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How To Write Clues For Your Own Crossword

February 11, 2021 6 min read

How to write great crossword clues

How To Write Clues For Your Own Crossword

Are you creating a crossword? Choosing the answers is important and fun, but writing great clues can make your crossword even better.

At elevencorners we've designed many personalised crosswords for our customers. They're mostly given as gifts, though sometimes they're intended as crosswords for people to solve (for example, at social gatherings like weddings). We've seen all sorts of subject matter on crosswords (read our blog post here - crosswords are very versatile!) and we've seen all manner of different clues. 

But what makes a good crossword clue? If you're creating a crossword as a gift for someone, or you're creating a crossword for people you know to solve, read on for a few simple pointers that can help when writing those all-important clues.

1. Audience

Once you've got your list of answers and before you start writing the clues, think about your audience: who is going to read the clues? 

Are you creating your crossword as a gift? Is it a celebration of someone's life? Then your clues exist to give context or add information about the answer in the grid.

Are you creating a crossword as a puzzle for a group of people to solve? Then your clues must contain sufficient information for people to get to the answer.

Sometimes we've designed crosswords that created to be solved first, and then, after the solving, a print of the crossword with answers is given as a gift. It's a great idea for a present - a fun activity and also a wonderful keepsake (and the keepsake then carries the memory of attempting to solve the crossword!).


2. Clues To Be Solved

If you're writing a crossword to be solved by more than one person, your clues need to be general enough to be understood by everyone who's going to try and solve them. It's common sense: a clue is no good if no-one understands it. If people don't understand the clue, they're not going to get the answer! And they're going to get frustrated. So the clues must be something everyone can relate to.

It's a good idea to have a few easy clues so that people can get some of the answers quite quickly. It helps motivate them to keep at it if they get stuck on a harder clue later on. 

If your crossword has factual answers, make sure the facts are right! Obvious, really, but if a clue points to an answer that's different from the right answer, it means you've got the wrong clue. 

If it's possible, try out your clues on someone before you commit them to the crossword. You'll soon find out if a clue 'works' or not - do you get a confused, blank face as they wonder what you're getting at, or an excited smile as they solve the clue? The very best clues are those where the answer is on the tip of the tongue but takes a bit of thought before it tumbles out of the mouth.


3. Clues For A Crossword As A Gift

When a crossword is a gift, you've got a lot more latitude for your clues. Your audience is one single person so you can be really specific with the clues. Sometimes, the more specific they are, the better. Each clue combines with its answer to evoke a memory or highlight something important to whoever the crossword is about. 

Some of the clues might be totally meaningless to everyone else. But so what? As long as it makes sense to the recipient of your gift, it's a good clue!

We've seen clues with nonsense words, dates, single-word clues, acronyms, names, places - all of which, on their own, don't mean very much. But when combined with the answer and read by the gift recipient, they become meaningful and very personal.

Great clues don't have to be clever or brilliantly worded, they just have to give a warm feeling to the person who the crossword gift is for.


4. A Theme 

A theme for your crossword can really help with writing your clues because it means you don't have to provide as much information in each clue. The theme provides the context for the clues and answers. A warning, though: a theme only works if all clues and answers are appropriate to the theme. 

One of our customers had the brilliant idea of making a crossword for someone who had appeared in lots of stage shows. Each clue was the name of the stage show (so there were some very short clues, like 'Cats' and 'Grease') and each answer was the name of the character that the recipient had played in the show. A brilliantly simple idea that worked extremely well.

Another customer made a crossword where all the clues were dates and all the answers were names - the dates were dates of birth and the names were the names of the recipient's grandchildren. Another brilliantly simple idea.


5. A Title

You can also provide context for a crossword via its title. A title as simple as 'Dad' or 'Dad's Crossword' means that you don't have to include the word 'Dad' in lots of your clues. A title like 'Our 2020' or 'Our First Year' frames all the clues as a group, so every individual clue doesn't need to be framed.


6. Clue Content

From the crosswords we've seen, we think that the best clues are:

  • concise
  • simple

If you're creating your crossword as a gift, we'd add:

  • personal

Aiming to keep clues concise and simple mean that you won't be tempted to get lost in a labyrinth of elaborations and over-complications. Crosswords are a simple idea and we think they're best kept simple, especially when they're gifts.

If your clue is too obscure to understand, you've wasted that clue (and the answer associated with it). And too many wasted clues on one crossword is the same as wasting the entire crossword - it just doesn't have the connection to the gift recipient that it could have had. The best personal gifts are the ones with the strongest connections (read more about why personal gifts are great gifts here).

Sure, if you want to design a crossword for the Times or New York Times newspapers then you're going to embrace anagrams, clever word-play and cryptic clues, and you'll be looking to create a different kind of crossword to the ones we're talking about here. 

Sometimes you'll have an answer which could have many clues - and this is where a really personal clue works really well.

Let's say your answer is Oslo. Your clue could be 'Capital of Norway', which is fine if the crossword is intended to be solved. But if the crossword is a gift, you might mention why Oslo is important. Your clue could be '6 Rugdeveien', if that was the place the gift recipient lived when they worked in Norway for a year. It's a nice personal memory with a strong connection. The stronger the connections you build on your crossword, the more successful a gift it will be.

What else makes a good clue?

  • A nickname (put the real name as the answer)
  • Half a (concise!) funny story (put the punchline as the answer) - you don't even need to explain the funny story in your clue, just highlight enough of it so that the recipient knows what it refers to.
  • A date (put a description of the event it relates to as the answer)
  • A very short description, like 'beer' or 'pizza' or 'ice cream' (put the particular brand or flavour as the answer)
  • A description of someone (put their name as the answer)


7. Clue Layout

This aspect of clues often gets forgotten, or isn't often thought about. Your clues need to appear printed with the crossword, which means that they are part of the overall look of the print. 

If your crossword is designed as an activity to be solved, then the main purpose of the clues is to help people get the answers. 

If your crossword is a personalised gift, then clues tend to look most attractive on a print when they're all a similar length - it's nice and neat if every clue only takes up one line. While this is a secondary consideration to clue content, it's worth bearing in mind because you'll probably want your crossword to look as attractive as possible when people see it.

See details of custom crossword puzzle prints here.

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