By: Christine Sparta
Will Shortz’s Puzzling Career
(Mediaweek) In Will Shortz’s world, there are solvers and then there are constructors.
Shortz has made a career out of working with both types of people as the editor of The
New York Times crossword puzzle.
He corresponds with people who submit puzzles for consideration as well as fine-tuning
accepted puzzles for publication. Shortz is responsible for tweaking the clues to make
them clever enough and appropriately difficult for that day’s puzzle.
Shortz receives between 60 to 75 submissions every week from hopeful puzzlers. He has a
stockpile of contributions that could fill the page for the next two to eight months,
depending on the day.
Shortz says he gets a lot of interest from teachers, writers, and computer programmers.
He has a stable of regular contributors, but there are also one-hit wonders, who
contribute once and are never heard from again. Shortz says it’s as if ‘this was their
lifelong ambition and now it’s done.’
He reports more males than females like to construct while most of the solvers are female.
Shortz says the puzzles get progressively harder as the week goes along; Monday’s is the
easiest while Saturday’s puzzle is the hardest. Submissions tend to be harder rather than
He looks for unusual letter patterns and references to current events or topical cultural
touchstones like ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’
‘There is a whole class of people who love to be tested, who love to test themselves,’ says
Jack Rosenthal, Shortz’s former boss, who hired him in 1993, as editor of The New York Times
Magazine. ‘The crossword puzzle may be the earliest example of an interactive newspaper,’
says Rosenthal. ‘You can put your own mark (on it),’ says Rosenthal, who is now president of
the New York Times Co. Foundation, a philanthropic organization that gives money to worthy
recipients in areas like education and journalism.
People can earn $75 for a 15 x 15 daily puzzle, and a 21 x 21 Sunday puzzle pays $350.
Occasionally the paper will run a 23 x 23-sized puzzle that pays $400.
While the payments are modest, they have gone up. Shortz says he paid just $150 for a Sunday
puzzle when he started his job in 1993.
‘This has been my whole life,’ says Shortz, 47, who sold his first puzzle at 14 and got a
degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, from Indiana University. He describes his work
as ‘endlessly renewing. Crosswords take you into every field of human knowledge.’
This interest in brain teasers has extended to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an
annual tournament he started in 1978. This year’s event runs from March 10-12 in Stamford,
He also has a long running weekly segment devoted to puzzles on National Public Radio and he’s
edited numerous crossword puzzle books.
At the time Rosenthal hired Shortz, puzzle readership was loyal but aging, and he wanted someone
who could relate to a younger generation of readers.
He devised a simple test for applicants to help determine who would become the next crossword
puzzle editor. Rosenthal wanted the candidates to name three songs by James Taylor. Some of them
didn’t even know who Taylor was.
When Shortz took the helm, commercial names had not been allowed into the puzzles, but Shortz
convinced the brass to loosen up and pretty soon answers like Coke started popping up. ‘The whole
society has softened,’ admits Rosenthal, who cites the prevalence of product placement everywhere.
Rosenthal says he’s injected a lot of creativity in other ways as well. He once ran a submission
from one romantic constructor who submitted a puzzle proposing to his sweetheart.
President Clinton is a fan. He especially enjoyed a 1997 puzzle that had the clue: Formula for the
VP’s macarena. The answer was algorithm.
He was so amused that he sent a Xeroxed copy of the puzzle back to Rosenthal along with a note that
he should have been working on the State of the Union address but he just couldn’t resist this
Christine Sparta (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes
for Mediaweek Online’s buzz column.
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher