Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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But I have all the koalafications!

Good cluing is one of the cornerstones of quality crossword writing. Not only do the clues have to be interesting, clever, and challenging, but they need to be accurate as well. After all, there’s a big difference between playfully misleading and misleadingly wrong.

Thankfully, this is the Golden Age of cluing assistance, and there are numerous cluing archives and websites loaded up with crossword clues galore. Places like Crossword Nexus, Crossword Tracker, Wordplays, and XwordInfo are searchable, not only allowing constructors to look for new clues, but assisting solvers with troublesome clues.

It also makes researching crossword controversies a whole lot easier, like Hugh Stephenson’s koala-centric kerfuffle in The Guardian’s crossword blog.

You see, fellow puzzlers, a setter named Qaos used the following clue in a cryptic crossword:

Bear a left, then a right, then reverse (5)

This clue was intended to point toward the answer KOALA, both with the word “bear” and the directions “a left, then a right” — meaning A L, A OK — “then reverse” — KOALA. But some solvers took issue with Qaos referring to the koala as a bear, despite the common vernacular term “koala bear.”

Now, if we’re going by strict dictionary definition, those solvers are correct. The koala is a marsupial, not a bear. Of course, dictionaries were recently amended to say that “literally” no longer just means “literally” — it can mean “figuratively” as well. So I’m inclined to go beyond the dictionary definition and plumb the depths of crossword clue archives to see where the crossword community as a whole stands on the question of koala vs. koala bear.

The Crossword Solver lists the clue [Australian “bear”], but mostly avoids the controversy with a litany of clues like [Gum leaf eater], [Australian critter], and [Down Under climber].

If you go to Crossword Tracker, you mostly get clues that hedge their bet, like [Australian “bear”], [Marsupial sometimes called a bear], and [Australian bearlike beast], but there are a few hard-nosed clues like [It isn’t really a bear].

Crossword Giant agrees on this front, while Wordplays wavers wildly, citing both [Cute “bear”] and [Cute bear] in its archives.

I’d hoped for a definitive answer when searching XwordInfo, which is dedicated to clues featured in the New York Times Crossword. The Shortz era comes down firmly on the side of “bear”, not bear, but the pre-Shortz era is less rigid, with clues like [Living Teddy bear], [Bear of Down Under], and [Kangaroo bear].

And while I feel that the koala vs. koala bear issue remains unresolved, Mr. Stephenson is firmly in the koala bear camp, jokingly citing the 1983 Paul McCartney / Michael Jackson collaboration “Ode to a Koala Bear” as evidence.

Of course, if we’re going to start citing songs as evidence, that means “pompatus” is a real word, and that opens a whole new can of worms.

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Let’s make our own crosswords!

Stumped on what to get the puzzle lover in your household? Well, if didn’t find anything in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, why not make a special crossword just for them?

It’s the perfect do-it-yourself gift, and I’m happy to show you how! Welcome to PuzzleNation Blog’s How to Make a Crossword!

1.) The theme

The most important part of a crossword is choosing a theme. If you’re constructing with ambitions of submitting to the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, you’ll need something inventive and tricky up your sleeve. 

But if you’re constructing for a friend or loved one, the theme is easy: make it about them!

Come up with your theme entries. For a gift puzzle, these could be hobbies, nicknames, favorite sports teams or TV shows, anything about them, really! Be sure to come up with several pairs of the same number of letters. (It’s a necessity when it comes to crossword symmetry.)

Choosing theme entries is often something done in tandem with choosing a grid, since word placement is a crucial part of building any grid.

For my example puzzle, I’m using a list of celebrity names.

2.) The grid

Constructing a grid from scratch can be tough, so I’d recommend first-time constructors check out sample grids. You can browse the newspapers until you find one that suits your needs, or you can let the Internet do the work for you! CrosswordGrids.com has a selection to choose from, for instance. If you’re using a construction program like Crossword Compiler, you can browse options for grids as well.

If you’re looking to start regularly constructing crosswords, I’d suggest building up a library of grids with various theme-entry lengths. (My personal grid library is organized by theme layouts, so if I have two 11-letter entries and two 10-letter entries, I can flip to a 10-10-11-11 in my folder.)

Here’s the grid I’ve chosen for today’s puzzle because it fit the theme entries I wanted. (Ignore the red box. That’s simply Compiler’s cursor.)

Now, I know all that white space to fill can seem intimidating, but placing the theme entries not only helps to guide the fill (the process of completing the grid), but breaks up that white space into manageable sections.

Here is the same grid with the theme entries placed:

3.) The fill

Filling a grid by hand is time-consuming but worthwhile, because you can be creative with using pop culture references, proper nouns, phrases, abbreviations, and whatever else the grid demands.

Since I was using a demo version of Compiler, I opted to try out its Autofill feature to see what my options were. As you can see, I ended up swapping the locations of SILVERSTONE and CHAMBERLAIN to improve my chances of a successful fill.

After settling on the fill for the center section (spreading from bottom left to top right), I started working on the fill for the top left portion.

Here’s the best fill the program could offer:

But I wasn’t satisfied with it, so I began tinkering on my own.

That’s probably the most daunting part of making your own crossword, but there are numerous resources available to the aspiring puzzle creator.

Not only are there Autofill programs like the one employed by Compiler, but there are also websites where you can input letter patterns and see what your options are. Both Onelook.com and Xwordinfo.com are terrific resources.

Here’s the result of my own tinkering:

There would be further gridwork throughout the editing process, as I eliminated abbreviations, vocabulary I gauged as too difficult, and grievous examples of crosswordese.

Don’t get discouraged! I had to try lots of different word combinations to make it come together. All of which was time well spent in my opinion.

Here’s my completed grid:

As you can see, including phrases and pop culture references definitely helped out, especially at middle left where JAWAS was a handy inclusion, as well as bottom center where IFI and AFOOL are crossing.

Which brings us to the grand finale.

4.) The cluing

Now, cluing takes on an entirely different dimension if you’re hoping to publish your crossword, versus the cluing style you’d use for a homemade puzzle for a friend or loved one. When it comes to published puzzles, your clues need to be interesting, engaging, and more than a little crafty.

(Note: It’s true that the theme is often what sells your puzzle to editors like Will Shortz, but a reputation for clever cluing is always a good bonus.) 

For instance, a puzzle of celebrity names could prove a bit boring when it comes to cluing, but I chose the entries I did intentionally, because I already knew the clues I wanted to write for them. (These clues were based on a series of outstanding puns a friend of mine made on Twitter.)

My theme is Celebrity Groupings, and the clues reflect that.

17 Across: A ____ of tuxedo belts
8 Down: A ____ of discarded Old English words
53 Across: A ____ of shriveled utensils

In this instance, the clues make all the difference.

Of course, if you’re making a crossword as a gift, the above still applies. Cluing makes all the difference. You can tailor the clues specifically to the intended recipient. Inside jokes and references should run rampant, even for the words used in the fill.

For 37 Across, you could say “What Uncle Rob does for at least three days longer than necessary.”
For 39 Down, you could clue it as “General Kittybuns’s sign of pleasure.”

Have fun with it! If you can make them laugh or say “Oh yeah!” and remember a fun moment while they’re solving, it makes the gift even more special.

And if you do try constructing your own, let us know how you did! We’d love to see what our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers come up with!

[Stay tuned, aspiring constructors! On Thursday, I’ll be posting part 2 of today’s How To, featuring advice from published constructors and puzzlemakers!]

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