How Will Shortz Edits a New York Times Crossword Puzzle

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Will Shortz has served as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times since 1993. The only known person to hold a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, he has been the puzzle master for NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday since the program's inception in 1987. In 1978 he founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a competition which became the subject of the 2006 documentary Wordplay. In that film, aficionados such as Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton attest to their love of Shortz's puzzles, which are in fact only partly his. Each crossword is drawn from a pool of freelance submissions—roughly 75 to 100 per week—with the accepted puzzles edited and often heavily revised by Shortz. Accepted puzzles are arranged in ascending difficulty throughout the week, with the Saturday puzzle the most daunting and the Sunday edition the largest. Here Shortz shares a submission from Elizabeth Gorski, along with his edits and his thoughts on what makes a good puzzle.


Every crossword in the Times is a collaboration between the puzzle-maker and the puzzle editor. On average, about half the clues are mine. I may edit as few as five or ten percent of the clues, or as many as 95 percent for someone who does a great puzzle but not great clues. Why accept a puzzle when I'm going to edit 95 percent of the clues? Well, if someone sends me a great puzzle with an excellent theme and construction—you want fresh, interesting, familiar vocabulary throughout the grid—I feel it would be a shame to reject it on account of the clues, because I can always change them myself.

This puzzle came from Elizabeth Gorski, one of the pros. Liz is great at putting fresh entries at the short spaces of a grid. That's very hard to do. There was one thing about the construction I didn't like, and that was at 35 Down. The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course "Lorelei," with an "e-i." Liz's clue was Rory's mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn't think solvers should have to know that. Sometimes I'll do little fixes myself. But this was big enough that I asked her to revise the grid. You can see the new letters in blue, where I've amended the manuscript. Then the puzzle was accepted. I earmarked it for a Wednesday, because the theme consists of straight-forward English, but it's a little playful.

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Click the images below to enlarge

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Her clue for 1 Across was simply "Coach Ewbank"—perfectly fine—but I thought there would be some solvers who didn't know who Ewbank is, so I added the words "who led the Jets to a Super Bowl III Championship." That way, if you don't know the name, you'll learn something. Fourteen across was simply out of date: the PAC-10 is now the PAC-12. "Iroquoian language" I changed to "Iroquoian people"—I don't really know it as a language. "Mexican hat" was too easy—of course that's a sombrero—so I said, "A Mexican might sleep under it." Thirty-four is a matter of style: "Middle East" is generally rendered as "Mideast." I'm always working on brevity.

For 26 Down, Liz's clue is "ignited anew." Any time a clue says "anew" or "again" at the end of it, you know the answer's going to be a word starting with "re-." If possible, I like to hide that fact, so I re-clued this as "like a candle night after night." Liz clued 28 as the name of a play. It's trivia, either you know it or you don't. I thought it would be fun to clue it in a misleading way: "90 is a pretty high one." Your first guess is that I'm referring to temperature, and when the answer turns out to be something else you slap your forehead.

One clue that's fun and twisty is 11 Down: "Wet blanket" for SNOW. I can check the database—I bet she's not the first person to ever use that clue. That's just too nice a clue never to have been used before. Hold on one second, I'll see. There is a database of every clue back to my start. [A pause.] I see previous clever clues for SNOW that include "winter fall," "white blanket," "winter blanket," "white coat," "falling flakes"—that's not all that clever. This one's sort of cute—"serial killer." Snow on your TV, it's going to hurt your reception of a serial. Oh, one more. "Drifter," with a question mark. Well, I don't see "wet blanket." Maybe it is fresh.

–Will Shortz, as told to Alex Hoyt

The final version of the puzzle, which ran on Wednesday, August 10th, 2011:

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Copyright © 2011 The New York Times

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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