Date: November 7, 2000
Byline: David Fiedle
The Man Behind the Crosswords Keeps 'Em GuessingAt a South County Toyota dealership, a salesman keeps a copy of The New York Times crossword clipped neatly to his clipboard, tucked under stacks of sales brochures for those inevitable moments of boredom on the showroom floor.
And at a retirement home in Webster Groves, old-timers race out of bed each morning to get first crack at the puzzle in the community copy of the newspaper in the dining room.
That type of fervor seems odd for such a routine piece of the newspaper -- as dependable and downplayed as the obituaries or the classified ads -- yet industry estimates say an average 25 percent of all readers routinely tackle the crossword puzzle. And proportional to that interest is the amount of behind-the-scenes effort it takes to make that grid of black-and-white squares appear in print each day.
Best known in the crossword universe is the puzzle created by The New York Times. Through syndication it appears in 150 newspapers each weekday; on Sunday, that number swells to over 300 papers.
Since 1993 the Times crossword has been edited by Will Shortz, who oversees the process that transforms the flotsam and jetsam of knowledge into a meticulously organized interweaving of riddles and wordplay.
There's no crossword assembly line at the Times, no full-time stable of temperamental geniuses cranking out puzzles, day after day. Rather, Shortz works essentially alone, sifting through puzzles sent by a crowd of contributors, all hoping that their work will end up in the Times.
"I usually receive 60-70 puzzles a week, and of those, about one in 10 will get used," says Shortz, who spends most days at his home office outside New York City. "Last year, I published puzzles from 120 contributors. Some submit puzzles regularly; some have one crossword published and never send another."
Among those contributors is 16-year-old Tyler Hinman, who after four tries had his first puzzle appear in the Times in July. Hinman began obsessively working crosswords two years ago after a teacher gave him a Times puzzle in a study hall, and creating was the next logical step.
"After several months of solving, one day I thought, 'hey, I could make these things,'" says Tyler, the youngest constructor published by Shortz in the Times. "My first effort was abominably awful, of course, but I kept at it, and today I think I have my skills reasonably honed."
Despite the number of contributions that crowd his mailbox, Shortz gives personal attention to each puzzle. With most he can tell in a minute or two if the puzzle has possibility. The ones that merit a longer look usually also hold the most promise.
"I make a note on each puzzle -- yes or no, and then what I like or don't like about it," says Shortz. "The constructors value the feedback on their work, but it also helps me, because with the next puzzles they submit, they'll have a better idea of what I am looking for."
Once a crossword is accepted, Shortz puts it into a "waiting" box. From there he picks the ones to be used, usually working five to six weeks in advance.
"I try to use the oldest ones first, varying the puzzlemakers and the themes to get a good mix throughout the week," says Shortz. "The level of difficulty increases, too, with Monday being easiest and the puzzles becoming harder each day."
Shortz then edits a puzzle as necessary, perhaps changing a clue or redoing an awkward corner. Once the puzzle is deemed worthy, three different people then work it, noting awkward answers and unhelpful clues. One of the solvers, Nancy Schuster, a former crossword magazine editor and American crossword puzzle champ, also rechecks each fact and detail with Holmesian meticulousness.
Other than issuing the check for each crossword printed (a task relegated to the Times accounting department), Shortz performs every step in the process -- from typesetting the puzzles to managing correspondence from readers and contributors.
"Handling mail from readers is the highlight of my week," said Shortz, who likens himself to a long-distance entertainer. "Unlike applause received by a musician or comic, there is no immediate feedback on how the puzzles are received. So, it is gratifying to be able to get a feel for people's reactions."
Shortz also monitors response to his work by lurking on the Times online crossword puzzle forum, where solvers swap hints, praise particularly clever puzzles and bemoan answers perceived to be obscure or overly difficult. And then -- in what probably feels downright voyeuristic -- Shortz sometimes watches people work "his" puzzles when he makes the weekly train trip to the Times offices in Manhattan.
Those who create the puzzles for Shortz and other editors have one common trait -- a love for puzzles and the English language, and in particular the wonderful union of the two in a cleverly worded clue. Beyond that constructors are young and old, male and female and come from every background imaginable. It is a hobby for all but a few as the pay for creating a puzzle isn't much more than solving one.
Of course, most constructors aren't in it for the money. Sure, the Times offers $75 for each weekday puzzle -- fairly typical compensation for creating a 15 by 15 square for a national publication -- but the richest reward comes simply by creating a really good puzzle, providing solvers with challenge and pleasure. "It's enormously satisfying to put together a puzzle with a great theme," says Mickey Maurer, an Indianapolis attorney who has been composing crosswords since 1987. "There is nothing better than when people finish one and say 'Wow, that was really fun.'"
Traditional tools like dictionaries and thesauruses are still basic equipment for constructors, but thanks to the Internet, a wider range of resource and reference material is available than ever before.
Crossword creators have even staked out their own corner of cyberspace at www.cruciverb.com, a headquarters of sorts for those who build the black and white grids. The site features constructor profiles, a list of online references for everything from Shakespeare to Hollywood, and guidelines for submitting puzzles to the New York Times, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other publications that use freelance contributors.
Canadian Kevin McCann is responsible for the Web site and the site's accompanying e-mail list, which originated in 1995. According to him, that list -- now around 425 members -- includes nearly every creator of American-style crossword puzzles with an e-mail address.
"It occurred to me that there must be other constructors out there on the Net somewhere and that it would be excellent to bring people together to discuss this craft of crossword construction," says McCann.
The discussion list shows that solvers aren't the only ones who stare at an empty row of squares with no idea of what to put in them. Constructors have it happen, too, as they build puzzles, and readily turn to the e-mail discussion list for help.
"I have a seven-letter space that looks like this: --A--L- and I am stuck," will read a typical post of this type from a puzzle creator. "Can anyone suggest any possibilities which might help me with this fill?"
Help pours forth, as within the day a half-dozen possibilities will have been submitted.
And who would have thought that an unobtrusive little black-and-white grid would take so much enthusiastic energy to get into the newspaper every day!