An interview with New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz

By Hayley Gold
On March 4, 2010

To read about crossword puzzles in the modern age, click here.

Hayley Gold/The Chronicle (TC): A lot of newspapers are folding right now and the budget for puzzle space is often going down. Do you feel that crosswords will suffer?

Will Shortz (WS): There are lots of answers to that. First of all for the New York Times the crossword is a source of profit. Everyone knows that the puzzles are an attraction for the newspaper.  Lots of people subscribe to The New York Times and other newspapers specifically for the puzzle and it's a fairly inexpensive feature.  For The Times, the crossword is the only same-day editorial matter in the newspaper that the website charges for.  It costs $39.95 a year to subscribe to the crossword.   More than 50,000 people have subscribed to the puzzle this way.  So that's a lot of money for the newspaper.  There's also a 900 number clue line.  There are book reprints and The New York Times' crossword books are about the best selling crossword books in the country.  And all that money, all the reprints, flow to The Times, so the crossword is a very successful and profitable feature for the newspaper.

TC: For other papers though that's not the case, right?

WS: That's true. The New York Times is the only newspaper that is able to charge for its crossword.  But crosswords, I think, are one of the most important things that keep people coming to newspapers.  I say that because you can get your news anywhere.  It's faster and simpler to read your news online than it is in the newspaper unless your newspaper brings some special feature to the news.  It's the same news you can get anywhere. 

TC: As far as crosswords going purely digital…

WS: With a crossword and other pencil puzzles, it's generally better and more convenient to solve on paper.  There are lots of people doing crossword online now, but you can see all the clues at once when you are doing a crossword on paper, you can move around the grid more easily.  So crosswords and pencil puzzles are one of the things that newspapers do better than any other medium, and that includes online.  So this is a feature for newspapers and that's why some newspapers are running more than one crossword per day. A lot of newspapers nowadays have two, and on Sunday maybe three, crosswords for different skill levels and different styles.

TC: There have also been crossword apps coming out for Smartphones and things like that. Do you think they'll be popular considering that doing it by hand is a preferred method?

WS: There are lots of people who are doing the crossword, solving the crossword online and with the apps.  I think those are in addition to what's going on in newspapers.

TC: Do you think younger people solve it using the electronic methods?

WS: It's a good question.  My sense is that young people are doing them both ways.  There are a lot of teens and twenty-somethings submitting crosswords to the times for example.  I've published 19 different teens since I have been crossword editor, which is by far the most young people ever.  Up until me there were only three teens known to have crosswords published in The Times and now it is becoming a very common thing. Last spring, I did a crossword tour, if I might call it that, through three schools in the Northeast, conducting a crossword contest at Brown, Harvard and Yale, and I'll be doing this again this April.  And just lots of kids turn out for this.      Crosswords have this image of being for older solvers and it's not true.  Crosswords are really for everybody, and I see a lot of interest among young people in solving crosswords.

TC:  So you see a rise in the number of young people doing crosswords?

WS: I do.  I think it's partly because crosswords nowadays are more relevant than they were 20 years ago.  There's much less obscurity and kind of stupid words in puzzles.  The vocabulary in crosswords is just part of life. There's not much obscurity and when culture comes into the crossword it's everybody's culture.  You'll see the classical subjects like classical music and art and history and geography but you'll also see everything from rock'n  roll, TV, movies, sports, modern slang and everything in between.  So every solver nowadays sees part of his culture in the crosswords, and it makes puzzles relevant. 

A second thing is…my sense is that younger people have a shorter attention span than older people and in crosswords with a standard daily newspaper crossword you get 76 clues for 76 answers each on a different topic; your mind jumps from one thing to another, so I think crosswords are ideally suited to the modern age.

TC:    I know you try to add words and new lingo, but are there also words you find you have to delete…just information that's no longer "crossword elligble?"

WS:    Absolutely, lots of answers for that.  First of all there are names that used to be common in crosswords that are being phased out or eliminated all together.  Like "Charlie Chaplin's daughter who married Eugene O'Neill," her name is Oona, used to be very common in crosswords.  Now a days it's a sign of desperation.

Then there's something I'm trying to phase out for example, just as an example is SDI.  It used to be very common in crosswords – Strategic Defense Initiative.  That was the name for Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars Program", and it has historical importance but it really doesn't have any importance anymore because people don't know those initials. And if you are doing a puzzle and the answer SDI comes up, a younger solver may not even know what those letters stand for.  Those could just be three random letters to the alphabet and that sort of answer you don't see so much anymore.

TC: Because it's easier to Google trivia, has that broadened the audience for crosswords?

WS: Yeah, I think the Internet and Google and electronic media in general have increased the audience for crosswords.  First of all I think it's increased the audience of puzzle makers because the entire world is at your fingertips and if you're a teen constructor—I recently published a 14-year-old in The New York Times and he's a very bright kid but he has things in the crossword that he didn't know until he put them in the crossword.  He was able to research and determine that his word or name is significant and this is a correct and interesting way to clue this.  But 20 years ago I don't think he would have been able to do this.

So the electronic media and computers and the Internet have broadened the group of puzzlemakers.  As far as solvers go, yeah if you're having trouble with a crossword you could go to a crossword dictionary.  You could go to a regular dictionary, I suppose or you just give up.  Nowadays, if you don't know something you can do a Google search and get the answer and finish the puzzle for yourself that way.

TC: Speaking of tools used to enhance crossword constructing, there's software now and the discussion board.  Do you think those have really made puzzles of better quality?

WS: Yes, that's another thing. The Internet and blogs have made crosswords better because in the old days, the feedback that constructors got was mainly from the editor.  I would get submissions and would write everybody back myself and I would put a little comment with each reply whether it was a "yes or no," saying what I liked or didn't like in the puzzle and that may have been the only feedback the constructor ever received.  Nowadays a constructor can go online and there are six daily blogs on The New York Times crossword that have wide readership and dozens or even many more people comment on the puzzles through the comment sections in the blogs.  So constructors can get feedback from solvers, what they like, what they don't like, what they can't do, what they find easy -- and that helps constructors with their future submissions.  Also, the discussion board, which is for crossword constructors, that's just a great resource for constructors, especially new ones, because there's lots of tools there for helping make puzzles.  It's just a place for constructors to discuss the business, sort of do shop-talk, and that's another way puzzle makers have gotten better.         

TC: How do you feel about the blogs in general because some people think they're more about griping. Do you think they are positive overall and do you read them?

WS: There are four daily blogs on The Times crossword that I always read myself, and I read some of the comments on them.  Overall, yes I think the effect is good because it increases interest in puzzles and, as I mentioned before, puzzle makers can see what solvers like and don't like and have trouble with which will improve their constructions in the future.  Yeah, if you look at puzzles even at the start of my editorship at The Times, when I started in 1993, the bar has been raised for constructors considerably since then.  There are lots of puzzles that I published in the 1990's say that I wouldn't publish today because they are not good enough.  You know the standards have increased.

TC:  Do you think the compiler software has helped a lot?

WS: Yes, there are electronic tools now for aiding in crossword construction.  Of course it's not as if the puzzle maker pushes a button and the computer spits out a crossword for you.  I suppose it could, but it wouldn't be a very interesting crossword and not one that I'd publish.  The constructor works with the program and the things that it suggests.  Saying yes I like this, no I don't like that, and adding entries to the database to make more interesting puzzles.

TC: The Times crossword website has a lot of interactive features, and the blogs allow people to interact. It used to be that crossword fans really only got together at the tournament.

WS: Right even the tournament is a relatively modern phenomenon.  I mean from my standpoint the first was in 1978 and until then crossword puzzlers literally had no way to get together.  They didn't know each other.  Basically the only interaction (for constructors) might have been by mail.  So even the tournaments are a relatively modern way for constructors to interact.

TC: Do you feel that crosswords are becoming less solitary?

WS: Interesting, yah, I think crosswords used to be a completely solitary activity.  Nowadays it's still a solitary activity, but there's a crossword community with the blogs, with the tournaments.  When I started the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1978 that was the first American crossword event since the 1930's.  Now there's like 12 or 15 crossword tournaments held each year across the country and the number seems to be growing.  So there's more and more ways for crossworders to interact and I think that's a good thing.

TC: Considering all the changes that are happening now, the demographic shifts and how technology is affecting crosswords, how do you see crosswords in 50 years?

WS:  Well that is interesting. Boy it's so hard to predict 50 years in the future. First of all, getting back to where we started, I said crosswords were ideally suited for print and on paper.  So, if media becomes almost entirely electronic I think crosswords will be hurt somewhat.  I think they'll always be around but they won't be quit as successful as they were in print.

Also, there is something nice about having a single crossword arrive in your newspaper each day.  If you subscribe to the paper or pick it up at a store, you know you get one paper everyday, and you get one new crossword everyday, and there's something satisfying with that.  Online, you know if you want to do crosswords there's lots of them online there's nothing stopping you from doing two, three, four or 10 a day.  And yet somehow there's something not as special about that.  You don't have the routine or the schedule you had.

Crosswords have evolved a lot in the last fifty years for themes to be more interesting, more humorous.  The vocabulary and the grids has much less obscurity.  There's a lot more current stuff.  I don't mean current just in the sense of things that come in and out of fashion in a year, but I just mean modern vocabulary.  Within six months of podcasting becoming a recognized thing, that was an answer in a New York Times crossword, because I felt that this was something that was going to be around..  This will become a permanent part of our culture so it's a legitimate answer in a crossword---That still doesn't answer your question.  Fifty years from now-- I don't know.

TC: Have you ever published a puzzle that you really didn't like?

WS: That's interesting.  I'll tell you there have been—when I accept manuscripts from contributors I slate them for a day of the week and I put them in my in-box and I have anywhere from three months up to over a year of inventory for certain days of the week and I've notices there are a few older puzzles that I keep skipping over when I go to select puzzles to edit for a week.  You know, I look at this and say "I sort of liked it when I accepted it but I don't love it anymore" and so I keep putting off publishing it, and eventually I have to run it because I accepted it.  I'm not sure I say I ever ran a puzzle that I hated because if I ever really completely changed my mind on something I'd just somehow not run it, but the standards have kept increasing and a puzzle I may have accepted a year or two or three years ago may not excite me so much anymore.

TC: Did you ever want to publish anything risqué or ever publish anything that you felt was on the brink of being off-limits?  Has the Times ever wanted to censor you?

WS:  Well first of all regarding censoring, there's no one at the Times looking over the puzzles before they go in print.  But that said I do have a group of four test solvers who test every crossword before it appears in print.  If any of them objected to a word or answer or thought something was pushing the envelope they would tell me and then it would be up to me to decide if this was appropriate.  Basically, I keep the Times' readership in mind and The New York Times has a reputation of being proper and not offending people.  So I try not to offend or alienate solvers.

On the other hand I'm not a fuddy-dud, not an old-fashioned person.  So I will probably run crossword answers that other editors might not just cause I think they're part of modern life.  The most recent thing that I think I got in a little trouble for was the answer "scumbag".  Which to me is just slang for a sleazy person, a disreputable person.  The word actually has an etymology that I'd call obscene.  I didn't really know it when I accepted the puzzle but I ran it and I got a little flack for it.  Keith Olbermann named me one of his "Worst People in the World" the night that puzzle appeared.  So he objected to it and I did get a strong comment from a New York Times editor when somebody complained.

TC: You don't publish your own puzzles.  Do you still write puzzles?

WS: The reason I don't publish crosswords in the Times is two reasons.  First of all I get so many submissions.  I get 75 to 100 puzzles a week.  There are perfectly good puzzles that I turn down just cause I can't accept everything.  I feel that wouldn't be right for me to publish my own crosswords when I'm rejecting other peoples.  It would be presumptuous of me to say that my work is better than what I publish or what I'm rejecting.  But that said, I make a lot of puzzles.  I particularly make puzzles for the variety puzzles in the Sunday Magazine, like spirals and petal puzzles, and 3D word hunt and other types of my own invention.  Also I make puzzles for every Sunday on NPR, which I've been doing for 23 years now.

TC: Do you feel there's competition among constructors?

WS: Yes, there's definitely competition and there didn't use to be so much but I think that happens more nowadays because of the blogs.  Let's see, yesterday, I had a crossword by Kevin Der . . . it was just a brilliant crossword that had what we call quadruple stacks.  There were four, fifteen letter answers running across the top of the grid and on the bottom.  And then another 15 letter answer going across the middle. It was the first crossword ever to have quadruple stacks and Kevin did it because it had never been done before. And he wasn't doing it just to set a record or do something fancy. He also made sure it has lively vocabulary. I don't care to break a record or run a puzzle that's different in some way just for the sake of doing it.  It's got to be a great puzzle to solve but he was able to do both.
 
TC: So there's competition in the sense that people want to set new records but not rivalry?

WS: The crossword world is pretty friendly. If people are competing with each other they are doing it in a friendly way.  Maybe they want to top each other but I don't sense negativity involved.  And as far as a competition goes, I think the competition, overall it's just to make the best possible puzzles, not to set records with fewest black squares or fewest entries or greatest stacking or anything like that.  Just to fill their grid with as lively interesting, colorful vocabulary as possible.  That's how constructors are trying to compete with each other.


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