Entering the mind of a crossword whiz

What's a puzzle guru, 10 letters? No contest: WILL SHORTZ. We chatted with the editor of the world's most renowned crosswords, those published in The New York Times, about the inner workings of the puzzle world.

Q: How are crossword puzzles made?

A: Most crosswords have themes, and the theme is usually where the long answers are tied together in some interesting or humorous way. So the starting point is to come up with those long answers.

Crossword grids are symmetrical, which means that if you rotate them 180 degrees, they'll look the same upside-down as they did right-side-up. This means if you have a twelve-letter theme answer in the upper left portion of the grid, then you also have to have one in the lower right portion of the grid to balance it. You place your long answers in the grid and place black squares around them so that you feel that you can complete the grid with other vocabulary, then you actually do that other vocabulary, polish it to the best of your ability, and then the last thing is to write clues.

Q: How long does that take?

A: The first one that you do can take days and days, weeks and weeks. The experts can create a daily New York Times (puzzle) in, oh I'd say, maybe four to eight hours, and a Sunday from eight to twenty hours.

Q: Can't computer programs make them, too?

A: That is true, but someone should understand that you don't just press a button and have the computer make a classy crossword for you. There's a lot of back-and-forth between the human and the computer.

Q: Can you tell the difference?

A: I can tell a poorly made computer puzzle just because it's bland. The person hasn't put any thought into it. They did click a button and the computer just spit something out and it's not very interesting.

Q: Then what makes a good one?

A: Besides the theme, the most important things are fresh, lively vocabulary, especially words and phrases that you haven't encountered in puzzles before. I like interesting letters of the alphabet that are the rarer letters of the alphabet like J, Q, X and Z. Interesting letter patterns like DVDPLAYER. If you have a nine-letter word in which the second third and fourth letters are VDP, you'd think 'What kind of answer can that possibly be?'

And as little obscurity as possible — as little crosswordese and uninteresting obscurity. There's a place for difficult words, but I don't care for a fly of Botswana or a 50-mile-long river of Romania.

Q: Are there crossword clichés?

A: There certainly are crossword clichés. It's very difficult to construct a crossword. Every letter has to appear in two answers, across and down, so there are things that come up and it's very hard to avoid them, like AARE (a river in Switzerland) or ESNE, an Anglo-Saxon slave, that comes up too often.

Q: How does the difficulty increase in New York Times puzzles?

A: A theme for a Monday puzzle would tend to be straightforward vocabulary. A little later in the week a theme might involve puns, a quotation, things where you're dropping or adding letters or sounds of words — not standard vocabulary, in other words. Something with a trick in it would tend to be a harder puzzle. For example, there's a kind of theme called a "rebus," and that's where you put a digit or a little picture in certain squares rather than just a letter. And the Friday and Saturday crosswords usually don't have themes. Instead they have wide open spaces, lots of white squares, very few black squares, and that naturally makes a puzzle harder if you have lots of longer words.

Q: You can gauge the popularity of crosswords by the magazines devoted to them.

A: Literally hundreds of crosswords magazines on the newsstand; every newspaper has at least one crossword, and it's becoming increasingly popular to have two or more crosswords for different skill levels, and books sell very well.

Q: So what's their appeal?

A: It is partly the pleasure of playing with words. We use language every day to communicate thoughts and feelings. Crosswords take this common knowledge and apply them in a completely different way. Second is people's natural love for a mystery. Like any good mystery, it's fun to work it out.

Q: Sometimes they seem like golf, at least as frustrating as they are fun.

A: (Laughs.) They can be frustrating, yeah. I suppose that's a little bit of the appeal, as long as they're not too frustrating. It's nice to be frustrated a little and then break through and finish. That's when you get your greatest satisfaction. If a puzzle is easy and it's not a challenge for you, then your satisfaction from finishing the puzzle is very small.

Q: Are you familiar with research that claims the active brain activity involved with crosswords — as opposed to the passive activity of TV-watching — keeps the brain limber?

A: I read surveys that say that all the time. It makes sense. Anything you do to keep your mind active is going to make your brain sharper and lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease. What's great about crosswords is that they stimulate all parts of your brain: your knowledge, your vocabulary, your creativity, your sense of humor. They're just a wonderful aerobic workout for the brain.

Q: What's the fastest completion time for a Sunday New York Times puzzle?

A: I think the fastest known solution for a New York Times crossword — and I might be a second or two off — is like three minutes and eight seconds.

Q: That's superhuman. That's like Rain Man.

A: I know, it's scary. His name is Stanley Newman, and he's the crossword editor for Newsday.

Q: So it was a pro. It was an inside job.

A: Yeah, he's extraordinary. I'd say an expert time on a Sunday New York Times crossword would be twelve to fourteen minutes. The fastest time, you might see them do it in eight to ten minutes if they were really sharp that day, and if was an easy-ish puzzle.

Q: What drew you into the puzzle biz?

A: I've done it since I was a child. I started making puzzles when I was eight or nine, sold my first one when I was fourteen. I have the world's only college degree in enigmatology, which is the study of puzzles. I got it from Indiana University. IU has this program where you can make up your own major, and I developed a whole program in puzzles. So I've been a puzzle-head my whole life.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com.

Our puzzle's author

Fred Piscop, who constructed the special news-themed crossword puzzle on the cover of Northwest Life today, began his career in crosswords in 1990. His puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and GAMES magazine, among many other publications, and he is crossword editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He is resident of Long Island.

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