Building a Crossword

I started constructing 15×15 crosswords a few months ago, and while I’m still very much a rookie, I wanted to share an example of my process here! Typically, Kevin and I publish algorithm-generated grids (that are later edited and expanded by hand) on Crossworthy, but I’ve also been aiming to publish my own crosswords at least once a month. Today’s crossword, titled “Build Your Order,” is now live, and it’s a puzzle that I made on my own. I documented most of the process since the beginning, hoping that if everything turned out well I could share how I went from square one to a full-sized puzzle. If you’re a Crossworthy fan or enjoy playing crosswords, you may find this post interesting!

STEP 1: BRAINSTORMING THE THEME

Deciding on a fun theme is the first step in making a themed crossword. Kevin’s algorithm can churn out themeless crosswords very quickly, so I’m more motivated to make crosswords “the long way” when there’s a theme or specific set of words that I’m totally committed to.

We got burritos for take out in late September and that got me thinking…what if I attempted a burrito-themed puzzle?

The first thing I did was draw up a list of burrito ingredients and take note of how long each word is. Here’s what I had in my notes folder (I bolded the “promising” ones):

  • Crema – 5 
  • Salsa – 5 *
  • Avocado – 7
  • Jalapeno – 8 
  • Spanishrice – 11
  • Refriedbeans – 12
  • Beans – 5*
  • Queso – 5
  • Cheese – 6
  • Lettuce – 7
  • Rice – 4
  • Guac – 4
  • Guacamole – 9 *
  • Sour cream – 9*
  • Carneasada – 10*
  • Carnitas – 8
  • Pinto beans – 10*
  • Tortilla – 8 
  • cornTortilla – 12
  • Flourtortilla – 13

Since American-style crosswords should adhere to rotational symmetry, you need pairs of theme words that have the same number of letters. A theme word of 10 letters that goes in the bottom right corner should correspond to another theme word of 10 letters that goes in the top left corner, etc. This is much easier to understand visually. Sometimes, we also put a single theme word in the center. Most importantly, I needed to choose pairs of theme words that had matching lengths. After consulting my list above, I settled on 6 candidates:

GUAC (4)
RICE (4)
PINTOBEANS (10)
CARNEASADA (10)
CREMA (5)
SALSA (5)

In retrospect, I could have also went with: beans (5), salsa (5), rice (4), guac (4), carnitas (8), and tortilla (8), but I had an ambitious dream for including “tortilla” in the puzzle (you’ll see)…

STEP 2: GRID DESIGN

Now that I had my potential theme words, the next thing to do was design the grid. So… my “tortilla” dream was to have the letters of the word “wrap” the grid, in effect “wrapping” the ingredients. Man, I really wish this would have worked out in the end! Spoiler: it didn’t. But I’ll show you how I tested this idea.

As you can see, the theme words are kind of “squished” together, which is not ideal. The puzzle looks much better when theme words are spaced out. I also designed this grid such that I wouldn’t have to deal with words that were too long (i.e. 15 letters), so there’s always a black square creating divisions while ensuring that every word has a “cross” and is at least 3 letters long.

Grid construction is crucial because the better the grid, the easier it will be for you to fill it in.

STEP 3: TESTING THE GRID

It’s always important to not get too attached to any theme words or grid designs in the early stages. There’s a high chance you’ll have to change things around! So after I established my tentative layout, the first thing I needed to do was look for the most difficult corners and “test” build there to see how feasible the construction would be in the long run. It’s tempting to start building in “easy” places first, but the last thing you want is to end up in an “impossible” corner and realize that you need to change the whole grid. I heavily rely on onelook.com when constructing my puzzles; the website allows you to search for words that match certain criteria (e.g. searching for ???A will give you a list of 4-letter words that end in A).

I started with the two areas of the board that have the most theme words—the middle section. Luckily, stacking rice/salsa and crema/guac did not create major construction problems. Afterwards, I moved on to the top left corner; there aren’t many 6-letter words that begin with T and end in C (1-down), so I wanted to see if I could make things work there.

The “order of construction” is important because of the aforementioned rotational symmetry. If you change something in one corner, you have to change something in the diagonally-opposite corner. So after briefly testing out the top-left “tragic” section, I moved on to the bottom-right area, which is also challenging because of the “A” in the corner (I’d need 2 six-letter words to end in A).

As I tested more words, I realized that I could potentially un-stack rice/salsa and guac/crema to create a more aesthetically-pleasing board. So, I moved guac to the top-left section of the board and rice to the bottom-left. Just some minor shuffling!

STEP 4: MAKEOVER

After more testing, I realized that the grid above was giving me too much trouble, so a do-over was necessary. All part of the process! However, I wasn’t ready to totally give up on the “tortilla” wrapping:

Sometimes, it’s easier to totally reconstruct the grid when rearranging theme words so that you can see everything more clearly. Side note: I should have mentioned this earlier, but I make my crossword drafts in Microsoft Word (using a 15×15 table) so I can easily shade important words and delete or change letters.

I got pretty far with this new layout, but as you can see below, the tortilla wrapping started to fall apart, especially at the top. The top left section was just giving me toooo much trouble! While I was relatively satisfied with the lower half of the grid, the top half was truly a mess. A lot of the words that you can see here aren’t ideal—”ruel,” “monbera,” “rich media.”

So it was with a heavy heart that I abandoned the “tortilla” wrapping. I decided it was more important to keep my ingredients intact! The grid can be the metaphorical tortilla wrap.

STEP 5: FINE TUNING

After letting go of the “tortilla” constriction, I began to edit the entire puzzle with an eye towards filling everything in and eliminating as many “unideal” words as possible. Starting from top/left to bottom/right, here are the different revisions I went through before completing the puzzle. Most of the changes happened in the upper half of the puzzle, particularly in the “rice” and “crema” sections. If you look at where “rice” is, you’ll see that the down-word crossing the “I” changed several times—from Wikipedia to Lithuania to finally Minnesota. I truly had to give the right side of the puzzle a facelift several times as a result. Similarly, while I really wanted “crash” to appear in the puzzle (3rd picture, the “C” above the “R” in “rice), I knew that “philomathy” had to go (I really want to write a Crash Landing on You clue…).

A few interesting things to note—”USSENATE” was kinda the only thing I could put above salsa, meaning that “TSARS” was also kinda the only word that could fit in the TS??? section. I say “kinda” because I’ve seen words like T SLOT in crosswords before, but ultimately I think readers will have an easier time with TSARS. In the first 3 puzzles below, you’ll see that I put “EASY A” next to “TSARS.” “Easy A” (the 2010 Emma Stone movie) is one of my favorite words to use because it’s a really handy way of isolating that pesky “A.” But once I got rid of that “A” I suddenly had way more options in the bottom right corner.

Anyway, here’s the final puzzle, inputted into AmuseLabs (the platform we use to publish our puzzles):

To be honest, I’m not totally satisfied with the final fill—I want to never put “EMU” or “EMUS” (55-down) in a puzzle ever again (nothing against the bird, but it appears way too often) and I also want to avoid using too many French words. I also don’t love “rabic” (5-across, it’s just kind of a yucky word) or “cert” (9-down) or “terr” (13-down). But since all those words have appeared in crosswords before, I felt that it was acceptable to keep them. To see how many times a word has been used in past crosswords, I use the very-handy wordplays website, which also shows you the different clues that were written for the word. Both “cert” and “terr” have appeared at least a 100 times (the max. number of entries that Wordplays displays), so they are crossword-acceptable. However, it is important to note that using the Wordplays website is not a foolproof way to determine crossworthiness. For example, “soh” has appeared at least 89 times in crosswords as “fifth musical note,” but a simple Google search will tell you that it’s really more often spelled “sol.” 30-across used to be “soh,” but I later changed it to “sav” for this reason. By the way, I mentioned earlier that I like to use “EASY A” because it isolates the “A;” 6-down is an example of this theory in reverse, whereby “A” begins the word—”a rest,” as in, “give it a rest.”

Another useful tip I’ve learned along the way is that when you fill in long words, it’s handy if they are long words with “some flexibility”—for example, 4-down could have also been chemistry, in case palmistry didn’t work out. That way, I don’t have to change the middle section that crosses the letters “mistry” in the event that the top section needs to be edited. Similarly, “determiner” and “stationer” could have been “determined” or “stationed,” such that 13-down could end in “err” “erd” or “edd.” I would have liked to use the word “nerd” but unfortunately that would have caused problems in other areas of the puzzle. Just to show you, though, if I didn’t need to keep “rice,” I could have easily incorporated “nerd” without changing too much of the rest of the puzzle. “Omit” would have become “I’m in,” “rice” –> “dice,” etc (see the picture on the right below). But then I would have had another French word, “Ete,” lol. Alors, c’est trop!

What I love about crossword constructing is that every single word in the puzzle ends up with its own story. I can look at each word and remember exactly how I ended up with that word instead of another. And what’s more, they all have a shared history because they all exist in relation to each other. But as time-intensive as constructing a grid is, it’s all for naught unless you have good clues…

STEP 6: CLUE WRITING

It’s always important to have a sense of what your clues for your theme words will be before you start constructing. This is because your theme is the “shiniest” part of your puzzle and you want your clues to do them justice. I had vague ideas of what I wanted to do before I finished the puzzle, but when it came to clue-writing, I decided to go with a fun, narrative approach. “Build your order” is a reference to Chipotle’s burrito assembly process.

The clues for the theme words are:

  • Time to build your order! Choose between white or brown RICE
  • Never too early to think about tangy toppings, like Mexican CREMA
  • Next up: refried, black, or PINTOBEANS (2 wds.)
  • Pick your protein! Chicken, steak, or CARNEASADA (2 wds.)
  • To go with chips, SALSA is a must
  • Finally: pay extra for GUAC!

When I was writing the clues, I realized that the ingredients don’t really appear in “order of construction.” Notably, when we order a burrito, we usually add sour cream / crema at the end… that’s why writing clues “narrative style” was helpful. That way, I could say it’s “never too early to think about toppings,” thus making it seem more natural that “crema” comes after rice. I hope so, at least. Another issue I ran into is that I realized I can’t describe “crema” as “sour cream” because they’re not exactly the same thing. Also, “crema” is Spanish. So, I described it as a “tangy” topping and put “Mexican” before the blank so that players could more easily infer that the answer is a condiment and in Spanish.

When I write clues, I always like to have a few clues that are inspired by my personal life or own interests. That’s why I’ll probably always clue “Red” as “Taylor Swift album named after a color.” I think clues like this add personality to the puzzle, and reveal something about its constructor.

STEP 7: FEEDBACK

The final step of crossword constructing is really a step that happens at several stages throughout the process: collecting feedback! My sister Cynthia is a pro crossword player (she plays the NYT puzzle every single day) and also gives us great feedback on our fill and clues. If something doesn’t sit right, she won’t hesitate to let me know (in fact, it was largely because Cynthia and Kevin both raised eyebrows at “philomathy” that I ended up redoing half the puzzle although I had already “finished” it).

After this step, the only thing left is for the crossword to be published, played, and judged by others!

Final thoughts:

This puzzle took me about a week to construct, and I probably spent 9 hours on it altogether, if not more. I try to construct a bit each day instead of trying to do everything at once so that I don’t burn out. In fact, it’s sometimes a good idea to simply spend a day coming up with an interesting theme and sleeping on it so see if you still like it the next day.

Constructing a crossword…can be like building a burrito. The order of construction matters, and each ingredient has its own story. And, if all goes well, you end up with a yummy product that you’ll want to order again!

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