Now that I’ve been part of the AVCX cryptic editing team for a few months, my mind is always on looking out for people who have potential to make cryptics. There’s a lot less material out there if you’re trying to figure out how to construct an American-style cryptic than for vanilla crosswords. I think back to my own first attempts at cryptic-making and they were pretty cringe-worthy. (I would like to publicly apologize to Joon Pahk and Patti Varol in particular for what I sent them back in the day.)
So I’m using this series of posts to crystallize my thoughts on cryptic construction so that new constructors can learn from it. You’ll notice I’m putting this info up here on Tough as Nails, not anywhere affiliated with AVCX: That’s because these are my personal thoughts, not to be taken as editorial standards, and not everything I do will apply to every constructor. YMMV.
Designing the grid
YMMV right here! Grid design in vanilla crosswords has never been my strong point, and my MO in cryptics is always just to borrow something that someone else has already done. I simply do a Google image search for “cryptic crossword” and pick a grid that has entries of the correct length for my seed entries. Some principles for beginners when grid-picking:
- Carefully look over the grid to make sure that it follows the below standard conventions, which apply to most places you’d be submitting your puzzle. Just because you find a grid on the Internet doesn’t mean it follows the rules! Ask me how I know.
- No two “unchecked” letters (i.e., letters that are part of only one word) should be adjacent to each other
- At least half the letters in each word are checked
- Three-letter entries should be avoided; some markets disallow them altogether, others allow them in very limited quantities
- Longer entries are much harder to clue than shorter ones. If you don’t already have a clue in mind for a long entry, a more manageable first grid would be one that doesn’t have entries longer than 10 letters.
This is a grid that I have used quite a bit that works great for beginners. It’s nothing but 5s, 7s, and 9s, lengths that generally produce entries that are manageable to find good wordplay for.