Answer by Deb Amlen, writer of Wordplay, the New York Times crossword blog. Constructor of many mainstream and naughty puzzles. Judge at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament since 2006. Judge and contributor to Lollapuzzoolla since 2008:
The best way to answer this is to pass the buck completely and advise you to find a good mentor who has been published, preferably in the New York Times. I'm not saying that because I work for them, but it has long had the reputation for being the gold standard in the industry. So if your mentor has been published there, you have a good chance of learning from someone who knows what they are doing. You can find such a mentor by subscribing to the discussion list on Cruciverb-L., the online hangout for puzzle constructors. The discussion list is called
It's a long process and not for the faint of heart, but here it goes. First, you have to determine what kind of crossword puzzle you want to make. Let's say it's a themed daily, which is usually 15-by-15 squares. First you would develop the theme, which is a set of answers that all have something in common. There is a lot of great information about how to develop a theme and what makes a good theme on.
Once you like your theme set, you need to set it in the grid and intersperse the grid with black squares. In an American-style crossword, all words must be at least three letters, and some grids are more attractive than others. Once again, you can read up on this at Cruciverb, and having a mentor to guide you through this is really the best way to learn.
After the theme is set, it's time to fill in the words in the rest of the grid. This is where artistry comes in. The constraints of puzzle-building sometimes make it difficult to fill the grid using good, sparkling, and lively words and phrases, but it's crucial to the success of the puzzle. I would rather spend most of my time ripping out a bad section and refilling it than leave a partial phrase or a joyless entry in my grid.
Now that you have a filled puzzle, it's time to write the clues. More artistry, and depending on the day of the week the puzzle will be published, you have a chance to really play with your words. Cluing can be the most mundane part of puzzle constructing, but there is a lot of satisfaction in writing a really twisty, devious clue.
And there you have it. Now all you have to do is submit your puzzle to an editor and wait to rake in all that glorious puzzle money waiting to be made.
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