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How to create quick and cryptic crossword puzzles

10:19 Fri 03rd Sep 2021 |

Millions of people around the globe enjoy solving crosswords. But how do you go about creating one?

Martin Woods, creator of over 500 crosswords for The Big Issue reveals a step-by-step guide on how to create quick and cryptic crosswords.

Creating the Grid – The manual approach

First, decide what dimensions you’d like your first crossword to be. 11x11 is a small grid and would be where I’d recommend you start for your very first crossword. 15x15 is a standard size for many newspapers.

Most crosswords are symmetrical. If you rotate them 180 degrees, they’ll look the same. Another alternative is to wite something with some of the black spaces. This works well if it’s a gift for a friend with a short name, or the theme can be summarised down to 3 or 4 letters. The more black spaces, the easier it will be for you to find words that fit and the harder it will be for puzzlers to solve. This is due to the number of places where the across and down answers interconnect.

For your first puzzle, feel free to use the grid below. This has four 10 letter words. If you start with those, then it neatly divides the crossword into four quarters. This means that if you need to backtrack as you just can’t find a word that fits, it won’t disrupt the whole puzzle.

Crossword puzzle

As a general rule – start with the longest words. For cryptic crosswords, I normally figure out what the clue will be for these long words too before I complete the rest of the grid.

Crosswords can be tricky to solve, so judge your target audience and make sure that they’ll know the vast majority of words you use both in the answers and clues. 

If you’re struggling to find words that fit, there are various crossword dictionaries out there. OneLook is a fantastic online crossword dictionary. Simply enter the letters you have and question marks for those you don’t and it will show you a list of possible words. For example, ?L?E? will give you 75 common words including ALIEN, ALLEY and ELVES. For the best results, click Customize in the footer, then scroll down and tick Letters only (crossword puzzle mode).

Aim to put letters that appear the most often in English on the intersecting spaces. E, T and A are the most frequently used (but try to avoid A at the end of a word). J, X, Q and Z are the hardest to find matching words for.

The graph below shows how frequently different letters are used. How many points a letter’s worth in Scrabble is also a good guide – the more points it’s worth, the harder it will be to find letters for other clues that match.

Letter frequency

The best online crossword creators

Instead of creating your own grid, you may wish to use an online crossword generation tool. We’ve reviewed the 5 best tools below:

Creation – Offers a full range of features including American style crosswords and different shapes. For an extra fee their Pro Grid Filler add-on will fill in complete crossword grids to a professional standard.Design – Well-designed crosswords in print and online form. The online version includes a ‘Reveal Letter’ and ‘Reveal Word’ option, which is great for those frustrating moments when you just can’t solve a clue. 

Creation – Allows you to create complete crossword puzzles in a user-friendly fashion, but without all the neat add-ons of Crossword Compiler. If you're a blogger you can email them for free access.

Design – Print and online puzzles that can be embedded in your website. No ‘Reveal Letter’ options. 

Creation – Creates a basic grid based on the words and answers you enter. This will have few Across/Down intersections, making it harder to solve.

Design – Makes print and online versions.

Creation – Generates a grid based on the clues and answers you enter. Includes the option to import / export CSV files.

Design –Makes print and online versions. 

Creation – Creates a basic grid based on the words and answers you enter.

Design –Print only.

In summary, for a professional is your best option. For an amateur blogger, will give you everything you need.

Writing Quick Clues

If you plan on creating a quick crossword, then there are a few different structures of clue you can use. These are:

  • Synonyms – Ramble (4) = WALK
  • Definitions – Tall plant (4) = TREE
  • Fill in the blank – Leonardo Da ___ (5) = VINCI
  • General knowledge – Capital of France (5) = PARIS
  • Playful clues – Buffer? (8) = NATURIST

If you’re creating a crossword as a gift, then it’s great to throw in some personal references about the recipient. Similarly, if your crossword has a theme, then general knowledge clues can work particularly well.

For playful clues, also called pure cryptics, it’s standard to put a question mark at the end of the clue to show the solver that they need to look for a play on words. In the example of Buffer (8), this is a fun reference to “one who’s in the buff”.

Writing Cryptic Clues

Cryptic clues have one to three components, depending on the type of clue:

  • Quick clue – At the start or end of nearly every cryptic clue will be what is essentially a quick clue, as defined above.
  • Cryptic element – The cryptic component of the clue. This might be an anagram to solve, something that sounds like the answer, two or more components that have to be stuck together or inserted inside each other, etc.
  • Clue type indicator – A hint that tells you what type of clue you’re trying to solve.

It’s therefore not surprising that when someone first sees a cryptic crossword, that it makes no sense whatsoever.

Let’s take three examples:

Flying machine made by the doctor and I (5)

This is broken up as follows:

  • Quick clue – “Flying machine”
  • Cryptic element – “doctor” + “I”
  • Clue type indicator – “and”

We are therefore looking for a flying machine created by putting words for “Doctor” and “I” next to each other. Another way of expressing this type of clue is A = B + C, where A = “Flying machine”, B = “Doctor” and C = “I”

The answer is “Drone”. Dr + One.

Sometimes there’s no clue type indicator for A = B + C clues. Other times it might be where you insert one word in the middle of another word, or write a word backwards.

It’s wrong to live freely (4)

This is broken up as follows:

  • Quick clue – “It’s wrong”
  • Cryptic element – “Live”
  • Clue type indicator – “Freely,” this is one of many possible anagram indicators that show letters have been rearranged. Other anagram indicators include confused, disorderly, mixed-up, versatile, stew, manipulated, jumbled, etc.

We are therefore looking for an anagram of “Live” which means “It’s wrong”. The answer is “Evil”.

Where you get married is said to change (5)

This is broken up as follows:

  • Quick clue – “To change”
  • Cryptic element – “Where you get married”
  • Clue type indicator – “Is said,” this indicates that it’s a sounds like clue. Other sounds like indicators include hear, announced, on the radio, listened, etc.

The answer is something that sounds like “Where you get married” (Altar) which means “To change”. The answer is “Alter”.

See more examples of cryptic crossword clues with explanations and examples of all possible clues. This includes anagrams, sounds like, pure cryptic, double meaning, hidden words and equations. It also includes a guide to crossword language as a whole.

Key takeaway points

Creating crosswords is great fun, whether it’s to create a gift, for publication, or just for your amusement. While it may feel like cheating to use tools to solve crosswords, when you’re making your own, it will open up more words and save time. Don’t hesitate to use any of the above tools, or the huge range of online dictionaries and thesauruses that are available.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide.

Do you have a question about Crosswords?