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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crossword Puzzle Boards & Grids

While seemingly random, crossword puzzles have a well established and strict set of construction guidelines.  Understanding what is required in a crossword board's construction can give you not only great ideas for creating your own puzzles, but give you insight into what may have been going through the creator's mind and maybe get you out of a sticky situation.  Here are some of the "rules of the road" from some well known publishers in the crossword puzzle world:


The New York Times looks for intelligent, literate, entertaining and well-crafted crosswords that appeal to the broad range of Times solvers. Editor: Will Shortz Submissions accepted for:
  • Daily Crossword - 15x15
  • Sunday Crossword - 21x21
  • Sunday Crossword - 23x23
  • Diagramless Crossword - 17x17

In General:

  • Puzzles must be symmetrical.
  • Emphasize lively words and names and fresh phrases.
  • Use of phrases from everyday writing and speech, whether or not they are in the dictionary, is encouraged.
  • Brand-names are acceptable if well-known nationally and are used in moderation.


Themes should be fresh, interesting, narrowly defined and consistently applied throughout the puzzle. If the theme includes a particular kind of pun, for example, than all the puns should be of that kind. Themes and theme entries should be accessible to everyone.


The clues in an ideal puzzle provide a well-balanced test of vocabulary and knowledge, ranging from classical subjects like literature, art, classical music, mythology, history, geography, etc., to modern subjects like movies, TV, popular music, sports and names in the news. Clues should be accurate, colorful and imaginative. Puns and humor are welcome.

Things to Avoid:

  • No two-letter words (keep three-letter words to a minimum)
  • No partial phrases longer than five letters
  • No unchecked letters
  • Keep foreign, obsolete, and variant forms to an absolute minimum

Maximum Word Counts:

  • 15x15 - 78 (72 for an unthemed)
  • 21x21 - 140
  • 23x23 - 170

Puzzles submitted to The Chronicle should be themed 15x15 crosswords of the highest quality. The standard grid rules apply: Normal crossword symmetry, no unchecked letters or two-letter words, and a maximum of 78 entries and 38 black squares. Exceptions to these totals may be made if the theme is ambitious enough to warrant them. Avoid grids that can be divided in two by blackening either two symmetrical squares or the center square.


The theme should have a minimum of three answers, which should be the longest entries in the puzzle. (If the theme entries are all Across entries, longer unthemed Down entries are allowable.) Themes should be original, interesting, and internally consistent.

Because The Chronicle's readership is centered in academe, themes that relate to topics such as literature, the arts, science, history, philosophy, and (of course) education are strongly encouraged. (Wordplay themes are acceptable as long as they relate to academic subjects -- puns on classic book titles, for instance.) Quotation puzzles will be published sparingly, so send them sparingly, and stick to genuinely amusing or profound quotes that relate to the above-mentioned topics. Gimmick themes such as rebuses may occasionally be accepted, but it's safest to ask ahead.

The following themes are always unwelcome: themes based on celebrity names, movie and TV shows, brand names, and other pop-culture topics; themes involving repeated words; and themes that have been used too many times before.

Your puzzle should include a title. Try to pick one that cleverly hints at the theme without completely giving it away. Avoid reusing words from the theme entries in your title.

Grid entries

Desirable fill entries include lively words and phrases with unusual letters and letter patterns (KARAOKE, BANZAI, ON THE QT), and entries that relate to the scholarly topics mentioned above. Entries that reference pop culture (JAY-Z, SPIDER-MAN, BIG MAC) should be minimized, though it's okay to have a few.

The following types of entries should be avoided:
  • Obscure names and terms, including crosswordese.
  • Unfamiliar variant spellings.
  • Uncommon abbreviations, prefixes, and suffixes.
  • Words that are vulgar or offensive, or refer to unsavory topics.
  • Contrived uses of prefixes and suffixes, such as VALORS, ELATER, UNBAKE, RETALKED, and SHIRTLIKE.
  • Made-up phrases such as BIG STEAK and METAL PEN, and questionable phrases such as IS WEARY and THROW TO.
  • Foreign words that the average English speaker has no reason to know. Acceptable foreign entries include common pronouns, low numbers, greetings and farewells, words commonly seen on restaurant menus, and words used in famous quotes and titles.
Partial phrases such as IF I and IN THE should be kept to a minimum. Multi-word partials longer than five letters are unacceptable.

Avoid repeating forms of words in your grid. If you use SNOWMAN in your puzzle, other entries containing forms of SNOW and MAN are off-limits. Short common words such as OF, AND, or THE can be repeated if both are parts of larger entries (for example, PIECE OF CAKE and UNHEARD-OF).


The difficulty of the clues should roughly match that of a Wednesday or Thursday New York Times puzzle. Use a good mix of clue styles: straight definitions, humorous definitions, deceptive phrasings, and interesting trivia. Single-word definitions should be used sparingly. When possible, bend clues toward intellectual subjects; so, for instance, clue MONROE as the president or the college, not Marilyn.

The layout of the puzzle is designed to accommodate slightly longer clues than the average venue. That's not to say you're required to write longer clues, and it's certainly not an invitation to make every clue paragraph-length. Rather, the extra room is meant to help you bend certain clues toward desired subjects, and to let you include interesting facts that might normally get sacrificed for lack of space.

In short, you should clue most entries as you ordinarily would; but when you have an intriguing entry like ROUSSEAU, don't feel you have to limit yourself to "French philosopher" due to space constraints. Dig a little deeper into Rousseau's life and see what you can come up with. Remember to cite your source if the information you find may be difficult to verify.

Avoid writing clues that refer to other clues, like "1-Down, for one" to link the entry COLOR to BLUE. There's no compelling reason to link these entries, and piecing clue fragments together is more tiresome than fun for solvers. You may, however, use linked clues when cluing theme entries, or when two entries form a two-word phrase such as RUN AMOK. (You should only combine two entries this way when one of them is difficult to clue individually, like AMOK. With a pair like FLY and BALL, clue them separately.)

Try to avoid reusing entry words in your clues, unless the words in question are very common.

Enclose names of books, films, plays, operas, and the like in double quotes. Use three underscores for a blank. In general, if the answer is an abbreviation, there should be an abbreviation in the clue to signal that. If a word's abbreviation is more commonly used than its full name (like VIP, UFO, and ASAP), no abbreviation is necessary in the clue.

Diagram must be 21x21 squares, with the usual rules: normal crossword symmetry, full interlock, no "unchecked" letters and no two-letter words. If you have a super theme that requires left-to-right symmetry, I'll consider it.

Maximum word count is 144 words. Constructors are encouraged to make full use of this limit whenever possible. We're striving for the cleanest diagram possible, as free as humanly possible from the types of undesirable entries listed later on. We believe that solvers are generally oblivious to word count, so we feel that constructors should avoid low-word-count grids that are compromised by rotten entries.

Black square count should follow the "one-sixth" guideline of no more than 73-74 in the diagram. However, this is a guideline rather than a strict rule. If you need to go over this by a couple, that's OK.

Themes should be fresh, interesting and consistent. Stay away from themes that you've seen a hundred times before, and from themes that are not consistent with respect to things like part of speech, tense, or number. Constructors are *strongly* encouraged to run a theme by me before beginning construction. If I like a theme but I think that one or more of the theme entries doesn't fit, we'll work together to get the theme into its final form.

Pun themes are fine, as long as the puns sound close to the punned phrases. Puns that have extra syllables or for some other reason are way off will not be considered. Quotation themes will be used sparingly, so try not to send me these unless you think they're absolutely great. We'll also be staying away from "rebus" puzzles (in which you may be called upon to write CAT in one box,e.g.) and trickery that might be beyond the ability of most solvers to figure out.

Difficulty, for all you Times solvers and contributors, should be in the Wednesday-Thursday range.

Try to give your puzzle a clever title that will reflect what the theme is about.

Encouraged fill entries: colorful words and phrases, especially new additions to the language. Things like NEWBIE, HOVLANE, JUNKFAX, VCHIP, BADHAIRDAY, ZAMBONI, SAMESEX, MOSHPIT... you get the idea.

Discouraged fill entries are as follows:

  • Foreign words or phrases that have no English usage are forbidden. I've never put ETE in a puzzle and I'm not about to start now.
  • Obscurities: No Mongolian buzzards, 12th-century Turkish coins, or Zimbabwean villages of population 57, please.
  • Partial phrases - CANOF, ANUT, TOTHE - should be held to an absolute minimum. These can be clued only with an uncreative, fill-in-the-blank clue.
  • Brand names. OK if used sparingly and if the brands are national and well-known.
  • Abbreviations, acronyms, prefixes, suffixes that are specific to a subject or area that would be unfamiliar to most solvers.
  • Pluralized proper names are always undesirable, in my opinion. If you have to use one, make sure that there are more than one well-known person with that name. Don't try, for example, to slip SHAQUILLES into a diagram.
  • "Crosswordese" - those words that appear nowhere else in the world but in crossword puzzles. I've never put ESNE or ANOA into a puzzle and I'm not about to start now. You know the usual suspects: ERNE, EVOE, ENATE, and so on.
  • Rock bands, singers and song titles - OK if they're well known enough that a solver might be likely to know his, her or its name even though he's not necessarily familiar with the music. Not OK otherwise. These kinds of clues are usually of the either-you-know-it-or-you-don't variety, and more often than not, solvers won't know them.
  • Contrived phrases like BLUECAR, TORNSHIRT, EATBEANS, and such - you get the idea.
  • Little-known or obscure sports figures, actors, historical figures and such. Stay away from old ballplayers who aren't Hall of Famers, bit-part actors from the '30s, minor political figures, and so on.
  • Nonsensical entries like letter runs (EFGH,e.g.)
  • Any word listed as offensive, disparaging or vulgar in your dictionary.
  • Avoid repeating word forms in the diagram. If you use EAT, don't use ATE too; avoid using both LOGBOOK and BOOKCASE, etc.
  • Try to avoid echoing entry words in other clues. For example, if you have STEIN in your diagram, don't clue ALE as [Stein filler] .
Style issues:

  • For spelling, spacing, punctuation and the the like, Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary, 4th ed., is the Washington Post default. If you don't own one, don't worry; we'll make the necessary adjustments on this end.
  • Titles of songs, books, movies, plays and the like should be enclosed in quotes. Magazine titles, newspaper names, and books of the bible do not get quotes.
  • Use two underscores for a blank.
  • For abbreviations, variants, prefixes and the like, use a colon followed by Abbr., Var. or Pref. You can also signal an abbreviation in the diagram with an abbreviation in the clue. Do not use abbreviations in clues if they do not correspond to abbreviations in the diagram.