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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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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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!


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Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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