The art of making a truly memorable gift crossword

The giver of this puzzle got it framed and added photos - a nice touch!

The giver of this puzzle got it framed and added photos - a nice touch!

A personalised crossword puzzle makes a really awesome gift for a puzzle junkie, but they’re not as straightforward to make as you might think.

As a professional crossword writer, I have made puzzles for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, retirements and lots more. And every job has one thing in common: by the end of it I feel like I know the recipient like my own brother, because I’ve stared at a list of factoids about them for about a week!

Whether it’s your maths teacher Jeff’s retirement or Alex’s hen’s night in the Barossa, I always need to start with a  LOoOoONG list of words so that I can make an attractive puzzle. If you don’t give me enough words then it’s going to make a pretty patchy looking puzzle, but if you give me lots of juicy words of all shapes and sizes I have a better chance of making a dense professional-looking grid.

I need to know everything - their favourite movie, the street they grew up on, their middle name, star sign, allergies, everything! The more words you give me, the less time it will take to piece together this thing.  I have an extensive list of questions I give out to help generate these answers. Once I start to get a feel for the information, I can extrapolate using my highly developed common sense - for example if I know the subject is a tennis fan then I can jam common words like ACE, NET or BALL into hard-to-fill corners.

By the time I’ve created a crossword for a seventieth birthday, for example, I’ve usually experienced the highs and lows of a lifetime. My subjects have served in the army, beaten cancer, raised families, volunteered in Africa, divorced, run triathlons… you name it, i’ve clued it. It’s such an intimate process that I always feel blessed to be involved in creating such a profound present. And it’s made even better when I get occasional messages from the recipient afterwards about how much they enjoyed it.

Pricing has always been a challenge, though, because I put so much time and care into my crosswords. Many times in the past I would quote a job based on the 20-30 hours it would take to put together, and potential clients would go running for the hills when they saw the dollar figure. But over the years I’ve learned some tricks that have allowed me to bring my prices down, down, down.

  1. Ditching Symmetry. Professional puzzles are pretty much always symmetrical, which takes way more time to construct. But I’ve realised it really doesn’t matter to the average Joe if their puzzle grid looks the same in a mirror. By foregoing symmetry I’ve been able to make puzzles quicker and cheaper.

  2. Smaller grids. I used to only do 15x15 grids, but then I realised if I offered 13x13 or 11x11 grids, I could provide a more affordable option for buyers. Although as I’ve discovered, sometimes smaller grids doesn’t mean easier to make!

  3. Bring your own grid. Making a themed puzzle is way easier if you know the subject personally. So sometimes I will suggest to the purchaser that they construct the word-fill about their loved one and I’ll write the clues. The finished project is always much more special to the giver, and it’s much much cheaper.

  4. Pay per clue. Tell me how many clues you can afford and I’ll build a puzzle the exact size. This means there’s a puzzle for any budget.

  5. Quick versus cryptic. Quick clues (or “normal” clues) is obviously the budget option, and works well for events, such as puzzles for hen’s party activities where people of all abilities can have a crack at the puzzle. Cryptic clues are suited to recipients with the skills to solve, and these obviously take a lot more time to compose, especially if they are also given the personal touch. I will often include theme words in the clues too. For example: Heading to Oatlands to get married as promised (4) was a clue from a wife’s birthday present. Oatlands was the name of their wedding venue.


One of the most important things about a gift crossword is the design of the finished product. I put my gift puzzles into the same font and layout that the newspaper crossword is published in. I provide a PDF which looks like their puzzle is clipped straight out of the puzzles page.

Do you know someone who might be chuffed by a crossword all about how special they are? Email and let’s make their day! Check out the gallery of my personalised puzzles here.

If you want to have a go yourself at writing a gift crossword for a special someone, I recommend using the GoCrossword compiling program.