Crossword Puzzle Writer  What They Do

Just the Facts


Insider Info

dotMillions of people around the world love the challenge and fun of solving crossword puzzles. But few clue into the fact that behind every puzzle is a crossword puzzle constructor who devotes countless hours and plenty of brainpower to each square.

Also known as crossword puzzle writers, or by the more formal title of "cruciverbalist" (Latin for "crossword puzzle maker"), crossword puzzle constructors create entire crosswords from scratch. They design the puzzle's grid of black-and-white squares, come up with the words that fill each blank square and craft the clues that solvers love to puzzle over.

dotThe goal, explains crossword puzzle constructor Kathleen Hamilton, "is to be fun and enjoyable and to be challenging without being frustrating."

"It is art," says Myles Mellor, a crossword puzzle constructor in California who loves putting puzzles together and mixing meanings up.

Nevada-based author and crossword puzzle constructor Coral Amende interviewed dozens of constructors for her book The Crossword Obsession. She believes they are born, not made.

"It is not really a choice," she says. "Some people's minds just seem to work that way. It's a lifetime fascination with language: you either have it or you don't."

dotIn the past, constructors had to chart out their grids by hand -- a complicated and drawn-out process. Today, they use crossword-constructing software. It allows them to enter words they'd like to use, then provides ready-made grids.

dotBut the same rules governing crossword puzzle construction still apply.

First, crossword puzzles take the form of a square, with an equal and always odd number of characters across and down -- typically 15 x 15, 21 x 21 and 23 x 23.

Second, each character must be used twice, in a word across and a word down. Third, the answers must be at least three letters long.

Fourth, the black squares should be aligned symmetrically so that the crossword looks the same upside down as right side up.

dotUnlike grids, words and clues don't have a set of hard-and-fast rules they must follow. But they're what distinguish the great constructors from the merely workmanlike.

Hamilton's trademark is using uniquely regional words and clues for her answers. Mellor tries to find "new and exotic words and phrases" and "double meanings that will make people laugh."

One unwritten rule is to avoid obscure words that make life easier for the constructor but frustrate those trying to complete their puzzles.

"There's been a whole evolution of crossword puzzles," explains Mellor. "In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a big concentration on what is now known as 'crosswordese' -- words that no one knows, but that do exist if you look them up. There's been a big movement away from that in the last few years."

dotThe current constructing philosophy, as summed up by Mellor, is "If I don't know it, I don't use it."

"It's hard to give up a really clever entry just because one of the crossing words is obscure or not up-to-snuff in another way," says Amende, "but it has to be done.

"Today's editors appreciate common words clued cleverly rather than rarities and foreignisms that most people won't get -- and even if they do get them, these words typically aren't going to teach them anything or enrich their lives."

dotConstructors must be willing to invest in a hefty reference library of dictionaries and thesauruses. For example, Mellor keeps nine dictionaries on hand to assist him with his puzzles.

Crossword puzzle constructing is great work if you can get it, according to Hamilton. You can work at home, at your own pace, and it doesn't matter if you have a physical disability or medical condition. "I'm very glad and grateful to make a living from it," she says.

At a Glance

Create challenging puzzles

  • The trend is toward using more common words
  • Few people do this work full time
  • You'll need excellent language skills