How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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The PN Blog 2017 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Farewell, David

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague David Lindsey. But it was an incredibly rewarding experience to talk to those who knew him better than I did, and put together a memorial piece in his honor. I learned so much, and it was a valuable part of the healing process for all of us. I had two different opportunities to get to know David, and that’s a rare gift.

#9 The Puzzle of the Bard

Puzzle history, codes, and wordplay are three common topics around here. So when I found a story that neatly covers all three, I simply couldn’t resist. Although this one is more conspiracy theory than verifiable puzzle history, it was great fun to do a deep dive into the ongoing debate surrounding Shakespeare’s identity and put a puzzly spin on the subject. The research alone made this one worthwhile.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Sadly, crosswords in general, and New York Times crosswords in particular, have a reputation for being stodgy, steeped in arcane vocabulary, obscure facts, and antiquated cultural references. As part of the ever-evolving narrative surrounding cultural sensitivity — not just ethnic, but in terms of gender and sexuality as well — it’s important to do more than acknowledge the debate. You have to participate in it.

#6 Puzzles in Unexpected Places

One was tucked away on a university website. Another sat in plain sight on a tombstone. The third came to light in a music fan’s collection. What did all three have in common? They represented a simple fact: puzzles are everywhere, a part of the cultural fabric in innumerable ways. I’m cheating a bit by mentioning three posts here, but they all fit the pattern. And it’s so much fun to discover puzzles in unexpected places.

#5 Puzzles for Pets

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So when the idea was floated for PuzzleNation to get in on the pranking fun, I couldn’t resist. The result — Puzzles for Pets — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, and more. I even got my own dog, Bailey, in on the gag.

#4 Design Your Own Escape Room

Bringing a puzzle-solving mindset into other social activities has always been a passion of mine. I’ve written in previous blog posts about using my puzzly experiences in designing murder mystery dinners and other events. This year, I had the opportunity to try my hand at designing an escape room-style experience for a friend’s birthday, and sharing some of what I learned with you was a genuine treat.

#3 ACPT, New York Toy Fair, and more

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting new creators and exploring established companies at New York Toy Fair or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Puzzle History

I mentioned puzzle history as a frequent blog post topic in #9, but recent revelations by government agencies in both the United States and Great Britain have allowed puzzlers greater access than ever before to the history of codebreaking over the last century or so.

In fact, so much information has come to light that I was able to do a three-part series on the history of the NSA and American codebreaking post-World War II. This was a labor of love that took weeks to put together, and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done for the blog.

#1 Daily POP Crosswords

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Crosswords.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce you to several of the terrific constructors we’ve recruited to make the puzzles as fresh and engaging as they can possibly be, and you’ll get to meet a few more in the weeks to come.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2017 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2018.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

crossword-newspaper

Last summer, I wrote a blog post discussing an article on Slate by Ruth Graham. The article was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?”

So, what sort of progress has been made over the previous 365 days? Clearly not enough, given the title of an article published last week on The Outline, entitled “The NYT Crossword is Old and Kind of Racist.”

Adrianne Jeffries makes a strong case for how out-of-touch the crossword often seems these days:

…the Times crosswords, which have been edited by the famed crossword giant Will Shortz since 1993, are vexing for how outdated some of the clues and answers are, especially since in some cases the terms have been abandoned by the paper itself. The puzzle clearly isn’t seeking new talent or a new audience, and in its stodginess, it becomes clear that it is composed for a very particular reader with a very particular view of the world.

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[Image courtesy of New York Magazine.]

She backs up her supposition with numerous examples of tone-deaf cluing and grid fill, like ESKIMO, Oriental, and SISSIES.

There is some overlap with Ruth Graham’s points from last year — including the reductive use of HOMIE regarding black culture and the clue “One caught by the border patrol” for ILLEGAL — and Jeffries went on to include examples of the issue I raised last year with the objectionable “This, to Juan” cluing style that abounds in crosswords.

But she takes things one step further than previous efforts by pointing out how the crossword is out-of-step with the rest of the New York Times newspaper, citing the year that various terms were marked offensive in the Times style guide. (“Oriental” as a descriptor, for instance, was banned in 1999.)

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[This is oriental. People are not. Image courtesy of Rashid Oriental Rugs.]

It’s disheartening that articles like this are so necessary. Women and people of color deserve better representation in the Times puzzles, both as contributors of puzzles AND as subjects of clues and entries themselves.

Jeffries offered another damning example of dubious Shortzian editing:

I also found an exchange from 2011 illuminating. Shortz asked puzzle constructor Elizabeth Gorski to change an answer on her submitted puzzle. “There was one thing about the construction I didn’t like, and that was at 35 Down,” Shortz told The Atlantic. “The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course ‘Lorelei,’ with an ‘e-i.’ Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” He had the constructor revise the answer to make it 1) more old and 2) refer to mythical women who are so distractingly beautiful that they cause men to crash their ships on the rocks, instead of, a cool mom from a television show that millions of women (and some men) love.

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[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Even as a (relatively) younger voice in puzzles, I can’t deny many of her points. Puzzles should do a better job of acknowledging modern culture, of serving as a tiny, daily time capsule of our world.

As I said last year, crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

One year later, I wonder if progress will continue to feel so gradual, or if, sometime soon, we’ll begin to feel the cultural quakes and shifts that indicate real change is approaching.


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