossword first, and work my way down from there to the smaller words. I make sure that the words I put into the grid haven’t been used in another crossword from that particular series recently. If I end up with an area of the grid where no words will fit, I remove words from the grid gradually and try new words, until I can get that section to work.
- Write the clues. This step always comes last. I quickly check every word in a dictionary or thesaurus, and then write the clue. For themed crosswords the clues often require more research.
- Prepare the artwork. I put the grids (blank and answer) and clues into Adobe Illustrator, and create a nice layout.
How long does it take to write a puzzle?
This very much depends on what I’m writing. A cryptogram is very quick, as I have custom software to do the translation for me, although I have to choose the type of encryption and other parameters. The whole process, from choosing a quotation, to producing the finished artwork, only takes 10-15 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, a double acrostic can take the better part of a day to compile. Complex mazes are also slow puzzles to create.
A standard quick crossword takes me 45 minutes to one hour to complete. A themed crossword, which has a more restricted word list to work from and specialist clues, such as my Gourmet crossword, takes two to three hours.
A cryptic crossword takes the longest, not surprisingly. Filling the grid is a bit more tricky. Not all words lend themselves to cryptic clueing, so I have to check many of the words as I enter them to see if they can easily be turned into a cryptic clue. And writing the clues takes much longer, of course. I also like to leave the completed puzzle to mellow for a day, and then edit it. A cryptic crossword takes me three to six hours, usually.
What do I use to create my puzzles?
I have custom-written puzzle software for my Mac, courtesy of my rather excellent husband, Dr Ralph. This software helps me to create the grids and layouts for my word searches and crosswords, ensuring that things like word lists, answer files and numbering are always correct. It also allows me to create themed word files. However, it does not place the words — every word in my puzzles is chosen and placed by me, and I also write all clues from scratch.
I use Wordplay Wizard by Ross Beresford for my cryptic crosswords. I had to get a PC emulator (Parallels) to run this software. Totally worth it. Wordplay Wizard brings up nearly all possible wordplay options for a given word, and helps enormously in figuring out new and devious ways of clueing any particular word. For example, if I enter the word TABLE, it will tell me that TABLE can be clued as:
- an anagram of BLEAT
- an anagram of BALLET, with an L deleted
- FABLE, substituting T for the F
- B put inside TALE
- STABLE with the S deleted
- and about 50 other options!