How Will Shortz Works

shortzoffice

[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’.”

nursingtruth

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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And… Repeat

repetition

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

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But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

raven

[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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Tackling the 2019 Indie 500 Puzzles!

June 1 marked the fifth annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, the third had a time theme, the fourth had a fashion theme, and this year was travel-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down and tackle them. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the event in the future.


Before the official tournament puzzles start, there’s a warm-up puzzle, a 15x grid entitled “Getting There” by Neville Fogarty. The hook is simple and accessible — forms of transportation found inside locations, like TRAIN in MOUNT RAINIER or BIKE in NAIROBI KENYA — and with easy fill and some fun cluing, this is the perfect puzzle to get your motor running for the tournament to come.

Interesting grid entries included I’M SORRY, AMNIO, and ONE PAGE. My favorite clue was “Org. with Magic and Wizards” for NBA.

person pulling travel luggage

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

#1 Is There a Fee for Emotional Baggage? by Angela Olsen Halsted

The tournament opens with this smooth-solving entry by the ever-reliable Halsted. Loaded with shameless puns based on locations like MYSEOULMATE and OTTAWATCHIT, this fun crossword definitely builds any solver’s confidence for the challenges to come. The effortless fill is bolstered by great references in the cluing, citing The West Wing, The Lion King, Creed, and Shonda Rhimes. I blasted through this one quicker than expected, but I still really enjoyed it.

Interesting grid entries included CARDI B, STANDBY, ACELA, and ADONIS. My favorite clues were “Potables actually first brewed in England, for short” for IPAS and “Gosling of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme” for RYAN.

#2 Jet Set by Yacob Yonas

The second puzzle of the tournament was an ambitious 17x grid with lots of long entries and solid fill overall, tied together by theme of airplane/flight terms hidden in longer entries (like TAKEOFF in TAKE OFFENSE and FLIGHT in BEAM OF LIGHT). Overall, this was a very impressive grid, though not much harder than the first puzzle, making for another fairly quick solve.

Interesting grid entries included OVER HERE, ERASABLE, FIRE SALE, FAT CAT, PEBBLES, and the delightfully slangy HATERADE. My favorite clues were “Displays of pride” for PARADES and “Take up again, say” for REHEM.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#3 Currency Exchange by Andy Kravis

Puzzle 3 was the first genuinely challenging puzzle of the tournament, a considerable jump in difficulty from the first two, and it takes the “word hidden in a longer phrase” gimmick to a whole new level.

The built-in ATM graphics in various grid boxes represent different currencies concealed in the theme entries; even across and down entries that share an ATM have different currencies, which is an immensely clever trick and a feat of grid construction I’ve never seen before. For instance, one ATM represents WON in SMALLWONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

This was easily my favorite puzzle of the tournament, and one of Kravis’s most diabolical and well-designed creations. Nicely done!

Interesting grid entries included CLAMATO, BALL HOG, END QUOTE, GAP YEAR, and PUMBAA. My favorite clues were “TV character described by Jon Stewart as ‘a fastidious, pigeon-worshiping felt tyrant” for BERT and “It’s three before November” for KILO.

#4 Travel Arrangements by Janie Smulyan

The toughest puzzle of the tournament for me (except for the final), this was a definite struggle, despite a well-constructed grid and a smart hook. The theme of this puzzle was a common phrase where the second half of the phrase was anagrammed into a form of transportation (for instance, MUSCLE STRAIN becomes MUSCLE TRAINS), tied together by the revealer TRANSFORMERS.

The anagram hook didn’t come to me quickly, making me work for every letter. Some of the clues as well, like “Japanese hog” for YAMAHA, took me an embarrassingly long time to unravel. Smulyan is clearly a devious constructor to watch out for.

Interesting grid entries included OPULENT, IBERIAN, ABSTAIN, and PIXAR. My favorite clues were “House payments” for ANTES and “Some are dry, some are magic” for SPELLS.

black vehicle parks near house under white sky

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

#5 Four Plus One by Bryan Betancur

The final puzzle of regular tournament play, Puzzle 5 was an excellent closer, rewarding solvers with a breezy solve and a fun hook centered around travel phrases with circled bonus letters that spell out the word TIRE, a spare for the four circles/wheels already in the grid. (For example, STAR TREK becomes STAIR TREK and BUM A RIDE becomes BURMA RIDE, my personal favorite.)

Interesting grid entries included BOGUS, SWANKY, WALTZ, FAKING OUT, and ROBBERS. My favorite clue was “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for NEMO.

#6 Final by Rebecca Falcon

A very tough closer designed to challenge the worthy top tournament solvers, Puzzle 6 was loaded with tough, long entries (AUDI DEALER didn’t occur to me for ages), and I would argue that TO A T (rather than TO A TEE) is questionable at best.

Nonetheless, it was a strong closer and featured diabolical cluing in both versions of the puzzle, the Inside Track and the Outside Track. (Although I tried to solve the puzzle with only the Inside Track (tougher) clues, I needed some help from the Outside Track to complete the puzzle.)

Interesting grid entries included ONOMATOPOEIA, SAFARI, ACHOO, HOTEP, and HOOPLA. My favorite clue was “With 46-Across, comforting words” for THERE. (Since that clue WAS 46-Across, the actual answer is THERE THERE. Fun stuff.)

Although that was the end of the tournament proper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the bonus puzzles in the packet.

The Tiebreaker puzzle by Erik Agard was super tough, but clever and impressive, considering that the grid was constructed in the shape of a 5 (as this was the fifth edition of the tournament.)

Layering lots of long entries like SPLIT A CAB, I WANT OUT, DISGRACE, MAGNETRON, LPGA TOUR, and LESOTHO, it was a brain-melter of a finale to a tournament that swung between easy and challenging and back again.


Overall, this was the most inventive edition of the Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mingled the creativity of the previous four tournaments with particularly strong grid design, cunning clues, and some fun takes on classic crossword conventions.

The constructors made the most of the travel theme, incorporating anagrams, hidden answers, and the inspired ATM gimmick in puzzle 3. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 1st, will mark the fifth annual edition of the tournament! Although registration has been closed for weeks, you can participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

Not only that, but they’ve whipped up a terrific meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you can name your own price for it!

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Erik Agard, Rebecca Falcon, Jenna LaFleur, Angela Olson Halsted, Bryan Betancur, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, Yacob Yonas, Janie Smulyan, and Neville Fogarty. With a travel theme titled “Going Around in Squares,” topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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