Talk to The Times: Crossword Editor Will Shortz (Published 2009) (2023)


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Will Shortz, The Times's crossword editor, answered questions from readers July 20-24, 2009.

Mr. Shortz has been crossword editor of The New York Times since 1993. He is also puzzle master for NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" and is the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which has been held annually since 1978. Mr. Shortz founded the World Puzzle Championship in 1992 and was its host in 1992 and 2000. He will be the host of the Fifth World Sudoku Championship in Philadelphia in 2010. Before joining The Times, Mr. Shortz was the editor of Games magazine. He holds the world's only college degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which he earned in the Individualized Major Program at Indiana University in 1974.

Other Times staff members have answered questions in this column, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Managing Editor John Geddes, Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman, Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon, Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald, National Editor Suzanne Daley, Living Editor Trish Hall, Entertainment Editor Lorne Manly and N.B.A. reporter Jonathan Abrams. Their responses and those of other Times editors, reporters, columnists and executives are on the Talk to The Times page.

These discussions will continue in future weeks with other members of the Times staff.

Were You a Puzzler at an Early Age?

Q. Did you like puzzles even as a little kid? I like puzzles. And I have puzzle books. What were your favorite puzzles growing up? I like "who ate the cake" (Clue Jr.), hidden pictures and PBS Kids (Web site) puzzles.

— Ella Fajardo-Wilde, age 4 1/2

A. I started creating puzzles when I was 8 or 9, so I must have been solving puzzles even earlier. I sold my first one when I was 14 — to Venture, my national Sunday school magazine. I became a contributor to Dell puzzle magazines when I was 16. So, yes, I've always been a puzzlehead. And I like virtually all types of puzzles, including ones with words, math, logic, observation and real-life mysteries.

Enigmatology Course of Study

Q. I, for one, would be very interested to learn what the course of study was that led to your degree in enigmatology, and particularly, how your progress was evaluated, and what your final thesis or project was, if any?

— John Sheridan, South Orange, N.J.

A. For my major in enigmatology at Indiana University, I took courses on "Word Puzzles of the 20th Century," "Construction of Crossword Puzzles," "Popular Mathematical Puzzles," "Logic Puzzles," "The Psychology of Puzzles," "Crossword Magazines," and related subjects. Not surprisingly Indiana had no existing courses on puzzles, so I made them all up myself. In each case I'd find a professor willing to work with me one on one on the topic I proposed. For my course on crossword construction, for example, every two or three weeks I'd take a new puzzle I'd created to my professor's office and sit at his side while he solved and critiqued it. This was my first experience creating professional quality crosswords. For my course on the psychology of puzzles, I studied how the brain works as well as why people feel driven to solve puzzles. My thesis was on "The History of American Word Puzzles Before 1860," in which I traced original American puzzles back to 1647 — almost the beginning of printing history in the colonies.

Learning How to Construct Crosswords

Q. Thanks for the daily mental gymnastics. Where is the "school" to learn crossword puzzle creation or a list of mentors?

— Joel Thurm

A. For budding crossword constructors I recommend, which is the Web site and forum for crossword constructors. It offers a multitude of tips and tools for making crosswords, and the community of people there is very helpful. The best book on crossword construction is "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies" by Patrick Berry. Also, I recommend reading the various daily blogs, like Wordplay, about The New York Times crossword (and others). These provide insights into what solvers like, don't like, and find easy/hard.

What If the Puzzle Career Hadn't Worked Out?

Q. At a time when the national unemployment rate is at 9.5 percent and many people find companies seek employees with advanced degrees beyond a typical B.A. or B.S. and those with master's degrees and above find theirs are too specialized to make them suitable candidates for jobs not directly related to their academic fields, I am wanting to know what you would have done for a career had becoming the world's greatest puzzle master not worked out for you.

— Stephanie Bartosiewicz

A. My nonserious answer is that I would have become a professional table tennis player, as I'm fanatical about the sport, playing five or six nights a week.

Seriously, though, I never considered any career other than puzzles, and I was willing to endure a life of poverty to do this.

A Cast of Thousands?

Q. How many other people are involved in creating the Times crossword? There must be fact checkers and proofreaders, etc. Also, what does it mean when the puzzles are created by someone else and you are the editor? Who are these other people? Professionals? Amateurs? How much do you change them after they are submitted?

— Eric Kroh

A. I receive 75-100 freelance crossword submissions a week, from which I select my favorites for publication in The Times. Some of the contributors are frequent, others not. Since the payment is modest ($200 for a weekday puzzle, $1,000 for a Sunday), most contributors make crosswords mainly for the pleasure of doing so and for seeing their names in print. More than 100 different contributors appear in The Times each year.

When I select a puzzle for publication, I factcheck it (of course) and edit the clues. On average about half the clues in a Times puzzle are my own. I edit first for accuracy, because it doesn't matter how clever or interesting a clue is if it's wrong. I also edit for the appropriate level of difficulty given the day of the week, as well as for freshness, playfulness, humor and overall balance of subjects.

After I edit and typeset the puzzles on my handy Mac, I send them to three test solvers, one of whom rechecks the accuracy of every clue and answer again. These testers are Frank Longo (a talented crossword constructor and editor himself), Nancy Schuster (a former crossword editor as well as a national champion solver), and Evie Eysenburg (my "everyman" solver). All three call me with their comments and corrections. I polish the puzzles and send completed electronic files, a week at a time, to The Times, where they are test-solved by a fourth person, Ellen Ripstein, who's also a former crossword champion. Ellen prepares the files for online publication and other formats, but also serves as another backup.

This used to be the entire process. Some years ago, though, I noticed a person on the Times's crossword forum, Martin Herbach, who wrote incredibly literate and knowledgable comments about little flaws in the published puzzles. And I thought, why should I wait until the puzzles are published before getting Martin's feedback? So after Ellen finishes her work on the files, she sends PDFs of all the puzzles to Martin. Our understanding is that if he sees a problem, he lets me know immediately, in time for me to make a change. And, if he doesn't, all is well.

This procedure isn't 100 percent foolproof for preventing errors, but it's pretty close.

The Definition of Cheating?

Q. My wife and I have had this argument many times, and I'm sure you've been asked many times ... is it "cheating" to consult a dictionary or other reference sources when stumped by a crossword puzzle clue?

— Geoff Schnirman

A. I've heard lots of different views on this matter. Some solvers consider any sort of help as "cheating." Some think it's O.K. to ask a spouse for help, but not to look in a book. Others allow themselves up to three searches on Google.

I personally don't care. In answer to this question I always quote Will Weng, one of my predecessors at The Times: It's your puzzle. Solve it any way you want.

Help for the Stumped Solver?

Q. Already own NYT crossword puzzle dictionary. Name another source for help in solving.

— Janet K. McCoy

A. If you get just one reference for aid in crosswords, I would recommend either the World Almanac or The New York Times Almanac. Each is full of information like capitals of countries, national currencies, winners of Super Bowls and tennis championships, names of kings and popes, winners of Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, etc.

A crossword dictionary won't help you much, because I try to use clues that aren't in there.

Perverse Pleasure for Puzzle Editor?

Q. Do you enjoy stumping people? How do you feel when people complain about a particularly difficult or unusual puzzle?

— Jim Baldassarre

A. My goal isn't to stump you. My goal is to stretch you to your limit, and then at last for you to break through and complete the puzzle. That's where the greatest pleasure lies — for you to finish a puzzle that at first you didn't think you could do.

Of course, everyone's sweet spot is a little different. That's one reason the puzzles vary in difficulty through the week. I hope that the level of difficulty for everyone is perfect on at least one day in the week.

Ban on Bodily Functions?

Q. Last night my sister and I watched the documentary "Wordplay" and found it extremely interesting. In fact, we're watching it again with some friends tomorrow night. I do have a question however. In the film someone (I don't remember who) mentioned that you can't put bodily functions, such as URINE, in the crossword. Is this true and how did this rule come about?

— Mary Mallinger

A. It's true that the word URINE has never appeared in a New York Times crossword — or any other crossword I'm aware of. Margaret Farrar, The Times's first crossword editor (1942-69), followed the philosophy of "good news only," not allowing unpleasant and impolite language, and this rule still holds today. As Merl Reagle, crossword constructor extraordinaire, explained in "Wordplay": "They're sitting there relaxing ... and here comes RECTAL? I don't think so."

Standards of politeness, though, have changed over the years. Will Weng, The Times's second crossword editor, once returned a submission of mine containing the answer BELLY BUTTON, because he considered it too indelicate a subject for a crossword. Today I wouldn't blink at that.

My rule is to follow what I consider ordinary modern standards of good taste — which occasionaly has gotten me into trouble. I once published a puzzle containing the answer SCHMUCKS ("Jerks"), which has a vulgar meaning in Yiddish, and afterward a senior Times editor politely advised me not to do it again.

Why Are the Puzzles So Hard/Easy?

Q. How could anyone--even the most intellectual person--ever complete a NY Times puzzle? And how should I know who the hell the lead singer in some rock group is when I loathe rock music and have never listened to it?

— Barry Nowzad

Q. I get a lot of enjoyment from your puzzles, so I don't wish to seem complainy. But I'm curious ... why has the Sunday puzzle become so easy?


— Dan Ryan

A. A lesson I learned long ago: You can't please everyone at once.

In the continuum of puzzle difficulty, from Monday (very easy) to Saturday (very hard), the Sunday Times crossword is pitched at about a Thursday level. This is hard enough to challenge most solvers, but not so hard as to stump all but the experts. Top solvers can complete a Sunday Times crossword, on average, in 8-12 minutes. Ordinary people, of course, can't finish it at all.

If you find certain puzzles too hard, do just the ones you enjoy. The more you solve the better you'll get. If you find puzzles too easy, try filling the grid using just the Down clues, or try increasing your speed.

As for knowledge tested in a crossword, I consider any subject covered by The New York Times, or of interest to Times readers, fair game. If you have a blind spot on rock music, sports, the Bible, or any other subject, you can, with smart thinking, usually work out the unknown answers from the crossings.

'Now Batting for the New York Giants ... No. 4 ...'

Q. Who in your family was the New York Giants/Mel Ott fan?

— Tom Brokaw

A. I'm a fan of any celebrity whose name is short and contains a convenient vowel-consonant pattern. We need more famous people with names like Eli, Eno, Ira, Ari, Omar, Ella, Ida, Ada, Uma, Ono, Oona and, yes, Mel and Ott.

Do Puzzles Cross Cultural Divides?

Q. Generally speaking, how well do you think puzzles "translate" from culture to culture? (I'm thinking of the successful importations of Sudoku and KenKen.) Also, are there particular places you look to for new and interesting puzzles?

— Katie Chenoweth

A. Crosswords are popular in nearly every country in the world, but they vary according to culture and language constraints. For example, the Italian language is wonderfully conducive to crossword construction, because it has a higher percentage of vowels than English has and more regularity in spelling patterns. The middle sections of Italian crossword grids have wide expanses of white squares that are beauties to behold. On the other hand, virtually all Italian words of four or more letters end in vowels, which makes the bottom and right edges of Italian crossword grids not very pretty.

Crosswords in England are completely different from ours, despite our common language. Our respective crosswords started the same back in 1924-25, when the American invention first crossed the Atlantic. For a while English crosswords had definition-type clues like ours. There's something about the English mindset, though, that's twisted, just like their humor. The English can't leave anything straightforward. Within just a few years their crossword clues started including anagrams, homophones, hidden words and other wordplay, and soon a whole body of standards arose for what are now known as cryptic crosswords. Beginning in the 1960s cryptics were reimported back to the United States — most famously by Stephen Sondheim in New York magazine — but cryptics here have never achieved widespread popularity.

As for places to look for new and interesting puzzles, I'd say Japan for logic puzzles and the United States for everything else.

Why KenKen? Why?

Q. Why are you giving such prominence to KenKen? I'm not happy that it has bounced the second Sunday puzzle to different page. As much as I like sudoku, I do not care for KenKen.

— Bill Scrivener

Q. Why did you get me addicted to KenKen? Why, for the love of God?

— Bill Eddins

A. When The New York Times Magazine reduced its "trim" size last month, the traditional second Sunday puzzle would no longer physically fit under the crossword. This is why it was moved to a different page. There was still a little extra room on the crossword page, though, and rather than have it go to waste, we added KenKen. While KenKen hasn't become a craze, like sudoku in 2005-06, it does seem to be quite popular. And it appeals to a different sort of solver from those who like crosswords and the other word puzzles.

Is Speed Necessary?

Q. I enjoyed the film "Wordplay," but was a little put off by the emphasis on speed in solving the puzzle. I guess that has to be the criteria when one has a competition. Still, for me the pleasure in crosswords is in the solving, not in some stressed-out rush to fill in the puzzle as quickly as possible. When you complete a puzzle, are you always trying to do it as quickly as possible?

— Richard Wells

A. Rushing to solve a crossword is like stuffing a fine four-course meal down your throat as fast as you can. It doesn't make much sense. In a tournament, of course, the way to differentiate the best solvers from the rest is by their speed. In everyday solving, though, take all the sweet time you want.

Will Crosswords Follow Poker's Lead?

Q. As an avid competitive Scrabble tourney player and former crossword buff, plus viewer of both "Wordplay" and "Word Wars," I think there is a cadre of competitive types who could really benefit from increased professionalization of both games. For most, this would mean a chance to risk and make more money, as in the world of competitive poker. The question for you is, do you think this is realistic?

— David Ruby

A. It has been a longtime dream of mine for competitive crossword solving to appear on TV, like the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. My idea is that the event would be filmed and edited for later airing, with the focus on the playoff round at the end. In the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the playoff contestants stand before giant boards, solving on large grids for everyone to watch, while the event is announced by professional commentators. Afterward, for broadcast, the tournament puzzles would be made available in print and/or online, so viewers at home could race to solve the same puzzles they're seeing on TV. This would be the only event I can think of in which viewers could actually compete against the champions on TV.

According to a recent survey by Dean Olsher commissioned for his book "From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, on Crosswords," more than 50 million Americans solve crosswords at least occasionally. I would think there's a ready audience for a crossword show.

Are There Trivia-Based Crosswords?

Q. I am a member of the Academic Challenge Team (Quiz Bowl) at my high school. Ever since joining, I have found that crossword puzzles are slightly easier. My question is if there are any crosswords that focus more on trivia and knowledge rather than wordplay.

— Scott Wise, 17

A. My colleague Stanley Newman, the crossword editor for Newsday, has a new book called "Trivia Crosswords to Keep You Sharp." You might enjoy that.

For the Times crossword I try not to include too much trivia and knowledge testing, since the things a 17-year-old knows tend to be quite different from what, say, a 77-year-old person knows (and vice versa). I try to focus on our common vocabulary. Still, names and trivia are part of modern crosswords, so your knowledge of diverse subjects will always be tested.

Why Are the Same Clues Used in Different Crosswords?

Q. I do both the New York Times crosswords and the Wall Street Journal ones, and I find that the same clues often appear in both. Is this just a coincidence, due to the high volume of clues, or do you/they often borrow from each other?

— Samantha Shiells

A. Here's my facetious answer to this frequent question: Once a year all the crossword editors get together and plan which clues and answers we're going to repeat, just to play with solvers' minds.

In reality, though, if you do the puzzles in any two publications, you will find repeated clues. There are only so many words in the English language (especially short ones, which tend to predominate in crosswords) and only so many ways to clue them. The best constructors and editors work hard to write fresh clues, but some duplication is unavoidable.

Diacritical Marks

Q. Not a question but an objection to your crossword puzzle choice of words. Please, do not think that "year" in Spanish is ANO. Without the tilde, ANO means something rude. Perhaps you should advise your collaborators to eliminate that word from puzzles.

— Anne "Nancy" Hartzenbusch

A. As a matter of convention, tildes and diacritical marks of all types are ignored in American crosswords. In addition to tildes, we skip accents, umlauts, cedillas, haceks, etc. Without this rule, you'd be unlikely ever to see SEÑORA or GARÇON in an American puzzle, because it would be too difficult to find a crossing for the special letter.

What If the Puzzle Career Hadn't Worked Out?

Q. The answer to Eric Kroh’s question about the proofreaders and test solvers was very interesting. Can you tell us about any errors that have crept through?

— Mike Christie

A. The error I probably received the most calls and mail about occurred in 2001. The clue was "Louisville landmark," with the answer being RUPP ARENA. For a while, when this clue appeared, I felt I might be the only person in the country who didn't know where the Rupp Arena is. It's at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, 75 miles from Louisville.

This mistake occurred in my early days of online fact-checking. I ran a Google search on "Rupp Arena" + Louisville, saw tens of thousands of hits, and figured I'd verified the clue. What I didn't notice is what the sites said: The University of Louisville's basketball team plays some away games at UK's Rupp Arena. Lesson learned: The number of Google hits doesn't matter. Always specifically verify what the clue says. (And for all online research, be sure to use authoritative sources.)

Most of the crossword errors are smaller and more subtle than the above. Last month, for example, I published the clue "First name of two first ladies." Answer: ELLEN, referring to the first Mrs. Chester A. Arthur and the first Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Ellen Arthur, though, died the year before her husband was inaugurated. So while she is listed in references as the wife of a U.S. president, and while the National First Ladies' Library includes a biography of her, technically she was never a first lady.

During the past 12 months I'm aware of six errors in the Times crossword, all of which I'd label technical or small. Out of more than 32,000 clues and answers during this period, I don't think this is a bad average.

If you ever see what you believe is an error in a Times crossword, you may e-mail, as you would to request any correction in the paper. First, though, it's not a bad idea to discuss the clue on the Times's crossword blog,, or on one of the other daily blogs about the Times puzzle. More than 95 percent of the "erroneous" clues brought to my attention are actually fine.

Teen Puzzle Constructors

Q. Those kids puzzles you had a while back were really fun and original, and gratifyingly hard. Any plans to have more puzzles made by kids?

— Mat Jacobs

A. I think you're referring to the week of teen crosswords I ran on Sept. 8-13, 2008 -- all first-rate puzzles that happened to be by constructors under the age of 20.

Another full teen week isn't in the works, but teen constructors continue to appear regularly. Within just the past six months these have included Will Nediger and Joey Weissbrot, 19; Oliver Hill and Natan Last, 18; and wunderkind Caleb Madison, 16.

I do have another special week of puzzles planned for September. As for the remarkable thing the six constructors have in common ... just wait and see.

Thanks to everyone for writing. I'm told that more people sent questions for this week's "Talk to the Times" feature than during any previous week. Way to go!


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