Millions 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.
The 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."
In 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.
But 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.
Unlike 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
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."
The 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
Constructors 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.