DEB AMLEN: The creation of our crossword puzzle is in the homestretch! Thanks to the hard work of the constructors who are making the time to pull back the curtain on this art form, we now have a theme (Part 1), a grid (Part 2) and a whole lot of letters for solvers to fill into the empty squares (Part 3).
But you can’t fill anything in without clues, can you? Robyn Weintraub and Brad Wilber, two well-known New York Times Crossword constructors, take us through that final part of the process in Part 4. The article would go on forever if they took us through the process for every single clue in the puzzle, so they will talk about a selection of clues, starting with the theme entries, and the rest of the puzzle clues — as well as the puzzle itself for you to solve — are at the end.
One thing to watch for: Ms. Weintraub and Mr. Wilber place their clues in brackets because that’s how clues are often presented to editors in queries or when discussing them with other constructors. In the daily Wordplay column and other articles, clues have historically been presented in quotation marks.
And we’re not done yet: Part 5, running in August, will wrap things up with a list of the resources mentioned in this series, as well as a look at the puzzle by the crossword editors Will Shortz and Joel Fagliano, who will give us insight into how they take a submitted puzzle from raw manuscript to published puzzle.
ROBYN WEINTRAUB and BRAD WILBER: Well, we’re at an exciting part of this Wordplay series: writing the clues. We have great material to work with and we’re excited to get started!
In Part 3, Paolo Pasco mentioned that the grid fill can be a window into your personality as a constructor. So, too, with clue writing. Many things contribute to your cluing style: The degree to which you balance basic definition clues, wordplay-based clues, general knowledge clues, in addition to sprinkling in humor and slang. Of course, your choices will be inherently different from each of our choices, and that’s how your particular aesthetic will shine through to the solver.
The other side of the coin is learning how the clue vibe differs at various publishing venues, and then it’s a matter of adapting your style to each “editorial happy place.” How one clues a New York Times puzzle, for example, may be very different from how one clues a puzzle for USA Today or the American Values Club crossword.
What Day of the Week Should I Aim For?
WILBER: For some, cluing can feel anticlimactic after the euphoria of wrestling all those letters into submission … er, position. Robyn and I are here to encourage you to keep inspiration flowing all the way to a finished puzzle manuscript. Editors and solvers will remember your name if you can consistently produce fresh and detail-oriented sets of clues. Robyn, what is in the forefront of your mind when you sit down to clue?
WEINTRAUB: Good question, Brad. In most places where the puzzle runs daily, themes and clues get harder and trickier as the week progresses. Mondays, for example, are straightforward and welcoming, the puzzle equivalent of a warm and fuzzy bunny.
Everyone loves a good snuggle, but there’s not much challenge there. By the time you get to Saturday, it might feel as if you are in a battle of wits with the devil himself, and be careful that you don’t get your eyebrows singed!
But I digress … this puzzle’s theme is clever but straightforward. It feels like a Tuesday to me.
Start With the Theme Clues
WILBER: Agreed. Let’s nail down theme clues first. Rule of thumb: You want your sense of fun to emerge, but in a tidy package. Go for streamlined elegance in both wording and concept. You are telling a little story, in some ways, but try to stick to essential elements. Extraneous ideas can work against clarity and brevity. Brevity is not only kind to the solver but to the editor as well, with line length and spacing at issue in both print and electronic formats.
WEINTRAUB: Our theme plays on synonyms for “song,” providing four amusing musical entries:
Although MACBOOK AIR is the first theme entry in the puzzle, I’m going to skip to PUZZLE PIECE — it seems like an easier place to begin.
We all know what a “puzzle piece” is: It’s something that fits into a jigsaw puzzle. But here our PUZZLE PIECE will be a song about something puzzle related.
Now we start free associating: What kind of puzzle? Not a jigsaw puzzle, because it’s much more elegant to stay away from the literal meaning of the entry. How about a crossword puzzle? That’s probably a great option, given our venue, but let’s keep going and see what else comes to mind. Is it a Sudoku (or KenKen) puzzle? What about something puzzling in general? What are some good synonyms for puzzle? This is when I open up a new browser window at Thesaurus.com. My options include “enigma,” “conundrum” and “brain teaser.”
Going down that road, some ideas for PUZZLE PIECE are [Song about an enigma?] or [Song about a conundrum?]. I’d probably opt for the latter simply because “conundrum” is more fun to say than “enigma.”
One digression here: You see how we are ending our clues in question marks? That’s because we’re writing clues that involve puns. The PUZZLE PIECE isn’t really a song about a conundrum, so it gets a question mark. If the clue was a straightforward, factual clue, it would not get a question mark.
But circling back to one of the earlier ideas, we can try [Song about a crossword?]. That’s nice, but I think it can be stronger. How about [Song for a crossword enthusiast?]? I really like that, because we’ve added complexity without making it any harder. We’re not just defining the music, we’ve also identified the audience for the music. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that ideally our four theme entry clues should maintain a similar structure, and if this format doesn’t work for the others, we’ll need a new plan. No way to know until we keep going. …
The Words Are All There, Now We Just Have to Get Them in the Right Order
WEINTRAUB: Let’s look at TENURE TRACK.
Does [Song for a professor?] work here? It does, but how about [Professor’s favorite song?] That’s a further twist on the format above, and I like it even more. Perhaps a PUZZLE PIECE is a [Crossword enthusiast’s favorite song?]?
WILBER: Something like [Professor’s favorite song?] has value because it contains a subtle nod to the base phrase — a professor wants to be on the tenure track. With [Crossword enthusiast’s favorite song?] we’re creating parallelism, but we’ll see if it can be imposed on all four theme entries comfortably.
O.K., on to CALL NUMBER.
How about [Telemarketer’s favorite song?]. I thought of something like [Muzak playing while you’re on hold?]. It’s more satisfyingly concrete, but it wrecks the pattern we’ve begun to establish, and it would look odd with three “favorite songs.”
When we look at options for the fourth theme clue, we could decide what we think is more important — a strict “echo” carried through or more variation. Notice that Robyn refrained from any reference to a jigsaw puzzle, and with CALL NUMBER I steered clear of anything to do with the Dewey decimal system, because you want to allow the original library meaning — also known as the base phrase — to speak for itself without alluding to it. Generally speaking, your job is to clue only the thematically relevant version of the phrase; here, a musical NUMBER combined with telephone CALLs. The original meaning is not where the humor lies, but the constructor’s job is to twist the meaning to make solvers laugh and lead the solver to the answer fairly.
WEINTRAUB: For MACBOOK AIR, I’m going to check the definition of “air” in the musical sense, since it’s our least common song synonym. A quick check through Dictionary.com — another valuable tool in the cluing process — reveals that AIR is essentially the English equivalent of the Italian ARIA, a term any puzzle solver has seen a million times (or more accurately, it has been used more than 34 times in the “Shortz Era,” 1993 to the present).
WILBER: So should we go for [Genius Bar staffer’s favorite song?] or something else? It’s important to suggest Apple, I think, and “Genius Bar” does that. Three out of the four do seem to lend themselves to the “favorite” clues, so maybe [Telemarketer’s favorite song?] is best. Robyn?
WEINTRAUB: Let’s see …
MACBOOK AIR [Genius Bar staffer’s favorite song?]
TENURE TRACK [Professor’s favorite song?]
PUZZLE PIECE [Crossword enthusiast’s favorite song?]
CALL NUMBER [Telemarketer’s favorite song?]
All four clues are amusing, have parallel structure and stay true to the theme. I’m good. Theme entries done.
Only 72 More Clues to Write
WILBER: Now for the remaining puzzle fill. Earlier we decided the theme was Tuesday material, but an editor could eventually see it slightly differently — say, as either a Monday or a Wednesday. I edit the weekly puzzle for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which aims for fairly consistent midweek difficulty each time, not a daily progression. Even so, in my experience, a clue author afraid of not hitting the imagined target is better off going slightly harder rather than slightly easier. Why? If editors need to make clues gentler, they can often keep the essence of your original suggestion but add a hint. If you’ve written very easy clues that need to be toughened up, the editor may have to scrap your idea and reach for entirely new material. On the other hand, the New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz feels that every puzzle has a natural level of difficulty, based on its theme and vocabulary. He believes the constructor should figure out what the difficulty level is (or ask the editor for guidance) and write clues accordingly.
WEINTRAUB: Which brings us to another important point: Crossword editors change clues. They change a lot of them. Sometimes they edit them to streamline the difficulty level across the entire puzzle, as Brad describes above. Or clues get changed because the editorial team came up with something better. For example, in one of my earlier puzzles, the clue I submitted for MEN’S WEAR was fairly basic: [Some runway sights]. The clue that ended up in the published puzzle was [It’s tailored to guys]. The fun wordplay makes that a far better clue.
Even though we expect editors will make changes, it’s poor etiquette to slack on the clues and presume that they will get fixed in postproduction. Remember, editors will notice you — and love you — if you are clearly setting a high bar for your clues.
So, let’s get started on the nontheme fill. Here’s the grid that Kevin Der and Paolo Pasco constructed in Part 3:
WEINTRAUB: And here’s what that looks like in my puzzle constructing application, Crossfire, when I’m in clue mode. Just as a reminder, there are other software packages that constructors use to build crossword puzzles, like Crossword Compiler for Windows, but I use Crossfire because I work on a Mac.
WEINTRAUB: As you can see, there are two main sections, the grid on the left and the entry list on the right. Now take a look at the third small pane in the lower right corner, labeled “DB” for “Database.” Most puzzle construction programs can be loaded with a curated clue database. The one shown here is supplied by the puzzle constructor Matt Ginsberg. Matt is also the artificial intelligence expert behind Dr.Fill, the crossword solving computer that frequently — and to the endless frustration of us human solvers — finishes American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles in 10 seconds or less.
Every few months Matt updates his database of clues and offers them to the puzzle community, all for the low, low price of free. (Thank you, Matt!) The clues come from a variety of outlets and publications — not just The New York Times. And they are organized by day of the week, so they appear in increasing difficulty, indicated briefly here by “Mo” for Monday and “Tu” for Tuesday.
But Is It O.K. to Copy Someone Else’s Clue?
WEINTRAUB: As long as we’re referencing cluing resources, one already mentioned in Part 1 of this series is XWordInfo.com, created by the former Wordplay writer Jim Horne and currently overseen by the webmaster Jeff Chen. Just type in a word in the site’s search feature and, if it has been an entry in a New York Times puzzle, you’ll see the date of each appearance, the author of the puzzle and the clue. This handy tool allows you to see which clues have been used in The Times, so you know what to avoid if you’re trying to come up with something original. Or, say the same clue has been used all 11 times for an entry — if Will Shortz hasn’t been able to come up with a new angle on it, you could either take that as a challenge or as a sign to surrender and focus your originality elsewhere.
WEINTRAUB and WILBER: Puzzle makers debate whether using clues from these databases amounts to plagiarism. Propriety aside, a manuscript that’s merely a parade of recycled clues forces an editor into the extra work of injecting some novelty.
So use the databases only as a springboard. This is your creation. Go in new directions, or put your own spin on something clever that was used two years ago. Editors will relish and respect a unique voice and try to preserve its flavor. You may find when the puzzle is published that some of your favorites have been discarded or retooled into a more conventional mold. Don’t take it personally! Any number of craftsmanship constraints may be at work. Cluing expertise is about more than just getting the difficulty right and brandishing puns. It’s about a host of style issues, many of which will surface as we discuss a sampling of entries.
WEINTRAUB: One stylistic side note, before we continue: As Deb said, it’s common practice among constructors to put clues in brackets, [Like so]. We prefer to avoid quotation marks as they can be confusing; quotation marks are often used within clues themselves — in titles, or when indicating a spoken phrase. We used brackets earlier when discussing the clues for the theme entries and will continue using them for the fill clues.
Also, to keep this article from becoming longer than the O.E.D, we won’t address all 72 clues here. Instead, we will highlight ones that lend themselves to discussing rules and tips for good clue construction. The full clue list is at the end.
Basic Rules of Clue Writing
WEINTRAUB and WILBER: Before we really dive into the cluing, there are some things that all constructors need to know. They are helpful for solvers, too, because knowing these rules may help you get your answers right.
Entries and clues must be consistent when it comes to number, part of speech and tense
Singular entries get singular clues, noun entries get noun clues and plural entries get plural clues.
We need to make sure we don’t accidentally clue the plural FILMS at 34 Across as the singular [Movie], because that would be unfair to the solver; in some clues, we want to misdirect solvers, but we always play fair!
Sometimes entries can act as more than one part of speech. It’s your puzzle, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to clue it, as long as your clue is good for the day of the week the puzzle is meant to run on. But the clue and the entry have to be consistent. For example, [College person with a “list”] is a good clue for DEAN, because both [College person] and DEAN are nouns.
As far as present versus past tense, take a look at MEET UP (44 Down). Our soiree is very much in the present, so use [Get together] instead of [Got together]. [Got together] would work only for MET UP. Just to complicate matters, though, FIT (22 Down) could be either present tense or past tense. In this case, [Are the right size] and [Was the right size] would both get the green light.
Are you confused yet? Here’s one handy way to clear this up:
When in doubt, test whether your clue could neatly replace your entry in a sample sentence
If you are not sure whether your entry and clue meet the criterion above, swap your entry for your clue and back again. This will help not only with the agreement issues we discussed above, but with other ones as well.
For example, to clue CLIP (7 Down) as a verb, you would not typically say [Cut a coupon out] but rather [Cut out, as a coupon], since the coupon is not part of the definition. [Cut out of] also lacks some precision and wouldn’t pass the substitution test. EACH (5 Across) could be clued with either [Per] or [Per person] — test it yourself! — or [A pop], but definitely not just [Pop].
Don’t repeat words in your clues that appear in the grid
It can feel like a spoiler, seeing a word on the clue side of the page and later having to fill that same word into the grid. Sometimes it might be a judgment call about whether the duplicated word is really substantive. A repetition of basic articles and connector words may be permissible.
Practice using qualifiers in your clues when appropriate
Neither editors nor solvers get excited about a constantly waffling set of clues, where every other clue ends in “perhaps,” “often, “in a way” and so on. But a puzzle in which EVERY clue and answer are direct synonyms can be a yawn, too, so qualifiers can be a useful tool. If we use [Work at Carnegie Hall] for GIG (53 Across), tacking on a “say” or “maybe” makes sense, because not all GIGs are at Carnegie Hall. If we choose [Stadium toppers] for DOMES, we probably should tweak it to [Many stadium toppers] or [Stadium toppers, often], because not all stadiums have DOMES.
Let your solvers know when to shorten things
Perhaps the most sacred rule: Writing a clue for an abbreviation — even an impish one — means you abbreviate a word in the clue or use some kind of “short form” tag.
Keep a close eye on the amount of trivia-based or current events clues. They might have a short shelf life
Every puzzle maker is pleased to find a factoid that could revitalize a common entry, but don’t do that everywhere. Solvers will balk: “Too much like an episode of ‘Jeopardy!’” Yes, we want puzzles to draw from current events, pop culture and some subject knowledge, but a certain timelessness and an unfussy celebration of vocabulary are also important.
Play fair with misdirection
Introducing traps and tricks at every turn can make your puzzle come off as too adversarial. Your intent when developing your constructing skills is to make sure that solvers can enjoy but also finish your puzzle.
Your job is to set the solver up for success, even if that success takes slightly longer as the solver gets deeper into the week.
The use of question marks at the ends of clues to signal wordplay is standard … and sporting. Your theme clues will probably be question-marked, but you could have a scattering of other question marks, too. Often a question mark is automatic if your clue stretches the truth or can’t be taken as fact. If the clue could be read two ways — and much puzzle wordplay depends on this — it might vary with the day of the week. Consider 30 Down’s OIL FUTURES — if we clued it as [They provide energy to commodities traders], it might get a question mark or it might not, depending on the day of the week. The clue is clever but still fairly “straight,” because the “energy” referred to in the clue could either be the OIL or, in a stretchier sense, physical energy, if the FUTURES look good. Don’t omit question marks when their presence gives the solver more of a fighting chance.
Try to strike a universal chord, rather than getting heavily specific
If you write a clue for MANLY that references a particular person, it will probably be changed, unless there is some iconic literary character that is known by most to be MANLY. C’MON does not equal [What I say to my brother every time he wears socks with sandals] because it is too self-referential, and ROTTER is not [One who straddles two parking spaces, say]. A few indie puzzles treat solvers to fanciful clues in this vein, but most crossword venues don’t go this route.
Be alert to clusters of difficult answers and potentially bad “crossings”
Allow a way into each section of the puzzle. Be judicious about sprinkling in the real head scratchers. If, by chance, someone has never heard of either of the actress OLIVIA MUNN and the character DANA SCULLY in the upper right of our grid, be gentle when cluing the Across entries, like where MUNN crosses NYE.
Many of these tips are also covered in the article “How to Solve The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.” Although the clue rules and tricks described in the article are presented for the benefit of new solvers, new constructors may find it similarly instructive.
Time to Get Cluing
So, let’s get this party started. Time to pull out a few clues to discuss.
1 Across: CELT
WEINTRAUB: 1 Across is as good a place as any to begin. CELT is either a sports reference or historically a person from Britain. A crossword constructor who is a sports fan might opt for a clue about the N.B.A. team. I am definitely not said constructor, so I go with [Early Brit]. No great insight into clue construction here, just a basic example of how each constructor brings a different point of view to the cluing process.
23 Across: VAC
WEINTRAUB: The fact that this is a shortened version of “vacuum” needs to get communicated to the solver. A nice clue, then, would be [Hoover, briefly]. Other similar qualifiers include: “for short,” “familiarly” and “informally.” I also like this clue because it provides a bit of misdirection if the solver is thinking about the former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover instead of a carpet cleaner.
WILBER: You make a vital point about telegraphing the short form. The only thing I see tampering with the misdirection slightly is if an editor decides that the clue must be [Hoover, e.g., slangily]. The “e.g.” is often used when you name a member of a category rather than a direct synonym. Looking at previous appearances in The New York Times, it’s been done with and without “e.g.”
WEINTRAUB: Interesting. That may be because Hoover was once used more ubiquitously as a synonym for a vacuum cleaner (à la Xerox and Kleenex) and not just a brand of vacuum.
38 Across: FLEA
WEINTRAUB: We can go lots of different ways here. There are fill-in-the-blank (FITB) options like [ ___ circus] and [ ___ market]. In general, you don’t want to have too many FITB clues in a puzzle, though, so I might choose to save those for entries that have no better alternatives. How about [Circus opener?], where “opener” implies a word that precedes “circus.” For a Tuesday, the question mark indicates that we’re employing some wordplay. Depending on the puzzle venue, the question mark might not be used later in the week.
WILBER: It’s good to have one or two FITB clues and to consider making one a “gimme,” because many solvers, rather than starting at 1 Across, will scan the whole thing for a FITB to give themselves a firm foothold. Good thinking, Robyn, selecting CIRCUS and MARKET, instead of BAG. Check your dictionary, everyone, to make sure your choice is not a one-word answer. FLEA CIRCUS and FLEA MARKET are both two-word phrases, fit for a FITB clue. FLEABAG is a single word, and so it can’t be arbitrarily dissected.
WEINTRAUB: Brad raises an important point: You can’t create a FITB clue to elicit part of a word. It’s good only for whole words. EMU, at 37 Across, might be part of “emulate,” but you can’t clue it [ ___late].
66 Across: PEONS
WEINTRAUB: This is a plural entry, so make sure the clue matches: [Serfs] is good, but [Serf] is not. Because the word PEONS has a negative connotation, though, I’m going to try to lighten it up. I land on [They’re hardly muckety-mucks]. “Muckety-muck” is a silly term for a person of great importance. “Hardly” here signals an opposite. This might be difficult for a Tuesday, but I’d rather take a chance on an interesting and amusing clue rather than settle for something boring and overused. Of course, this version raises a different issue, because the word HARD (as part of HARD LENS) appears in the puzzle grid. Do I need to stay away from using “hardly”? I personally am not bothered by the repetition because I think the two uses are sufficiently different, but for our purposes here I will err on the side of caution and flip it to [Muckety-mucks they’re not]. Your thoughts, Brad?
WILBER: I love the choice of tone for this clue and the specific intent to avoid evoking anything grim. You won’t be able to avoid every possible trigger for every solver, but keeping in mind the escapist nature of puzzles goes a long way. “Hardly” is so perfect there … I hate to touch it. [They’re far from muckety-mucks] is not quite as deft but is definitely safe from the HARD repetition. Speaking of which:
WEINTRAUB: This is a fairly specific term. It’s unlikely that I’m going to come up with anything other than a direct explanation. [Durable sample from an ophthalmologist] hits all three needs: “Ophthalmologist” indicates vision correction, “durable” signals the HARD part, and “sample” is singular, so it’s just one LENS. Nothing to love here, but it does the job. It’s generally good form, on a Tuesday especially, for the clue to hint at all the components of a compound entry.
WILBER: Since this phrase tends to appear “in the wild” as HARD CONTACT LENS, you might use “contacts” in the clue. [Less flexible choice in contacts], maybe. A solver might be able to pencil in LENS immediately off that, and maybe HARD as well. But my idea doesn’t do as well at making eye care explicit, or at making single versus plural explicit — both important early in the week. Let’s stick with your original.
69 Across: SEAT
WEINTRAUB: So many options with this word. Is “seat” a noun or a verb? Is it a chair? Someone’s rear end? A government position? Something an usher does? Because there are so many different angles to take, you can have fun with it. Challenge yourself to do something that hasn’t been done before. I’m thinking about an airline seat. I like [Cabin assignment], which is fairly obvious if you immediately pick up that I’m talking about an airplane, but trickier if you don’t.
2 Down: EVAN
WEINTRAUB: Lots of Evans to choose from. I like musical theater, so I’m going with [“Dear ___ Hansen”]. It’s a gimme if you’re a Broadway fan, but probably a complete mystery if you’re not. So an important thing to remember when you showcase trivia is making sure that none of the crossing words are problematic. It’s not fair to the solver to have two obscure words (or clues for them) crossing. Here the crosses are all straightforward and I’m comfortable choosing a less obvious clue for EVAN.
10 Down: OLIVIA MUNN and 11 Down: DANA SCULLY
WILBER: Time to address our first pair of long, nontheme entries: OLIVIA MUNN and DANA SCULLY. I know Ms. Munn from HBO’s “The Newsroom” — that series lasted a while, but is no longer current. “Deliver Us From Evil” might be just the ticket for some, who knows? Not my bag. I’m penciling in [She plays Psylocke in the X-Men movie franchise]. Oh, except we have LOCK in the grid. “The Newsroom” it is, then. Hmm … my best advice for cluing the Scully character, especially for a Tuesday, is not to do a deep dive for “X Files” trivia, like something the character did in a specific episode. How about [Skeptical F.B.I. agent in a paranormal Fox series]? Not too long, but content rich instead of vague.
18 Down: OGRE
WEINTRAUB: Normally I’d go the “Shrek” route on this, but this particular grid contains quite a few proper names, both real and fictional, so I’m going to eschew adding any additional pop-culture references and go nonspecific: [Fairy tale antagonist].
25 Down: ANTE UP
WEINTRAUB: “Ante up” can be something one does, or it can be a request from someone to throw money in the pot. A quote clue provides more variety to your puzzle, so that’s my preference. [“Time to play the next hand …”]. Just remember that you can do this only for an entry that can also be said out loud, which is part of our consistency rule: verbalization in the clue, verbalization in the answer.
WILBER: I’m in total agreement here … turning an entry into a spoken phrase gives a clue welcome immediacy, and because ANTE/ANTE UP is so well-traveled in puzzles, the quote clue feels fresh.
28 Down: ARENA
WEINTRAUB: [Eagles’ locale]. In crossword puzzles, the first letter of the first word in the clue is always capitalized, as in any written sentence. Sometimes we can take advantage of this convention by “hiding” a proper noun up front. Presumably this clue is about birds, and by referencing their location, we’re looking for that perennial crossword staple AERIE, right? Not in this case. Here our eagles are actually the Eagles, the rock band, with a capital E, and their locale is an ARENA. Other ARENA clues with similarly structured misdirection include: [Queen’s venue], [Kiss setting] or [Journey’s destination].
29 Down: EFF
WEINTRAUB: This is basically just the letter “F,” and we can do some cute stuff with it. [Capital of Florida], [Formal introduction], [French leader]. In each of these examples, we’re directing the solver to the first letter of the respective “F” word (sorry, kids). The capital of Florida in this case is not Tallahassee; what we’re looking for is the capital letter of “Florida. Similarly, the words “introduction,” “leader” and “start” all suggest the beginning of something, and for each of them, it’s the first letter of the accompanying word (“formal”, “French” and “finish”).
My favorite: [Start to finish].
35 Down: MATZO
WEINTRAUB: My first inclination is: [Soup ball] (yum!), but we have the entry SLEAZE BALL, so best to avoid the word “ball” in the clues. Instead let’s try: [Square at a Seder].
WILBER: Nice, nice, and if you wanted to make it a trifle easier still, you could say [Crisp square at a Seder].
54 Down: GARY
WEINTRAUB: As mentioned earlier, this puzzle contains many proper names. So I’m looking for ways to clue a person’s name as something other than a person. For GARY, I’ll veer into geography, but still try to keep it lively. In fact, I feel a song coming on … [“___, Indiana” (“The Music Man”)].
63 Down: LAX
WILBER: Last clue. I feel like going the vocabulary route here, rather than cluing LAX as the airport. So, LAX as an adjective: [Like slipshod security]. No, not quite — remember what we said about clue elements not intrinsic to the definition being problematic. [Slipshod, as security] — better. [Slipshod] by itself, without an example, might come into play on a Friday. May LAX never have LAX security.
WEINTRAUB: So there you have it, a sampling of suggestions and strategies for cluing theme and fill entries. At the end of this article, you can see the complete list of clues for the puzzle.
One final technique that we haven’t mentioned, but that plays an important role (for me, at least), is patience. Sometimes, despite all your talent and tools, the clues just don’t come. I can feel there’s a different approach to an entry out there, but I can’t quite latch on to it. Often it needs to percolate in the brain for a while. And then suddenly while I’m driving, or in the shower, or at the checkout line at the supermarket, that nugget of brilliance will come to me.
I’ve also said many times that invariably I come up with my very best clues right after I submit my puzzle to an editor. Once it’s out of my hands and I no longer have the option to tinker with it, suddenly multiple light bulbs are flashing above my head and I am the most ingenious clue writer of all time.
WEINTRAUB and WILBER: The best way to learn and improve over time is to practice. A lot. The more clues you write, the better you’ll get at internalizing the rules, knowing what editors are looking for, and finding your individual style.
Happy puzzle making!
AMLEN: We finally have a completed crossword puzzle manuscript. A big thank you to our eight constructors — Ben Tausig, Finn Vigeland, Natan Last, David Steinberg, Paolo Pasco, Kevin Der, Robyn Weintraub and Brad Wilber — for all their hard work!
Mr. Wilber and Ms. Weintraub wrote a full set of clues for the puzzle draft. If you’d like to try solving this puzzle, you can solve it on your computer or you can print out the PDF and solve on paper.
Proofread your puzzle carefully, watching out for duplicate entries in the grid, and making sure there are no typos or duplicate words in the clues. The cleaner your work is, the more likely you are to make a good first impression on the editor.
Then think about where you want to submit your creation. Every publishing venue has different guidelines for submitting puzzles, also called “specs,” or specifications. Submission guidelines for The New York Times Crossword are here, including how the manuscript should be formatted.
Is The New York Times the Only Place to Get My Puzzle Published?
There are quite a few other places to try to get published, and your best bet is to find a venue that has an open submission policy, which means that anyone can send in a puzzle for possible publication. The spec sheets for other venues with open submission policies can be found on cruciverb.com, a website for crossword constructors. In addition, the indie venue Fireball Puzzles, edited by Peter Gordon, has an open submission policy.
What If I Need More Help?
If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory. The directory was started by constructors Erik Agard and Will Nediger as a place for underrepresented populations in puzzle making, like women and people of color, although all who have questions are welcome to join. The directory is the place to be matched with a mentor who can teach the art of puzzle making, which I believe is the best way to learn. It’s a terrific online resource where aspiring constructors can ask questions of veteran constructors or just get to know others in the puzzle making community.
Aspiring constructors can also join the cruciverb.com email list, another discussion forum where people can ask questions and discuss puzzle making. While you are on the site, don’t forget to read the Basic Rules and Sage Advice.
Is It True That the Editors Bite?
No. Puzzle editors are nice people, and they will give you a fair assessment of your puzzle.
In fact, in the final part of this series, which will run August 8, we will listen in on a discussion between crossword puzzle editors Will Shortz and Joel Fagliano as they review the puzzle that our constructors have made. Mr. Shortz and Mr. Fagliano will also talk about the process they go through in deciding which puzzles make it to the pages of The New York Times, as well as the teamwork that makes up the editing process.
Brad Wilber has spent many years working as a college librarian, with specialties in literature, education, and music. His milestone 50th crossword for The New York Times, in spring 2017, was a celebrity collaboration with the pianist Emanuel Ax. He has been the crossword editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education since 2014.
Robyn Weintraub lives in Rye Brook, N.Y. Her crossword puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. When she is not making puzzles (or gardening), she’s a political activist and a legislative aide in local government.