What does Will Shortz like to see in a puzzle? What delights him and what are his pain points? How does he decide which puzzles to run and how much editing each needs? If you’re a solver, these are interesting questions. If you’re a constructor hoping to get another puzzle published, they’re critical.
There is a lot of commentary about crosswords on the web, and similar to the way you might choose your favorite 24-hour TV news station, you can select the crossword discussion site that matches your particular interest, level of outrage, style of humor, and so on. It’s all entertaining and mostly informative but there’s one voice that, until recently, was scarcely heard, and it happens to be the most important voice in crosswords, NYT Puzzle Editor Will Shortz.
It’s easy to see why. Most of the blogs are ruthlessly independent and an ongoing “director’s commentary” wouldn’t fit. What matters for them is the critical opinion of the bloggers, unsullied by inside influence, and the rough and tumble back and forth with the loyal fans. The few times that Mr. Shortz has ventured into responding directly to criticism in blogs like Crossword Fiend or Rex Parker have come across as defensive reactions based on personal frustration. They have rarely been productive. Enter XWord Info.
XWord Info is decidedly not an independent blog. It’s not independent because it’s at least unofficially a part of the NYT Crossword inner circle, and it’s not a blog since there is, by design, no affordance for reader feedback through public comments. Jeff Chen recognized that this combination might provide a better home for commentary from the puzzlemaster and one of Jeff’s many innovations on the site was to provide a way for Mr. Shortz to contribute and then convince him to do so. (Wordplay has also begun to include editorial comments but, of course, not organized in a database.)
How to read Will’s notes
Will has been contributing daily comments for about two and a half months now. You can view them on each daily puzzle page (here’s the most recent) but seeing them organized is more insightful. There are several ways to do that on different variations of the XWord Info thumbnails page:
- The 40 most recent puzzles with Will Shortz’s comments are always visible on this page.
- The month view page with no comments looks like this but you can view the same grids with editorial notes here and then you can navigate forward and back from month to month.
- Constructors each have their own thumbnail page too (click on any constructor photo) and again, you can choose to view these with Will Shortz comments included. Here’s the Victor Barocas page with Will’s note that the colorful word F-BOMB was a close call but in the end, was deemed unsuitable, and the Joe Krozel page where Will explains a little of why he sticks by this controversial constructor. These pages will become more interesting over time as the Will Shortz notes accumulate.
What Will’s notes tell us
NYT crosswords reflect the sensibilities and priorities of the editor and you can already tell a lot just by reading between the lines on the grids, but the Will Shortz notes on XWord Info are more explicit. Some interpretation is still required and his statements, like the constructor comments or like any blog post (including this one), can be self-serving.
Not all his comments are deep and some are more telling than others. In aggregate, though, Will’s notes tell a story of how he views the world of puzzles and his role in it. Remember, Will has to balance the desires of his whole huge audience, many of them aging, with the necessity of advancing the state of the art and bringing in new and younger fans. He is responsible for the legacy of the cultural institution that is the NYT Crossword. While I doubt he gets much explicit guidance from his corporate masters, he has to be cognizant of his role in maintaining the reputation and the style of the venerable New York Times itself. He can’t be as radical as Brendan Emmett Quigley or as tricky as Matt Gaffney. Although he must be influenced by all manner of published opinion, he can’t, and doesn’t, bow to the whims of the most influential bloggers when he has his own legitimate and authentic view of what makes great puzzles.
Instead, he expresses his opinions eight times a week with a published puzzle that, he hopes, reflects his vision. And now, thanks to XWord Info, he can expand on that once a day and those of us who love puzzles can get a further peek into his brain.