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.

crossword-finals-shady

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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A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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PN Trivia Scavenger Hunt: Answers & Winner!

[Image courtesy of Alaris Health.]

Thank you to everyone who entered our anniversary trivia scavenger hunt! Plenty of solvers, puzzlers, and PuzzleNationers tried their hand at answering all five questions before the deadline at midnight on Wednesday, and many succeeded!

Alas, there can be only one winner. But before we get to that, let’s look at the answers, shall we?


PuzzleNation Anniversary Trivia Scavenger Hunt

1.) One of my favorite recurring features is Puzzles in Pop Culture, where I explore puzzly moments in television, film, and literature. We’ve discussed Sherlock, Hell’s Kitchen, and even Gilmore Girls in installments of Puzzles in Pop Culture.

Question: How do you solve the four gallons of water puzzle?

Answer: There were actually two answers featured in the August 19, 2014 post “Puzzles in Pop Culture: Die Hard with a Vengeance” referenced in this question. Here’s the answer our winner submitted:

1. Fill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug.
2. Refill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug until the 5-gallon jug is full, leaving 1 gallon in the 3-gallon jug.
3. Empty the 5-gallon jug and pour the 1 gallon of water from the 3-gallon jug into the 5-gallon jug.
4. Fill the 3-gallon jug again and empty it into the 5-gallon jug, leaving exactly 4 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.


2.) You can’t talk about puzzles without also discussing games, because there’s so much overlap between the two. Game reviews from a puzzle solver’s perspective have become a part of the fabric of PuzzleNation Blog, as has creating your own puzzles and games from scratch.

Question: What’s the name of the DIY game that only requires a bunch of identical blank pieces of paper (like index cards) and something to write with?

Answer: Discussed in our September 15, 2015 post “DIY Pencil and Paper Puzzles,” this game is known as 1000 Blank White Cards.


3.) Naturally, if you’re going to talk puzzles, Sudoku is going to be part of the conversation sooner rather than later. We’ve not only explored the history of Sudoku here, but we’ve been a part of it, debuting brand-new Sudoku variants created by topnotch constructors.

Question: What do you call two overlapping Samurai Sudoku?

Answer: We posted many different Sudoku variants in our December 4, 2014 post “The Wide World of Sudoku,” but the puzzle in question is known as Shogun Sudoku.


4.) A fair amount of puzzle history, both past and present, has been covered here over the last five years. We’ve examined cryptography in the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and beyond. We’ve celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword. And we’ve even discussed scandals in the puzzle world.

Question: What are the names of the programmer and crossword constructor who first uncovered the curious pattern of puzzle repetition in USA Today and Universal Uclick puzzles that eventually led to the ouster of Timothy Parker?

Answer: As discussed in a series of posts entitled “Puzzle Plagiarism,” the programmer’s name is Saul Pwanson and the constructor’s name is Ben Tausig.


5.) In the Internet age, memes and fads appear and disappear faster than ever. A picture or a joke or a news story can sweep the world in a matter of hours, and then vanish forever. On a few occasions, the Internet has become obsessed with certain optical illusions, and we’ve done our best to analyze them from a puzzler’s perspective.

Question: The creators of The Dress appeared on what talk show to put the mystery to bed once and for all?

Answer: Discussed on March 6, 2015 in a Follow-Up Friday post, the mystery of The Dress was laid to rest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.


[Image courtesy of ClipArt Panda.]

And now, without any further ado, we’d like to congratulate our winner, who shall remain nameless. After all, like a lottery winner, she doesn’t want to be mobbed by those hoping for a piece of the action. =)

She’ll be receiving her choice of either a Penny Dell Crosswords App puzzle set download OR a copy of one of the puzzle games we’ve reviewed this year!

Thank again to everyone for playing and for celebrating five years of PuzzleNation Blog with us. We truly could not have done it without you!


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

sculpture

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

usa-today-crossword-online-puzzle-5

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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