Interested in becoming a crossword compiler?

You’re in luck! Hidden beneath the dust bunnies during a recent spring-clean we discovered a typewritten aid for compiling crosswords written by none other than Crossword Queen, Christine Lovatt. And much to our surprise and delight the advice contained therein still holds true.

So, if you want to try your hand at crossword compiling, the tips below will serve you well.

Then, when you’re an expert, if you’d like to win some great prizes and see your work featured in print in our bestselling crossword title, why not take a shot at the DIY crossword competition which runs each month in BIG Crossword magazine – details here.

Happy compiling!

How to Compile a Crossword by Christine Lovatt

  1. You’ll need a pencil, rubber and plenty of patience. Really, it’s a case of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”. You’ll also need a dictionary and perhaps a small encyclopaedia. If you possess any crossword solving aids, you will find them doubly useful in compiling.
  2. Think ahead! It’s no use putting in, say, a four-letter word like BUST if its second letter forms the final letter of another four-letter word. Your choice of four-letter words ending in U will be severely limited. If you settled instead for BEST, then you’ll have a four-letter word ending in E. Much better, eh?
  3. As you use words, keep an alphabetical list of them handy. There’s nothing so irritating as finishing the grid, then discovering, when you come to put clues to it, that you’ve used the same word twice.
  4. Where possible, avoid using plurals. Of course, you’ll need them from time to time, but it’s a bit of a cop-out to use them too often.
  5. Avoid prefixes like pre. Some prefixes, such as semi, stand on their own and these are legitimate.
  6. Don’t use compound words unless your dictionary separates them with a hyphen. For example HAPPY HOLIDAY has no place in a straightforward crossword, though it’s perfectly okay to use it in a cryptic puzzle.
  7. Avoid using words that your dictionary tells you are archaic. If people don’t use the words these days, there’s not much point expecting them to know them.
  8. As a rule of thumb, if you’ve never heard of the word you propose to use, how can you expect others to know it? Mind you, it’s alright to put an unusual word into a space where all or most of its letters are covered by intersecting words. This, of course, makes your job much harder. But I’ve been suffering for years, so expect little sympathy!
  9. When you get stuck in a corner and nothing seems to be working with the arrangement you have, you’ll need the courage to ruthlessly cut back. Just because you are fond of a word, it is pointless wasting too long if nothing seems to be working. There’s no rule of thumb about when to abandon an arrangement of words. But if I’m listening to the radio and I’m still struggling after two hourly news bulletins, I know it’s time for a bit of cutting back before my rubber wears a hole in the page.
  10. Don’t be misled into starting your compiling in the top left corner. Take some time to look at the grid and find what I call the problem areas. These are either parts of the grid where several consecutive letters interlock, or else areas containing long words where your choices will be more limited.
  11. When you seem to be coming up against a brick wall, take a break. Often you’ll find that when you come back to the puzzle, a word will suddenly spring to mind and save you. Mind you, when your deadlines are occurring on an hourly basis, those breaks have to be kept unhappily short!
  12. Now we come to clueing, every bit as important as the compiling job. What can be abundantly obvious to one person is quite meaningless to another, so if you get a chance, consult with a friend or a member of your family.
  13. Now there are two approaches to clueing. One is the devious way (they’ll never unravel this one, tee-hee) and the other is the honest, straightforward way. There’s room for both, of course. But because I feel that life has enough pitfalls already, I favour the latter approach. So try to make your clues as unambiguous as possible. For example, for the word NEAR, I could put CLOSE as my clue. But remember, if solvers aren’t getting much help in the area of that word, they’re just as likely to answer it SHUT.
  14. Keep your clues short. There’s a practical reason for this rather than an ethical one. We just don’t have room for rambling explanations. For example, It’s no good writing: “You open one when you enter a room” when you’re trying to clue DOOR.
  15. Carefully check your clue numbers. If I bet you a dollar that you’ll miss at least one down clue during the first draft of your clues, I doubt I’d be seriously out of pocket.
  16. Clue a noun with a noun and a verb with a verb. I’m not having a go at some other professional compilers (yes I am), but it’s very frustrating to find clues like LAUGHING when the answer is GIGGLE. Here’s a useful guide that nearly always works: Substitute the word you are clueing for the clue in a sentence and if it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
  17. However confident you may be about your own knowledge, look up words in a dictionary or an encyclopaedia to make sure they agree with you. It just could be that you’ve been using a word wrongly all this time. Don’t think I’m sounding high and mighty here. For years I thought the word DISINTERESTED meant not interested. Finally a reader put me straight and told me it meant OBJECTIVE and the word I was thinking of was UNINTERESTED. I’m still blushing about that one!
  18. Print the letters on your answer grid clearly enough to be read by anyone.
  19. Much in the same vein, if you can beg, borrow or steal a computer or typewriter, then use it for your clues.
  20. Most importantly, check your spelling! You’d be surprised how many words are incorrectly spelt time and again. Use your dictionary frequently.