The history of crossword puzzles
Crossword puzzles have a long history in American newspapers, dating back to 1913 when the New York World newspaper published a word-cross puzzle by Arthur Wynne. "Word-cross" itself got crossed and the crossword puzzle and name as we know it was born. Crossword puzzles gained popularity throughout the 1920s. The New York Times has been publishing their puzzle since 1942 and to this day it is widely regarded as the most prestigious crossword puzzle in existence.
In modern history the newspaper industry has waned, but the advent of digital crossword puzzles has helped maintain popularity of the pastime. Most major puzzles are available in digital form (either free or paid). The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is an annual event that attracts nearly 1,000 crossword enthusiasts.
Anatomy of crossword puzzles
Over time there have been a [loose] set of rules that now encompass the modern American-style crossword puzzle.
- No enclosed areas
- An odd number of boxes across and down and always square (usually 15x15 for weekday puzzles, 21x21 or 23x23 for Sunday)
- Difficulty usually increases throughout the week (Monday being the easiest)
- The grid is symmetric across 180° rotations (try it!)
- Boxes are numbered from left to right and top to bottom
- "Fully checked", which means each letter used in more than one word
- Puzzles usually have a theme that corresponds with several answers (often using word play)
- Minimum word length is usually 3 letters, but there are a few exceptions
How crossword puzzles are created
People who make crossword puzzles are called constructors. All crossword puzzles used to be laid out by hand. Today many crossword puzzle constructors use computer software to assist in the puzzle layout (and to find answers that fit, some constructors even use Crossword Tracker for that purpose). Most puzzles credit the constructor and if you do a lot of puzzles you'll start seeing familiar names. For example, Merl Reagle is a very well known constructor who has even been a guest on The Simpsons!
A crossword usually starts with a concept. The constructor will place the theme answers into the puzzle grid. They decide which blocks are blacked out (remember they have to follow the rules above, so it's harder than it sounds!). Once happy with the themed answers and placement, the constructor uses "fill words" to finish out the puzzle. If all goes well it's that simple, but frequently there will have to be some changes to allow all the words to fit together. It's similar to doing a crossword puzzle backwards and constructors also have to rack their brains thinking of answers.
Crossword puzzles that end up in large newspapers or in syndication are controlled by an editor. Constructors submit their puzzles to a crossword editor and the editor decides which puzzles are selected (and for what day since crosswords raise in difficulty through the week). The puzzle editor frequently tweaks clues to conform to style and difficulty. Will Shortz is the crossword editor for the New York Times and receives many submissions every day from constructors hoping for a chance at their puzzle running in the Times.
Crossword construction isn't an especially lucrative field and is typically a past time for the constructors. The New York Times pays $200 for a daily puzzle and $1,000 for a Sunday puzzle, but that depends on your puzzle being chosen which is quite competitive. There were NY Times puzzles from over 60 constructors in just 2012.
Different types of crossword puzzles
Many American crossword puzzlers are unaware that there are different types of crossword puzzles around the world. The most popular alternate form of crossword puzzle is the British style or "cryptic crosswords". Like their American counterparts, cryptic crosswords are found in major daily newspapers. The main difference between the two types of puzzles is that the clues utilize wordplay (hence the "cryptic" moniker). To be successful at solving a cryptic crossword you'll need to watch out for code words in the clue that hint at what the hidden meaning is. Wikipedia has an example of how this works in progress.