< How do I set about becoming a professional compiler?

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How do I set about becoming a professional compiler?
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This is a question I have been asked several times by site visitors. I hope that by writing this page I will provide some answers for people who would like to become compilers for newspapers or magazines. I can only give accurate information regarding UK publications – so if you’re looking to publish in other parts of the world you would be well advised to seek information from a more informed local source.

The first thing to do is (obviously!) write a crossword, or preferably several. Satisfy yourself that it meets all the requirements of a decent paper – for example
  • Symmetrical grid
  • All spellings (especially the answers) correct
  • Clue numbers and enumerations (numbers in brackets at the end of each clue) correct
  • Anagrams work correctly
  • All clues are fair
  • No references in the clues or answers are potentially libellous or offensive 

The chances are high that even if you are accepted as a compiler by a given publication, they will ask you to write puzzles using their own grids, which means your original puzzle won’t be used. First impressions are important, though, and a puzzle riddled with errors is unlikely to get you very far.

If possible, try it out on a few competent solvers first. You may get some useful feedback and they may spot a typo or wrongly numbered clue that you’ve overlooked. It is also a good way to tell if you are pitching your clues at the right level. For example, if your mate does the Times in 15 minutes every day but hasn’t finished your puzzle after four hours, then it is probably too hard. It is best to err on the side of simplicity when starting out; a common error among new compilers (and that includes my first attempts) is to try to be too clever.

If all is well and you are happy with your puzzle, then it is time to send it off. These days email is considered just as valid as post for formal correspondence, so it’s up to you to choose which you use. If you are using email I would suggest sending an initial mail to ask if it is OK to send your puzzle. Emails are easily ignored and messages with attachments can end up in a spam filter so it’s a good idea to alert the relevant person that the puzzle’s on its way. It’s also a good idea to find out which file format would be preferred for the attachments. It is good practice to include, with your covering message or letter:

  • A copy of the puzzle, blank
  • A completed grid with a brief explanation for each clue
  • A stamped, addressed envelope (if sending by post).

That’s the easy bit done. It’s now time for a bit of depressing news!

We’d all like to start at one of the broadsheets, but that’s not going to happen. All of them, Times, Guardian, Telegraph etc, have a set team of compilers and they add new ones only when one of their present incumbents is either unable or unwilling to write any more puzzles. Even when a rare vacancy does arise, they are unlikely to accept anyone without some proven experience elsewhere. Thus it’s a good idea not to expect too much at the start – however good your puzzle is you are unlikely to see it appear in, say, the Times at the first time of asking. I would say that most, if not all, of the puzzles I have published on the Guest Puzzles page would not be out of place in a broadsheet newspaper, but unfortunately it isn’t as simple as that. I have published a great many puzzles in various papers around the country, including a couple of Times Listeners, but it took me a very long time to get my foot in the door with the broadsheets.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however – so I suggest you still write to them. Your puzzle may just arrive at a time when one of their regulars has left and a replacement is desperately being sought. In the past most of the crossword editors of these papers were very helpful, and the editor for the Times is still very quick to respond and usually offers useful feedback. It appears that no amount of persistence will elicit a response from the crossword editor for the Guardian, however high the standard of submitted work. I suppose that unsolicited puzzles are technically junk mail, but it is hard to believe that editors receive hundreds of applications from wannabe compilers. A standard rejection slip would be enough if the applicant provides a prepaid envelope, but sadly even in the genteel world of crosswords common courtesy is not a given. 

A more realistic ambition is to try the many local and regional papers in this country. Many magazines publish puzzles too, which gives further alternatives. You can find the names and postal addresses of all UK publications in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Admittedly, writing for the Nowhere News doesn’t carry quite the same kudos as writing for the Guardian or Times, but it is a good place to start.

Be prepared for a lot of rejections! These papers may not be so cliquey as the broadsheets, but most of them are small concerns who have one or two compilers working for them and simply have no room for any more. Few of them actually have a crossword editor, so it’s best to address your application to the paper’s chief editor (their names are given in the Yearbook). I would send explanatory notes with the answers to all publications; the effort may be wasted in most cases, but if the editor knows a bit about crosswords and is thinking about taking someone on, it could well count in your favour.

Perseverance is the key here. When I first started writing around I think I must have sent my puzzle to almost every publication in the country. If your puzzle is good enough, you will eventually get an offer, but it does take time – you will need a lot of patience (and it can cost a fortune in stamps!). It was my experience that most local newspapers responded quickly and politely, and some of them were decent enough to return my prepaid envelope under their own cover so I could use it again. Magazines are more variable; some reply quickly, others less so, and many not at all. The worst offenders for not replying are the national tabloids. I suggest you write to as many papers and magazines as you can; don’t wait for each one to reply before moving on or you’ll be applying for years! And finally on this point, at the risk of stating the patronisingly obvious: “we have put you on file and will let you know if a vacancy arises” is almost always a polite way of saying “no thanks”.

Some papers get their crosswords from agencies, which supply several papers (I used to work for one of these). If so, they may well point you in their direction.

It is worth mentioning that crossword writing is not an easy means of escape from that boring office job. It pays poorly, so even if you are writing one per day, you may well not be able to afford to give up the day job. You will need to find several outlets for your puzzles before you can be sure you can rely on it as the sole means of paying the rent!

I have been as frank as possible in the above – there is no point in pretending that it’s easy to find a job as a compiler. The puzzles I have been sent suggest to me that there is an untapped wealth of good compilers around, but in many ways it is like getting a book published – supply is greater than demand.

There is one other route you can follow. If you merely want to see a puzzle in print every so often, why not try writing a thematic crossword for one of the weekend papers? The Listener (Times), Sunday Telegraph  Enigmatic Variations and Inquisitor (Saturday i newspaper) take puzzles from all comers – here merit is the only standard used to determine whether a puzzle will be accepted. They are hard to write and rigorous Ximenean standards are expected, but the end results can be very satisfying. In addition, regular appearances in these quarters may open doors elsewhere.

I hope this has been of some help. I regret that I can’t make representations on behalf of aspiring compilers, but if you are serious about becoming a crossword writer, keep persevering. Good luck and remember that if all else fails, you can always start your own web site!

If you have any questions about points discussed in this article, click here.