Ask the (word) puzzle editor!

We totally hijacked poor Ol’Gaffer’s snollygaster thread, so I thought I’d start one specifically about the puzzle biz.

What do you want to know? I can tell you, yes, I do know Will Shortz (and Merl Reagle, and Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, and Maura Jacobsen). Do you want to know about my job? About puzzles in general? or what?

Actually, right now I have to go to work – and I can’t write long posts while at work – but post your questions and I’ll answer them tonight.


What’s the solution to the 10 clues puzzle?

I really wanted to let it go… I did…

sigh. I did kind of forget about that, didn’t I?

Don’t I get credit for noticing the 9-letter duped letter thing?

twickster-In cryptoquote puzzles When they do the
A D F B T E VV D I= L O N G F E L L O W, why don’t they do the ACTUAL letters? (sorry if I didn’t explain that right)

Not sure I understand the question – because it seems like the answer would be “if they use the ACTUAL letters it wouldn’t be in code.”

What I mean is: Why don’t they show you what LONGFELLOW would be using the code that puzzle uses? (code changes daily AFAIK)

That would make it too easy – you’d get E, F, G, L, N, O, and W without any effort whatsoever. Most cryptograms solvers don’t want that much of a hint.

Were you the one who came up with the clue, “Bashful Rommate” that hung me up for 3 days before I realized it was DOC?

Why is it that all the US puzzles I see in newspapers are ‘straight’ crossword puzzles (clue = meaning) while cryptic crosswords are so popular in the UK, and newspapers will have both types?

Knowed Out – yup, great clue, isn’t it? I’m not sure I’ve ever used that one, but I’ll certainly do similar ones. I love a clue that you get the answer first, then have to read the clue another couple of times before the lightbulb goes off.

BethCro – beats hell out of me – cryptics are about the only puzzles I solve anymore. Games runs them, and Cox and Rathvon have the monthly one in the Atlantic, but they’re hard to find. We don’t run any in any of the titles I oversee, boo hoo. I did buy a copy of this when it came out, and have actually solved a couple of them. (That is the downside of doing this for 45 hours a week or so – you pretty much stop solving.)

How’d you get started? I’ve been a crossword and cryptic crossword nut for years, and always wondered just how one gets involved in such business.

How do I get that job?

Well, it helps to live about 12 miles from the offices of the largest puzzle publisher in the country.

I applied for a job there as administrative assistant, and it turns out that they were looking for a making-coffee-doing-the-copying type, so I was way overqualified. (I have an advanced degree and had been working as assistant to a rare book dealer.) They thought I’d be a great editor, though, and luckily I was still looking when they were ready to hire another editor a few months later.

Backgrounds of my colleagues: former tech writer, former math teacher, former worker in a halfway house for, uh, psychos, former librarian, and a couple of recent college grads (one French major and one History major).

You have to be a master or mistress of trivia and related fields (pop culture, high culture, history, politics, sports…), and obsessively detail-oriented. Yes, we do give a test – it’s a four-parter, and takes most people a little over an hour to complete. You don’t have to score perfectly on it (no one does), but anguish at having your mistakes shown to you is appropriate. You also have to get along with me. (No kidding. I’m high enough up in the food chain that it’s a necessity – I work very closely with the other editors, and us not liking each other would be hellish.) Oh – you have to be willing to work for a really crappy paycheck. (It is truly embarrassing how little I make as senior editor, after 11+ years there.)

It is, however, the coolest job in the universe.

Out of curiosity, I’d love to see a sample test, if available. I had to take one for my job at the paper, which ran from “What year was the Battle of Gettysburg?” to “Name five members of Clinton’s cabinet.” I thought it was a lot of fun (I’m a trivia geek).

It’s not a trivia test, per se. The problem with hiring is that there is no “real-world” equivalent of this job, so no one comes in with a particular background that we expect, in terms of education, training, experience, etc. (see above on my coworkers’ backgrounds). So the tests are things like “Here are sample clues, make appropriate changes as necessary,” then we sprinkle in factual, spelling, grammatical errors – and several clues that are perfectly all right. We’re trying to see whether the candidate has a natural feel for nuance or not. In another portion of the test, we give several lists (since a lot of puzzle stuff is, directly or indirectly, based on lists of things), and, again, ask them to look for “spelling, punctuation, factual accuracy, and appropriateness.” Plus one part is just to solve a crossword puzzle – believe it or not, we get people applying who can’t.

And it’s still a total crapshoot – we had to fire someone today because, after four months, she just wasn’t getting it. (Edited to delete a long rant about that – she’s been a burr under my saddle for a while now :rolleyes: )

Why is it that something that is so addictive is so frustrating?

And why, oh, why, can I never ever, ever, ever ever finish a cross word puzzle?

I’m with jackelope! A sample test would be fun.

For those who want more cryptics, the Globe & Mail has a fairly easy one six days a week.

I followed that link to Henry Hook’s fourth in the series; the fifth one has been out for quite a while.

Finally, a question. Do you take submissions from freelancers? If so, what kind of format do you want (printed, image and text files, something from one of the constructor programs)? In short, how would I get started?

My crossword had a misspelled word in one of the clues: “Procede cautiously” :rolleyes: Do the clues get vetted less thoroughly than the solution words? What are the chances that they would misspell a solution word?

Thanks for the link, rjk!

Cryptics on-line; so much for me EVER getting any work done again.

Actually, I feel qualified to answer the last part. Many leading publications (not all, but many) DO accept freelance submissions. Many actually RELY on freelancers (Will Shortz almost never writes crosswords, and will freely admit that.)

I’m not a serious professional puzzle constructor, but I HAVE written and sold dozens puzzles to the New York Times, Dell, USA Today, New York Newsday, and several other publications. Initially, all I did was photocopy puzzle grids from newspapers and start filling in entries of my own. Very primitive, very low tech, but a pretty good way to get started! There are several very good software packages out there, if you prefer to create puzzles on your computer, but if you’re a brand new constructor, stick to the primitive method until you’ve managed to sell a few puzzles (interestingly, some of the big names in the puzzle business still do things the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil).

Once you’ve created a few puzzles, let friends and family try solving them. And if, at long last, you think they’re good enough to see print, send your work to a few of the well-known puzzle editors. Believe it or not, most of them will be extremely nice- even if they don’t want your work. Even when I was a rank amateur making my first stab at writing puzzles, editors like Nancy Schuster, Stan Newman, and Will Shortz were remarkably patient and willing to work with me. Mind you, they didn’t like most of my early submissions, and that hurt a little… but on the plus side, they NEVER sent out cold, impersonal form letters. When they didn’t like what I was doing, they told me EXACTLY what they didn’t liked, and went into great detail about what they felt made for a good puzzle.

The single biggest selling point in a crossword puzzle? A clever theme, preferably an original one. Almost all the top publications want their puzzles to have a theme, and most of the obvious ones have been done to death. So, before you attempt to construct puzzles, try to come up with a couple of clever theme entries (at least 3 of them, preferably 4), and build your puzzles around those themes.

I haven’t written a new crossword in about 3 or 4 years now… but one thing hasn’t changed: the pay SUCKS! The Times used to pay $75.00 per puzzle (it may be a little higher now), and most other publications paid far less- which means that you’re never going to get rich writing puzzles, unless you crank out high-quality puzzles every 10 minutes!

So, the money has to be secondary. If you attempt to sell puzzles, do it because you enjoy constructing them, because it’s a thrill to see your name in (tiny) print, and/or because it’s nice to have an occasional check show up in the mail (I regarded my puzzle income as pizza and movie money).

Good luck- and above all, have fun.