Eugene T. Maleska, for many years the crossword editor of The New York Times, once estimated that only about five hundred people in the entire country were capable of putting together an American-style crossword puzzle that would meet all the criteria.

That's not very encouraging.

But having said that, and perhaps concerned that he might be frightening away a whole generation of potential puzzle-makers, Maleska went on to suggest that the small number of constructors probably had something to do with how few people actually were aware of all the do's and don'ts.

On which point he was clearly right. After all, most constructors are simply former solvers who for one reason or another have decided to try their hand at a different stage of the puzzling process—the production stage. As solvers they became aware of some of the rules by which puzzles are created but not necessarily all of them. So if you fall into this category, the best first step is to familiarize yourself with the criteria by which crosswords are judged.

The Basics

Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of The New York Times, offers these basic rules:

  • The pattern of black and white squares must be symmetrical. Generally this rule means that if you turn the grid upside-down, the pattern will look the same as it does right-side-up.

  • Do not use too many black squares. In the old days of puzzles, black squares were not allowed to occupy more than 16 percent of a grid. Nowadays there is no strict limit, in order to allow maximum flexibility for the placement of theme entries. Still, “cheater” black squares (ones that do not affect the number of words in the puzzle, but are added to make constructing easier) should be kept to a minimum, and large clumps of black squares anywhere in a grid are strongly discouraged.

  • Do not use unkeyed letters (letters that appear in only one word across or down). In fairness to solvers, every letter has to appear in both an Across and a Down word.

  • Do not use two-letter words. The minimum word length is three letters.

  • The grid must have all-over interlock. In other words, the black squares may not cut the grid up into separate pieces. A solver, theoretically, should be able to proceed from any section of the grid to any other without having to stop and start over.

  • Long theme entries must be symmetrically placed. If there is a major theme entry three rows down from the top of the grid, for instance, then there must be another theme entry in the same position three rows up from the bottom. Also, as a general rule, no non-theme entry should be longer than any theme entry.

  • Do not repeat words in the grid.

  • Do not make up words and phrases. Every answer must have a reference or else be in common use in everyday speech or writing.

Additional Guidelines

The preceding list of rules, which is sent out to persons who inquire about guidelines for contributors, is accompanied by a style sheet of “special rules” applying only to The Times. But with one or two exceptions this second set of rules simply establishes more discriminating criteria by which a puzzle is to be judged, no matter where it is submitted.

With regard to themed puzzles (which Shortz likes), the specifications call for themes that are “fresh, interesting, narrowly defined and consistently applied throughout the puzzle.” Moreover, the themes should be “accessible to everyone.”

Puzzles “should emphasize lively words and names and fresh phrases,” and The Times encourages use of “phrases from everyday writing and speech, whether or not they're in the dictionary,” as well as a scattering of lesser-used letters—“J, Q, X, Z, K, W, etc.”

Brand names are acceptable if they're “well-known nationally” and used “in moderation.” (But some more traditional puzzle editors won't accept them, so check before you begin construction.)

In an ideal puzzle the clues should “provide a well-balanced test of vocabulary and knowledge,” ranging from such subjects as classical music and mythology to “movies, TV, popular music, sports and names in the news.” Further, “clues should be precise, accurate, colorful and imaginative,” with puns and humor “welcome.”

But “partial phrases longer than five letters (ONE TO A, A STITCH IN, etc.)” are not welcome, nor is “uninteresting obscurity,” uncommon abbreviations or uncommon foreign words. “Crosswordese” must be kept to a minimum.

If difficult words are used they must be interesting or useful additions to one's vocabulary. But obscure words should never cross each other. Difficult crossings, “blind crossings,” are considered unfair to solvers.

The maximum word count for The Times, by the way, is 78 for a themed 15×15 (72 if unthemed), 140 for a 21×21, and 168 for a 23×23.

Magazine Editorial Services, which provides crosswords to a number of puzzle magazines, has the same specifications for 15×15 puzzles but accepts a maximum of 150 entries for a 21×21. MES also takes 19×19's, with a maximum of 130 entries. Themed puzzles are more likely to be accepted, provided the theme is more imaginative than dogs, colors, trees, etc.

(Send submissions to Magazine Editorial Services, 7002 W. Butler Pike #100, Ambler, PA 19002.)

Another “don't”—perhaps it's really a “don't-unless-you-have-to”—comes from the Random House Puzzle Maker's Handbook, whose authors caution against excessive use of plurals, third-person singular forms (ending in -s), verbs in past tense (ending in -ed), and words beginning with re- or in-.

Finally, as Maleska points out, constructors have always adhered to an unwritten rule prohibiting words related to disease, bodily functions, drug addiction, violence, and vulgarity. The point, he says, is that most solvers do puzzles partly to escape from such matters.

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