Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shortz (Includes A19 Poll Question)
When I can't sleep, I like to work on the Sunday NYTimes crossword (it's reprinted the next Sunday in the local paper). I usually end up taking a stab at it every week though I almost never finish and rarely get beyond 75-80%. In a sign that declining standards and grade inflation is alive and well into middle age, I count 50% as the fault line of my failure/success. If you try it as well, you may enjoy this ongoing Q & A with puzzle editor Will Shortz. I knew that puzzles were sent in by others who are paid a small amount when they are selected, but I didn't know there were so many submissions (75-100 a week!) and I was shocked at the involved weekly process he describes for how a puzzle gets from submission to publication:
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.
The whole thing is pretty fascinating if you are into puzzles. Apparently, he enjoys every kind of puzzle. Here's the question for the day: do you puzzle? Which do you like/hate?

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