Crossword Designer

By Malcolm McLean. Homepage

Crossword designer is a freeware program to help you design crosswords. It's still in a prototype stage so not everything is working quite as it should. But it's usable.

How to use the program

It's currently Windows only. Just download the executable, it doesn't need any complicated install.

Download from here .

Use the mouse or the arrow keys to navigate over the grid. Delete blacks out a square, space gives you an open square. Letters fill in the grid. Very simple. The hard part is designing a good grid. Unfortunately there's no good way of doing this, computer algorithms to fill grids from lists of words have been devised, but they tend to produce grids which are too loose, or ones with too many unusual words in them.

There is an automatic grid filler tool, but it just uses a brute force, try words at random approach. It won't work miracles. For instance if you ask it to fill a 6x6 block it will usually take forever to return. However it can fill in an empty grid very quickly.

The tool word matcher can however help you. Enter your word with blank spaces represented by a ?, and it will return a list of matching words. There are three levels, depending on how uncommon you want the words to be. Words are sorted by frequency. Only English is currently supported.

Crossword files can be saved in xpf file format, which is a semi-industry standard. You will able to exchange files with some but not all other software. To print or publish the crossword, you need to get it into standard wordprocessing or desktop publishing software. Use the copy tools to copy the grids to the clipboard, then paste them. The clues you can select and copy as text, in the standard way.

Principles of crossword design

I'm a programmer rather than a crossword designer. However there isn't much good material about crossword design out there on the web. So I've collected a few pearls of wisdom.

The first question is, who are you designing the crossword for? Major newspaper publish crosswords, and most of them accept submissions. However they usually only publish one a day, and have a readership of millions. So unless you are very good, it's hard to break in. More likely, you'll want a crossword for a club you're involved in, for a class you teach, for a small publication.

If you want to publish your crossword professionally the grid almost always needs to be symmetrical. For a crossword you publish yourself, of course it doesn't matter. The normal grid size is 15x15. For a British-style crossword, start by filling in a crosshatch pattern, like this.

This gives far too many long words to be realistic, so you need to block out squares strategically to reduce the number of long words in the grid. Remember that for many crosswords, the grid needs to be symmetrical, so if you block out one square, you need to block out the matching square in the diagonally opposite position (in four positions if you want a four-way symmetrical grid.

This is what it looks like when you've blacked out a few squares.

The you can simply click the "fill grid" tool, and your crossword will be ready to clue up. It's as simple as that.

An American-style crossword has far fewer black squares, and lots of interlocking short words. Two letter words are disallowed. Here's a typical grid.

An American style grid is a far greater challenge for the grid fill algorithm, and it take a minute or two to return. Also it fills it up with too many uncommon words. So you need to do some work yourself first.

However a random crossword is no good if you're writing a crossword for a school subject, for example. Probably you will have some idea of words you want in the grid. So add those words first. Then use wordmatcher to try to fill in additional words. Note that if you have a theme - say ancient Egypt, because you're teaching Egyptian history at school - not all the words in the grid need to be connected to the theme. You can equally well have the theme in the clue, e.g. Egyptian sun god not out for bad weather (rain). Or pyramid-shaped letter at mouth of Nile (delta).

The pleasure in a crossword is that, by filling in squares, you close in on the harder words. So about half the letters in each word should be shared. Ypu also need a mixture of easy and harder clues. The solver solves the easy ones first, which gives hima lead in to the harder ones.

Typically a clue involves two parts, a word or phrase which is a synonym for the answer, and a phrase which makes up the letters of the word. So if the solution is "clue", we could have "cloth-head sheep, we hear, tells us answer". "Cloth-head" is cl, sheep is ue (sounds like "ewe") and "tells us answer" is the whole word.

Not all the clues have to be like that. Some can be puns, for instance "pitch" means a playing field, a dark tar-like substance, a weight of type, to throw something, and a sales patter. So the clue could be "Elite games played here". It's also good to have one-off clues, like "State, we hear" (Utah). That's obviously not generalisable to any other word.

Happy crossword building.