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How to Write a Themed Crossword

Writing a themed crossword puzzle can be a time-consuming and tricky process, and depends on a few different factors:

- The grid pattern and grid size being used to create the puzzle
- The fill requirements: essentially the more themed entries you need to place, the harder the puzzle
- The theme that is given. As you would anticipate, the more niche the theme, usually the harder the puzzle, as there are generally less words available.

A themed puzzle where there are thousands of words available (eg sports, TV and film) are quicker and easier to create than a themed puzzle on something like jewellery making, simply because there are so many words that can be used in the former, and very few in the latter.

Additionally, crossword compilers are generalists - meaning that whilst they might have specialist knowledge in particular subjects - when it comes to writing on a particular niche the writer may well have little or no knowledge of that field above and beyond what one has simply through one's general knowledge: therefore considerable research may be required to find out any specialist vocabulary and terms, and then consultation with the client to find out what level of knowledge their readership is expected to have, and which terms are therefore considered fair to use. Sometimes the client will provide their own wordlist with must-have words and others that would be nice-to-have. Filling a grid around must-haves can be very difficult, and sometimes requires a brand new grid pattern to be created to accommodate their needs.

A themed crossword compiler, when presented with a particular theme, will usually start by building a word list of words that are on theme (where said list is not already provided). Of course, the more words that the list contains the better, as this provides more flexibility when it comes to the grid fill. Depending on the client, the requirement might just be for a few themed words, making the fill relatively easy, or much more demanding if the brief is to get as many entries as possible on theme.

Once the wordlist is compiled, and where possible agreed with the client to avoid the rejection of a puzzle as a later date for having obscure terms in, the next step is creating the puzzle itself. A compiler will usually start with the longest entries: these are the most eye-catching entries and are the ones that make the puzzle feel themed most strongly to the solver, and additionally have a lot of impact on the rest of the grid due to their high number of crosses with other answers: therefore it is good to get them in first. Most compilers will try to get the longest entries on theme wherever possible.

The compiler will them try and build in as many themed words elsewhere in the grid, often through a process of trial and error: putting in a themed word, realising that it makes it impossible to get a grid fill, then taking it out, trying it elsewhere, or abandoning it and using a different word instead, always with the aim of hitting their brief as accurately as possible.

A good compiler will be inventive in their grid fill with a themed puzzle, for instance looking for multiple word answers or phrases that could potentially be used where no dictionary word will fit in order to keep the fill going, or look to reference chacters from literature or include proper nouns such as major cities to help them achieve a good grid fill. This is why writing a themed crossword by hand is the only real way to get a very good grid fill, as even with an extensive wordlist and software, there will always be occasions where a phrase or proper noun not in the wordlist will occur to the human whilst gridding the puzzle that can help improve it.

If you are looking to get into compiling themed puzzles, how do you find the process? Is there anything you are unsure of or find particularly difficult? Or perhaps you currently do compile themed crosswords: are there any hints or tips on best practice that you'd like to share? We'd love to hear from you so do feel free to use the comments section below.
Date written: 11 May 2015

Category: crosswords | Keywords: crosswords | puzzle writing

Puzzle Videos: Learn to Solve

Sandwich Sudoku Rules
A lovely sudoku variant, sandwich sudoku gives you hints around the edge of the grid as to the location of the 1 and 9 in each row and column. This video explains the rules so you can have a go at this fun but tricky variant...

If you'd like to try this puzzle before watching the video then you can do so here: Sandwich Sudoku Puzzle

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