There’s an old joke among crossworders about the solver who meets a puzzle constructor for the first time and says, “I’ve always wondered how you go about creating a crossword. Which comes first, the grid or the clues?”
For ordinary crosswords, of the sort you find every day in the New York Times and other newspapers, this is an amusingly nonsensical question. Creating a grid in which every letter is checked (i.e., appears in two different words) is a task with enough constraints to keep a constructor on the alert. (For more on the different kinds of grids, see our blog posts on square patterns and diagram construction.) So all a constructor can really do is build a sound diagram, and then proceed to write clues for all the entries.
Cryptic crosswords, on the other hand—and especially those with checkerboard patterns like the ones in The Nation—offer the constructor enormous latitude in placing words. Except when building a puzzle around a theme of some kind, we find that there are almost always a wide assortment of entries available to us at any given juncture in the constructing process.
The result is that unlike the constructor in the joke, we don’t always start with a grid. Or rather, each puzzle begins with an intricate dance between grid-constructing and clues that have already been written. As we go about our daily lives, we remain on the lookout for the germs of good cryptic clues—long phrases that can be interpreted in two ways, funny homophones, interesting charades or anagrams and so on. We keep those on file—either in the form of a completed cryptic clue or just a general idea—and when the time comes to build a new crossword grid, we tend to use them as the structural beams, with shorter and more flexible entries connecting them as necessary. Because long entries are so much harder to write solid and entertaining clues for, it helps to seed a grid with entries that we know are amenable to it.
And yet one of the greatest spurs to creativity, in this or any other arena, is sheer necessity. Sometimes you just have to write a clue for whatever words the grid includes—and surprisingly often, that requirement yields happy results. For every entry that has appeared in one of our grids because it fit a clue we liked, there are probably two clues we’re proud of that came into being simply because the answer word had forced its way into a grid.
So which comes first? Just as with the chicken and the egg (or words and music in opera) the answer is the old one: Neither. And both.
Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.