Will Shortz: Everything You Wanted to Know About Crossword Puzzles

What rhymes with “orange”? Crossword puzzle editor — and self-described “puzzle-head” — Will Shortz answers selected readers’ questions.

Comments: 34

  1. If what Shortz wants is adding more 'pop' clues, he should know that TV shows are unwanted by many. We never watched them. It is throwing a tireiron in our path. Don't do it because it makes the crossword unfun.

  2. I don't enjoy the puzzle as much when there are too many pop culture clues. I'm not a big one for pop culture. I have no idea who these people are. But Shakespeare, the Bible, Latin phrases, French words, mountains and rivers on the other side of the world -- I'm game.

  3. I respectfully disagree and would go so far as to say a mix of history, pop culture, head-scratchers and other types of clues are very fun! I love when a puzzle takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges my body of trivia and other knowledge. Keep those hip-hop, TV and other modern clues coming! Don't worry, though, I still love opera, colloquial, literary, etymology and history clues, too.

  4. Such a great article. Thank you.

  5. In my experience, at least, which goes back more than 50 years, the puzzles have been getting harder every day of the week since long before Will Shortz's reign.

  6. Will Shortz is a different kind of comedian. Instead of relying on timing, he just relies on the play of words and letters. I can not spell well, so I enjoy him more on NPR when he offers a delicious quiz to have with your morning cup of Joe.

    Will, if you read this, Tracy Nelson the acoustic blues singer has it as on her bucket list to be a part of your puzzle. You have a lot of fans. Joe

  7. While I am a big fan of Mr. Shortz, the puzzles got progressively harder Monday through Saturday long before his tenure as editor.

  8. I love the crosswords from Thursday through Saturday. I no longer even glance at the Sunday magazine crossword....the "guest" puzzlers are so bad and the puzzles aren't worth the ink!

  9. Sunday puzzles are Thursday-difficult and often contain a "trick" element typical of Thursdays.

  10. Well Shannon, I hope you can have grace for us beginners. Those are the only ones I can do!

  11. I love the crosswords every day of the week. The Sunday puzzle is about Thursday-level difficult, but bigger, so there's more fun to be had, in my opinion. I find the themes to be the cherry on top.

  12. I don't mind not knowing what I don't know but the use of TV and pop culture, subjects I could care less about, are rife in the clue pile, all enjoyment is lost. Also and perhaps somewhat forgivable is that Mr. Shortz fancies himself a punster, some of which are really groaners, which is their point I suspect but again ...

  13. In the conversation, Will Shortz says that he accentuated the progression of difficulty over the week--"steepened the slope"--even easier on Monday, harder on Friday and Saturday--acknowledges in passing that the slope had existed for a long time when he got there. Offers the very easy early-in-the-week level as encouraging new puzzlers to learn.

  14. We love the puzzles that have a theme, where answers relate to each other and there's a little twist that isn't necessarily obvious. So fun!
    We hate the puzzles where most of the answers are odd and old bits of information that you either know, or don't. So boring!

  15. Thank you Will Shortz!

    Another query: for the life of me, I can't understand how people can solve the puzzles as quickly as they do. The fast solvers do the puzzles faster than the time it would take me to type the answers in even if I knew all the clues. How do they do it?

  16. The bonus puzzle that used words being retired from the SAT exam was fun but at the same time disappointing. If today's high school students are finding difficulty with these words, it is a reflection of the dumming down of our population. I don't see how making the exam easier is furthering the efforts to educate ourselves.

  17. I finished that bonus SAT puzzle in five minutes, and I do remember the SAT verbal (in the mid 1980s) as being tougher than represented by the words included. From the description, I was expecting it to pose more of a challenge, but perhaps because the cluing was straightforward, no tricks in the phrasing, it felt like a Monday or Tuesday puzzle to me.

  18. Mr. Shortz is a national treasure. But something went haywire a while back with the way the puzzle was laid out and I have no idea what it was that went wrong. The official answer was that more people were playing now. Not likely to produce these results: It used to be fun to time yourself against the crowd. But suddenly, a pattern of being in the, say, top 30 percentile went to being in the bottom 30 percent. Hundreds of people were suddenly blowing through the tough puzzles in 2 to 3 minutes. Sleight-of-hand? Most likely. But attributing it to designing for a wider audience was simply insulting. Have a talk with that design crew, would you, Mr. Shortz?

  19. In the podcast, he doesn't say that it was his idea to make the puzzles more difficult through the week but rather that he "steepened the slope of difficulty;" that the Monday puzzles are easier than before he was editor and the Saturday puzzles are more difficult. He even says "For years, Monday has been the easiest and it's built up to hard on Friday and Saturday."

  20. one tuesday in May 2009 my wife, victoria, called while on her way to work to say there was an error in that day's nytimes crossword puzzle. the clue "calf-length dress" sought the answer "maxi." victoria said a calf-length dress was a "midi" and i should email a note to the paper pointing out the error. i promptly did so and included my contact information.

    less than three hours later my phone rang. the caller identified himself as will shortz (i knew he was legit as i recognized his voice from listening to the sunday puzzle segment on NPR). he explained his reasoning for clueing the answer as he did and maintained its accuracy. he did so again the next day on the Wordplay blog where he noted many readers had objected to the clue. he wrote he wished he'd rephrased the clue but stood by its accuracy.

    before our call ended i asked mr shortz if he made many such calls. he replied he did it often as it was easier than writing a reply explaining his position. to this day victoria is upset i received "her" phone call.

  21. Not to dis your comment, it is a good story that I enjoyed but I experience inaccuracy in crossword puzzles as part of the puzzle if you judge by a good dictionary and correct usage. I too object to the pop culture stuff. I want to throw in that I never gave a fig about Michael Jackson or Britney Spears.

  22. Great story! I too listen to the Sunday Puzzle segment on NPR every week. There is no way I could ever do it on air, but love listening to it & seeing how many of the answers I can actually figure out. (Have discovered I am definitely terrible at anagrams.) And... I don't blame Victoria for being upset that you wound up answering 'her' call! And I, too, think "midi" for calf length, whereas "maxi" would be ankle length. But guess I will forgive Will Shortz & defer to him in this case.

  23. Mr. Shortz,

    Have you ever composed a crossword puzzle that no one was able to solve ?

  24. It must be me, but in my humble o, the Thursday puzzles are the hardest. I think it's the fact that they always have a twisty logic that I guess my mind is not in tune with. Gimme a Friday over a Thursday any day of the week!

  25. Mr. Shortz, I very much enjoy the mental challenges of deciphering the clues. As in your "leave time = RANDR" example in the podcast -- we have to think: is it a noun? Is it a proper noun? Is it a verb? What other meaning does this word have? They make my mind nimble and I truly believe they have helped me think creatively. After seeing everything else in this world being dumbed down (like politics?) and made for people with 2-second attention spans, the fact that this puzzle remains as clever and challenging (without being completely impossible) is greatly comforting. I have been spoiled for anyone else's puzzles as I now find them too straightforward and boring.

  26. Dear Will Shortz,

    You are much younger (and handsomer) than I'd imagined! Like kids growing up in FDR's time, I had no idea there could ever have been any other puzzle master. Thanks for your contribution.

    My story: My ex and I were devoted joint puzzle doers. Initially I was rusty; he used to get 10 answers to my every 1, and although it mortified me, I kept at it. We eclipsed and I finally took my place as at least as good as him, and better on some days. Some time thereafter, sadly, we parted, but not due to puzzles. I have not done another NY Times crossword in the year hence; it is sad but...can't explain the rest.

    Ex-puzzler but not forever in Atlanta

  27. More pop culture=less interest. A couple of clues about people I never heard of and really don't care about and I'm done.

  28. Agree with you on pop culture stuff generally being boring, and there's too much of it. But disagree on this one. I believe lots of people enjoy doing the puzzle. Also it is supposed be good for you -- helps in fending off senility (unless it's too late?). My guess is that The Times did this article because of interest expressed in who Will Shortz is and how he creates these daily puzzles. I definitely was curious about that.

  29. We consider people who are good at crossword puzzles to be "smart" in some sort of way. But how about the people who write them? I feel proud when I can get most or all of a Friday puzzle, but I could NEVER be able to write one.

  30. Several of your answers suggest that you have a terrific data base at your disposal. I have done puzzles that include my name -- Joe Claro -- and the name of one of my daughters -- Noel Claro. Can you locate those puzzles, and if so, can I buy copies of them? Thanks.

    Joe Claro [email protected]

  31. Will, your puzzles bring me some welcome relief from the stresses of everyday life. Sure, some of the puns are groaners; I still chuckle. Other clues/answers are a stretch; okay, you you needed to get out of a bind. And yes, pop culture references stop me in my tracks, forcing me to glean the answers from surrounding clues; but I understand the desire to appeal to younger solvers.

    But I have always had one nagging question on the penning of puzzles — namely, who plays which role? When I see the credit line, "By such and such," I assume that person wrote out the actual grid of answers and submitted it, while "Edited by Will Shortz" indicated that you had a strong hand in writing those all-important clues — you know, the ones that can featurer the same answer on a Monday as on a Saturday, yet somehow the Saturday usage is infinitely harder.

    Am I close?

  32. When I start doing the Sunday puzzler, frankly I'm all asea. I get very few the first time through, and feel low down and dogged and suspect that the long, slow ebb has begun. But then, little by little, I fill in a few blank squares, then a few more. Working from the end forward can bring luck. Sometimes a word pops into place w/o my using a clue. Priceless. I love comparative adjective clues because they usually gift me with an ending -er. And plurals usually give that easy terminal -s, but not alway. There's often one clue/solution that is truly memorable, and I'll call relatives to share and savor it. The guy across the street is fast. He goes for the tricksy theme clues first thing because they yield so many letters, but I can't do it that way. I'm a turtle not a pony, and it takes me until Thursday usually to finish. But I am hoping that in my next incarnation I'm invited to Bletchley Park to help break the Nazi's naval code. My 11-year-old grandson helps now too. I think that's fair because he's part of my gene pool. Am I right? But I don't EVER use a dictionary or a google. I think that's cheating. Am I right? If I can't get it, I have to pay the price of seeing that gaping hole in the puzzle, and it's worse than a missing front tooth. Am I right?

  33. I hated the Friday puzzle this week. There were 11 (yes, eleven) clues pertaining to inane TV shows or rock/pop music. Who cares about this stuff?? A few such clues I could understand, as I know you're trying to reach a younger audience, but this was overkill.

  34. Heh, I liked that puzzle, exactly for those clues! To each their own, n'est-ce pas?