People are often very curious about the process I go through to write a crossword. Do you start with the words? Or write the clues first? How do you even …
The quick answer : Grid > Words into the grid > Write the clues.
Now for the long answer!
First of all, the grid design. I use custom software created for me by my rather-clever husband, as all other crossword software is PC only, and I run a Mac.
There are some rules about crossword grid creation. I write UK-style crosswords (find out about the differences between these and American-style crosswords here). So my grids need to have certain features: an odd number of squares across and down, at least half of the letters crossing over another word, no 2-letter words, a good variety of letter-lengths, and symmetry.
Designing a good crossword grid that is easy(ish) to fill is pretty tricky. Sometimes I’ll try a new grid design, and filling it with words takes two or three times longer than usual. So those grids either get edited or trashed.
Because grids take a while to develop and test, many crossword setters tend to have a set of blank grid templates that they cycle through. So, for my Nixie cryptics for example, I have five grid templates that I use.
So, once the grid has been designed or chosen, I start to put the words into it. I tend to start with the longest words first, and work my way down to the smallest words. Other setters do this differently, some might start in one corner of the grid and fill from there, and I’m sure there are other methods!
Some crossword software will create ‘fill’ for you — this means you might place some of the words in the grid yourself, but the software then fills the rest of the grid with words from its dictionary. My software doesn’t do this, so I choose all the words in my grids. It shows me all possible words that can go into a position in the grid, though, which is an essential feature! Sometimes I’ll get to a point where no words will fit into a grid position (there aren’t any words that fit the pattern J_F_ _T, for instance). At which point I have to backtrack, delete words, and try new options.
I also keep a track of when I last used each word in another crossword, as I try not to repeat words in the grid within a certain number of puzzles (usually around 20 crosswords). This isn’t always possible with 3-letter words, of which there are a more limited number, but I do my best.
When I’m writing cryptics, I also occasionally check words in my Wordplay Wizard software, to make sure they’re amenable to encryption. I do have a fairly good idea nowadays of what words will work well, what letters will cause problems in a grid, and so on, just from several decades of experience.
Words with a lot of vowels or repeated ‘rarer’ letters (like K, J, W, or Y) can be very difficult to clue nicely. EUREKA is a troublesome word to put into a grid, for instance — it only has these few wordplays available (it’s more usual to have around 100+ options), the possible anagrams aren’t that great, and most of the wordplay devices involve 3 or 4 pieces.
There are also some conventions about words used to fill crosswords. In general, there’s a bunch of language that isn’t used: swear words, rude words, overly unpleasant or medical terms (PUS is a no-no!), very obscure technical terms (although if you were writing a crossword for a specialist journal, then sure, go for it), and words relating to war atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man (NAZIS are right out). But there are always exceptions to rules, of course: the Private Eye cryptic in the UK is infamous for its use of controversial, political, and rude words and clues.
So, once all this trickery is done, and the grid is filled with words, then I write the clues. For a quick crossword this is pretty straight-forward. I always use a dictionary and thesaurus, and often Wikipedia to check my facts. A standard quick crossword takes me about 30 min to write the clues.
A cryptic crossword is obviously much more difficult and time-consuming to write clues for. It typically takes me 2–3 hours to write the clues for one Nixie cryptic. You can see the sort of process I go through for writing cryptic clues here.
And that’s it — ta dah! One crossword!