Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Unexpected problems

Certain perils lurk when constructing puzzles, especially word searches.

Woolworth's 'find a word debacle' last week was rather spectacular, with the f-word appearing in a children's activity book. And let's face it, the offensive word in question is so glaringly obvious in the grid that I doubt the puzzle was proofread at all — and I found four other rude words in the grid, when I entered the grid into my software and scanned it (and no, I'm not going to tell you what they are! You rude thing). This has happened to others too, and no doubt will happen to others in the future.

Due to the nature of grids of letters, a great deal of words are accidentally created in the grid, after the chosen words have been placed. These cause a problem if they are duplicates of words from the puzzle's word list, or if they are offensive or inappropriate terms.

In even a small word search puzzle, there will typically be well over 100 3-letter words accidentally created (one of the reasons I try to avoid having 3-letter words in the word list, as they are often accidentally duplicated). In a 'standard' word search this isn't too much of a problem, but if it's a puzzle with a hidden message that is revealed in the left-over letters, such duplication errors can break the puzzle. The left-over letters don't spell a hidden message at all, just gobbledygook.

The other problem is accidentally created rude or offensive words ... in the sample above I designed the grid to force the two 4-letter words to appear, but the other term was accidentally created! So, it really does happen, and often.

A professional puzzle writer knows about such pitfalls, and has ways of checking their work to ensure such unacceptable words are not in their grids. I have a rather hair-raising 'rude word list', which all my word search grids are scanned against. When offensive words are found, I edit them out.

Unfortunately too many word search puzzles, especially those created by people who want a 'quick puzzle page' for kids, are created by free online word search generators. The user puts in a list of words they want to appear in the grid, and the computer creates the puzzle. The quality of such puzzles is poor : word placement is generally uninteresting (eg all words that start with M starting from the same area of the grid, or dull word placement without many diagonals or much overlapping), and they are prone to such 'accidental offensive word' creation, but they don't scan for them.

Proofreading such a grid is hard to do by hand, too, as a human has to have a long list of suspect words in front of them, and scan through the grid line by line looking for them, over and over. Beyond tedious. You really have to have professional software that can do proper scans of the grids, and pinpoint any problems. Just one example is Wordsearch Creator, which allows you to enter a 'banned words' list - and it's Donation Nag Ware, so not expensive! I go through the steps in 'How to Write a Word Search' Cheat Sheet, if you're creating one by hand.

In other words — if your puzzle is going to a huge public audience, don't rely on free online puzzle generators! And maybe even — gasp — get in a professional to do it properly.

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