Party Down: 100 Years of the Crossword Puzzle

A conversation with Deb Amlen, New York Times crossword puzzler extraordinaire
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This weekend marks the 100th birthday of the crossword puzzle. On December 21, 1913, Arthur Wynne published a little diamond-shaped grid, along with 30-odd clues, in the New York World. The puzzle didn't immediately catch on, but just over a decade later, it exploded.

In 1924, the publishing house Simon & Schuster, agreed to a small (3,600-copy) run of a crossword puzzle book, prompted by founder Richard L. Simon's aunt, who wanted to give such a book to a friend. It became "a runaway bestseller." According to Smithsonian Magazine,

In no time the publisher had to put the book back on press; through repeated printings, it sold more than 100,000 copies. Soon a second collection followed, and then a third and a fourth. In 1924 and 1925 the crossword books were among the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers for the year, besting, among others, The Autobiography of Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

In the time since, crossword puzzles have become a beloved morning tradition in many homes. Today's puzzles still fundamentally look a lot like that first puzzle by Wynne, but many aspects of puzzling have changed: how they are constructed, the sorts of clues they contain, and even how (some) puzzlers go about solving them. I spoke with Deb Amlen, writer of Wordplay, the official crossword blog of The New York Times, and humor columnist for Yahoo! Tech, about how our digital age is shaping crossword puzzles. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation (which was conducted in Google Docs) follows.

So perhaps we can just begin with a little bit of the basics. How do crossword puzzles get put together today? Are writers using software? Graph paper? What does the process look like?

Well, everyone is different, of course, but I would say that the vast majority of constructors use some sort of software to at least frame their crossword puzzle. By framing, I mean that although the idea for the theme or some of the really lively entries might be a result of their own creativity, the software gives them a cleaner place to store their ideas and build on them. And I would say that many constructors also fill their puzzles with words and phrases "by hand," even though they are using this software. Many of the software programs have an "autofill" feature where the computer puts in words just because they fit, but that’s frowned upon in the community. The better puzzles have lively entries that constructors save in word lists so that the puzzles are more entertaining.

I created my first crossword puzzles on graph paper, and when I finally purchased the software in 2004, I really did see the advantage of having a place to store my word lists, and not have to deal with the intense amount of erasure and bloodshed that building a puzzle involves.

So, just to make sure I have this straight, the software gives you a grid, and then you begin by filling in words to make everything fit. Once the solution is there, you write the clues?

This is a very simplified breakdown of how to build a puzzle, which not everyone follows.

1. First, you need to decide if you are making a themed or nonthemed puzzle. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say it has a theme. The theme can be anything, but in an early week puzzle, it usually is just a set of entries that all have something in common, something that makes them hang together. This is the part that really takes a lot of time if you’re a good constructor, because it’s a creative endeavor that also has quite a few constraints on it: You need to come up with something entertaining, that hasn’t been done before, that makes sense to/is likely to be familiar to a majority of solvers, and it also has to fit into the grid using certain letter counts, because a majority of puzzles use what’s called rotational symmetry. That’s a complex phrase that simply means that it’s symmetrical on a diagonal, and if you turn the grid upside down, it will look exactly the same. Those constraints have been in place for a very long time.

2. Once you are happy with your theme, it’s time to build the grid. When you open a new file in one of these software programs, you can choose from a selected list of already built grids (e.g., they already have a pattern of black squares in them) OR, and this is the way professionals do it, you select a blank grid that is the size you want, and start to place your theme entries in the grid, placing the black squares at the same time. The challenge here is to place them so they don’t violate the constraints that need to be followed, but at the same time, giving the constructor a good chance of being able to fill around the theme with sparkling, lively entries. As you can see, it’s quite a challenge and an artform, but we’re not done yet.

3. Now it’s time to fill. There are some things that can’t be avoided when filling a crossword puzzle, but we generally try to avoid using too many abbreviations (and when we do, they should be ones that are instantly familiar to a majority of people, like NAACP or CGI) and too many "partials," which are parts of phrases like IN THE, which might be the answer to a clue like "The farmer ____ dell."

Will Shortz, who has been the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle since 1993, is known for having brought the puzzle into the "modern age" by allowing more pop culture and lively entries into a puzzle that had been considered an activity in intellectual snobbery up to that point. I agree. I think the puzzle should be a form of entertainment. That’s why it’s located where it is in the printed paper.

4. Cluing time! This can either be fun or drudgery, depending on who you ask. I love writing a good, misdirected clue, and solvers who have some experience love that feeling of having to get into the brain of the constructor and editor.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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