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One of the most commonly asked questions in crossword circles is “Where can I find some good compiling software?” What follows is a description of Sympathy, a crossword compiling program created by Bryson Limited. This excellent program caters for all the needs of today’s compiler, and  I cannot recommend it highly enough. I should stress at the start that I have no financial or other material interest in promoting this software – I have written this article with the sole intention of raising awareness of a superb compiling tool.


Sympathy was created by Ross Beresford, who is one of the editors of the Listener crossword. Therefore there is an immediate advantage here – this is a program written by someone with a thorough understanding of crosswords and the requirements of compilers in the computer age. It runs with Windows 95 onwards, and is regularly updated to include new features. At the time of writing the price is £99 but you can check this by visiting Bryson Limited’s web site (links are at the bottom of this page).

Ease of use

Although at first glance Sympathy may look complicated  to use, this is actually not the case. The Help menu really does provide help (they don’t always!) and also offers online support and tutorials. I am no computer genius but I got to grips with most of the program’s features in a couple of weeks. The more arcane crossword terminology is explained – there are definitions of words like “light” and “unch”. It is probably a good idea to print off the first few pages of the Help information for easy reference. After a few sessions with the program you will find that your time can be spent usefully writing crosswords, rather than messing about trying to operate the program.

Disk space

The program takes up about 70MB of hard disk space, not a lot by today’s standards. Even more of an advantage is that saved crosswords only take up 7 or 8 kilobytes each; hence they won’t clog up your hard disk and you can store plenty of them on a single CD or flash drive.

Creating grids

Sympathy provides a number of commonly used grids, blocked and barred, and these can be modified to suit your needs. Alternatively you can design your own from scratch. If needed you can save your new grids as templates.  It can take less than 5 minutes to draw a complete grid, and the grid is automatically renumbered every time you change it. That’s one of the most welcome features – when numbering a grid by hand it’s so easy to overlook one of the answers and thus get into a complete mess. You can change the appearance of the grid too – for example you can write some answers in italics or a different colour. This is particularly useful for thematic crosswords. You can also remove the numbers for some or all of the grid entries (again useful for thematics) and the grid is automatically renumbered to reflect the changes.
Another useful feature is the Unch Model – which in plain English means that Sympathy tells you if your grid has too many or too few unchecked letters by Ximenean standards. You can change the parameters for what constitutes acceptable cross-checking or turn the feature off altogether. This feature is very useful if you’re writing Listener or Enigmatic Variations crosswords, where the quality of grid construction is important.

Filling the Grid

Filling grids can be a time-consuming, tedious task. It is the one part of crossword compiling that I really dislike – when done by hand it often requires much searching through dictionaries and you can end up with awful words like CARNIVOROUSNESS which are hard to define and don’t break down easily. With Sympathy you can fill the grid in one go, or choose each entry from a list of words (interactive filling). The latter is particularly useful if you are writing simple puzzles, as you can avoid obscure words and choose words which can be clued simply. For me, the grid filling feature is the most useful of the program – I write one puzzle daily and simply don’t have the time to fill every grid manually. Even when using interactive filling Sympathy maintains an overall approach to filling the grid, which means that it doesn’t select words that require others to end in nasty letters like J or Q. You can see what the grid looks like at each stage of an interactive fill, so you can also avoid other pitfalls, such as too many words ending in O or I. These words tend to be obscure or foreign words and there are only so many times you can use Italian composers or types of pasta! If you don’t like the way the fill is going you can always go back one or more stages. In addition, when using interactive filling each possible word for a grid entry is given a “fillability” rating. A high fillability means that you will have plenty of choices for the other grid entries; a low fillability means you may be limited for choice as you complete the fill. By choosing words of medium or high fillability you can avoid being left with awkward words at the end of the fill.

You can choose the words from a number of dictionaries (in this case lists of words) that come with the program. For example the Core English dictionary contains basic English words, while the Edited English dictionary has more obscure words, common expressions, names of famous people, place names and even titles of books and musical works. You can type in your own words too.
Finally, another useful feature is the Kill List. This enables you to remove words from the dictionaries, temporarily or permanently, so as to avoid repeating the same words in your puzzles.

Writing Clues

Sympathy does NOT produce complete clues for given words. You have to provide these yourself. Whilst this may seem like an oversight when you’re struggling to finish a puzzle on time after a few too many beers the night before, it is quite right that this is the case, and I’d like to elaborate on this a little.

No doubt it would be possible to produce a program that refers to a database and provides one or more cryptic clues for each word. But what would be the point? The result would be a puzzle that is (a) sterile and (b) not your own work. Arguably this may not matter if you’re producing crosswords for one of those supermarket puzzle magazines that are merely designed to while away a train journey or a wait at the dentist’s surgery. However the joy of solving crossword clues is innovation and inventiveness, and these can’t ever be emulated by a computer. Not so long ago a national newspaper announced its intention to substitute a computer database for the compilers of its popular crossword. There was an outcry and the plan was (thank goodness) dropped.

What Sympathy does do is give hints for the wordplay of a clue with its excellent Wordplay Wizard. For any word, the Wizard will list possible anagrams, reversals, container-and-contents wordplay etc, starting with simple suggestions and finishing with more complex ideas.

For example, if the word is REGAL, the Wizard will start the list by showing that this is a reversal of LAGER and an anagram of LARGE or ELGAR. Further down the list the Wizard will suggest R + an anagram of GALE or GAEL. More complex ideas towards the end of the list will include R + EG + a reversal of LA. You can select the number of pieces into which words can be broken.

Also, the Wordplay Wizard gives suggestions for abbreviations, common anagram and reversal indicators, and definitions for some common letter groupings (e.g. LE = “the” in French, RE = about, engineer etc).

This is not the same as using a database to generate anonymous clues and is certainly not cheating! You still have to define the word to be clued and link it to the suggested wordplay to make a meaningful sentence. Where Sympathy is invaluable is that you save the time you’d have spent moving Scrabble tiles around or scribbling on bits of paper. You have to do the thinking, Sympathy does the legwork. In any case, one should remember that Sympathy’s Wordplay Wizard only gives suggestions based on permutations of words; it can’t help find homophones, double meanings and cryptic clues based solely on misleading definitions (e.g. Capital of Russia (6) = ROUBLE). 

Sympathy’s Wordplay Wizard is particularly useful when writing clues for words which are difficult to break down. In some ways it has improved the quality of the clues I write – it has made me aware of anagrams and other permutations of words that I’d never have spotted in a month of Sundays!

You type in the clues as normal text in a layout of your choice. Clue numbers and enumerations (number of letters in each clue) are added to the clue automatically, which is very useful indeed - it’s so easy to misnumber clues or give wrong enumerations.

Completed puzzles

Your completed puzzle is stored as two pages, puzzle (blank grid with clues) and solution (completed grid with answers listed underneath). You can print one or both of these. In addition you can convert the puzzle into a Web page or export it to a word processor program. The latter is particularly useful if you are e-mailing the puzzle to someone who doesn’t have Sympathy and would otherwise be unable to open the file.

Other features

I have not discussed all of Sympathy’s features here. For fuller and more detailed information you need to look at Bryson Limited’s website (links below). I have mentioned the features which in my opinion will be the most sought after by the compiler; however there are a few others which deserve a brief mention. For example there is a Gimmicks feature which allows you to create a Letters Latent puzzle or a crossword based on a Playfair code. You can use CD-ROM versions of dictionaries in connection with Sympathy so you can look up the meanings of words. There is an option to tag an explanation on to each clue, should you wish to remind yourself how a complex clue works at some future date. Finally, I should mention Sympathy’s Word Search facility. It finds words based on a pattern – for example you may want to find all words which fit the pattern S_A_E and you will be provided with a list of words such as STAKE, STATE etc. More complex operations are possible too – e.g. you can use it to find all words with a given sequence of letters. You may ask for all words ending in USH and will be given a list starting with the shortest and ending with the longest. This feature helps find one-off grid entries, although I have to admit that I mostly use the Word Search when I’m stuck on the Listener crossword!

After sales

It is the quality of support and help offered by Ross Beresford that persuaded me to write this feature. I can think of several large software companies who are quite happy to sell you their product but ignore all e-mails requesting help. Some even have the nerve to charge for technical support. Things couldn’t be more different in the case of Bryson Limited’s after sales support and technical help.
When I wrote the Czech puzzle for this site using an early version of Sympathy, there was no obvious way to enter accented characters into the grid. Despite this being an unusual request and hardly an urgent demand on Mr Beresford’s time, he went to no end of trouble to help me find a way to do this. (The latest version of Sympathy allows easy use of special characters.) All e-mails I have sent requesting help have been answered promptly, and the answers to my queries have always been helpful and to the point.
Furthermore, any teething troubles with new versions of the program are fixed quickly. All new programs are prone to quirks and nobody can reasonably complain about that, provided they are sorted out without too much delay. In the case of Sympathy, I found that after downloading version 2.1 the program had a habit of crashing after selecting one of the File Menu options. I pointed this out and a fix was provided within a matter of days.

“I write crosswords. Do I need Sympathy?”

There is an obvious facetious answer to this! But seriously... like any piece of software the more you use it the more the cost is justified. If you produce no more than a couple of puzzles a year it may be difficult to justify spending nearly £100 on crossword software. But if you plan to write puzzles with any regularity at all – for written publications, the Internet or your friends’ amusement – I would say that this is a good investment, if only for the ease with which you can draw and fill grids.


I started out to write a review, and the result reads more like an advertisement! I should stress again that I have no financial interest in Bryson Limited, and stand to gain nothing from writing this piece except the satisfaction of raising awareness of a superb compiling program. I am well aware that other compiling programs exist and I have no doubt that they have their merits too. Unfortunately I am unable to comment further on other programs as once I started using Sympathy, I had no need or desire to look anywhere else.

[NOTE: I started setting for the Independent and FT after I wrote this piece. Both editors prefer me to send puzzles in the format used by the program Crossword Compiler. I have therefore purchased the program and explored it to a certain extent. Apart from the considerably cheaper price, Crossword Compiler has little to recommend it as an alternative to Sympathy. There are far fewer features and I find it maddeningly user-unfriendly. I still create all puzzles with Sympathy and export them into Crossword Compiler when necessary for sending purposes only.]


If you want to find out more or buy the program the following link will be useful: