27 November 2008

What I'm Doing

I thought you might be interested in seeing the process I'm going through for each one of the 253 puzzles in this book ... this is how I created the knitting-themed Hidden Word Search puzzle for Word Searches for Dummies :

1. First of all I have to write a word list of 'on topic' words. This is a plain text file in BBEdit, and generally has at least 200 words, and generally many more (up to ~2,000). To do this I scour the Interbets, use the lists and articles on Wikipedia, a good thesaurus or two, and other reference works. I need to clean up the lists so my puzzle program can use them - they have to be all lower case, with no spaces, accented characters, hyphens, punctuation etc. I use the Grep commands in BBEdit a lot.

Writing the theme word list can take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. The lists are a real asset to me, as I can reuse them in the future.

2. Next I open up a new puzzle in my custom software Project X, written by my pet programmer-extraordinaire, Hubby. (It's not available for sale, sorry, it's my professional advantage!). The naming system for the book is fairly complex and has to be accurate. I make sure the file name is correct and that the grid is the right size (17 x 17 for this puzzle) by checking my Excel spreadsheet of all the puzzles planned for the book.

3. I select the "knitting words" word list, and start adding words to the grid! The longest words go in first. As you can see, when I click on a square, the dialog box shows me all the words from my 'themed list' that can be put in the space. I choose the word I want (every word is chosen by me, none of them are placed by the computer).

4. As you can see, when the grid gets heavily filled in, there can be places where there are NO options (from the themed word list, anyway). At times like this, I'll try seeing if any words will fit from a different direction, or change words in the grid.

5. The grid is nearly full, and ready for the secret hidden answer to be put in! While writing I keep checking the word list, to ensure I don't put any words in twice, and that there's a reasonably good spread of starting letters across the alphabet.

I have 19 leftover letters, and luckily I find a great 'hidden message' right away. It is almost never this quick - it can take hours to find something apt that fits the spaces. Sometimes I end up adjusting the grid (adding or deleting words) to accommodate a good message. A lot of the time I start with a message in mind, and fill in the grid until I've got the right number of spaces left.

6. The hidden message letters show up on a brown background. The yellow dots mark the start of words, and the red dots are the ends of words.

7. Once the grid is filled, I have to check it. First of all I check for duplicate words against the puzzle's word list - this scan has revealed that the word knit occurs 3 times in the grid (and it gives me the coordinates so I can find them quickly). This particular duplication isn't a problem, thankfully, because I haven't put the word knit in the word list as a single word (it occurs as part of longer words). Other duplications can be a problem though, in which case I have to go back to the puzzle and change words, and recheck.

The last scan of the grid is against my 'rude words' list (yeah, that one was fun to write!) - it makes sure there aren't any swear words accidentally created in the grid. Again, if there is a problem word in there, I have to edit the grid (ie go back to Step 3) and try again.

8. Phew - all the scans are good, so I can start on creating the artwork. I save the grid as a PDF, and the Answer grid version as a PDF as well. The word list is saved and put into a Word document. I edit this final puzzle word list to put back the spaces, accented characters, hyphens and so on.

9. The PDF files are put into Illustrator - this is the Answer file (the hidden message letters are circled). I have a template file, and have programmed actions to process the graphics to be of consistent sizes and so on. These files are saved both as EPS (for the Wiley layout team) and PDF (for my editors) files.

10. As you can see, there are quite a few files for each puzzle. I package the finished set of files into a zipped archive, and e-mail it off to my lovely project editor Sarah at Wiley in Indianapolis. Then I go to my Excel spreadsheet, write a Hint for the puzzle (there is a whole chapter of Hints, one for each puzzle), write something (hopefully) witty for the puzzle's Title, note down the Hidden Message answer in another file, and mark the puzzle as done.

Next ...

This is just one of 8 different styles of word search puzzles I'm writing for the book - each one has different things I have to do (for example : Quiz Word Searches involve writing a quiz question for every word in the puzzle word list; Scrambled Words involve jumbling up each word in the final word list; and Story Word Searches involve writing a 450 word article first, running it past Sarah, and using the words from the final approved article as the theme word list to create the puzzle). I need to average 5 puzzles per day to meet the deadline.


  1. I'm exhausted just thinking about all the work you put into each puzzle. Your hubby-special programme must be a real boon.

  2. Thank goodness for the special programme. My head hurts just thinking about the process with out it!! Happy puzzling.

  3. Wow - that was very cool, seeing how it's done! I always wondered!

  4. There's no hidden message there - it's just blatently clear - YOU ARE AMAZING!

  5. What a cool post! I'd often wondered how it was done.

  6. OMFG!!!! How do you do it without going insane??!!!

  7. Wonderful! And really interesting. Thank you.

  8. Good Lord. Over and over? I'm astonished!

  9. I am impressed at all the work that goes into your puzzle writing. What a bonus to have a secret weapon in you back pocket in the form of a puzzle program writing hubby. I am anxious to see the final product.

  10. My brain would explode! Thank God for that computer program. How was it done before? Multiple Scrabble sets and then patient copying onto graph paper, then typesetting, then excruciating editing? And you have to do five a day? Oh My Gosh!!

    So, do you do five puzzles of one type a day, or is it better to mix them up and keep your brain fresh?

  11. Mind boggling and so much work but you have that special talent to do it. Thank you for sharing, had no idea what is involved.