In a previous post, we discussed the use of technological aids in solving crossword puzzles, and even went as far as suggesting a few possibly useful tools. One of our regular solvers expressed shock at this, and declared that he would never stoop to such measures. We respect his choice, but as for us, we do not see this as a matter of principle: while we rarely use software to solve a standard American cryptic, we have no qualms about seeking digital help when struggling with a British puzzle.
This is because we have little experience with those puzzles, they use a fair amount of British knowledge we lack and they encompass a much greater variety of cluing styles. The alternative (admittedly not the end of the world) would be to leave many such puzzles unfinished, and thus to miss an opportunity to learn something. Yes, we could just look up the answers, but for some reason that does not seem to be as fun as using technology to generate possible solutions.
In any case, the subject of this post is the use of computers in crossword construction. We know and admire constructors (Trip Payne, for one) who create their diagrams mostly by hand. Perhaps we could do so too, but we have not tried. Instead, we use software to help us.
Our process is more or less as follows. First, we decide on some seed entries. These are entries that are necessary to the theme of the puzzle, or just words or phrases for which we have a good idea, or the germ of an idea, for a clue. We enter these in an empty diagram. In the case of a themed puzzle, we try to place these entries symmetrically. This determines the placement of several black squares. We then choose the location of the remaining black squares, keeping these criteria in mind: the diagram should be well connected, average word length should not drop too far below seven, there should not be huge black islands, and every word should have about half its letters checked, never less. The software helps ensure that the resulting diagram is symmetric.
The final step is of course to fill the rest of the diagram. Up to this point, the software was merely a way to record our ideas, but from here on out, it becomes a participant in the process. The application makes suggestions for what words fit in each location, while taking into account possibilities for the crossing words and in fact the filling of the whole diagram. The words are rated by the program as more or less desirable, based on various criteria. Virtuoso users of the software keep enlarging their word lists, and adjusting the ratings of words. We are not virtuosi.
We usually add one word at a time into the grid. This often involves backtracking, for example if a decision we made earlier led to overly obscure entries, or too many plurals, or words we have used in a recent puzzle. Sometimes the software fails us, and access to other word lists gets us out of a tight spot. This machine-human collaboration eventually leads to a filled grid, and we can start writing clues. Needless to say, our cryptic clues are written entirely by human beings and we have zero interest in outsourcing this to a machine!
What applications do we use, you ask? Crossword Compiler for half of our puzzles, and CrossFire for the other half. They each have their strengths. The former seems to be the standard among many crossword constructors, and includes the ability to create bar diagrams. Unfortunately, it is only available for Windows. The latter is not as full-featured, but it can be used on a Mac.
Have you lost all respect for us? Let us know in the comments. This week’s cluing challenge: SOFTWARE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.