The Times crossword puzzle: Central Ohio wordsmiths love thrill of being published
For crossword puzzle fanatics, few publications are more necessary than The New York Times.
Its puzzles increase in difficulty from Monday through Saturday, and the big Sunday puzzle, which almost always has a gimmick, is a delight to tackle over several cups of coffee.
So who creates these wild word challenges? Anyone may submit one -- and several residents of central Ohio have had the joy of seeing their puzzles published alongside "all the news that's fit to print."
With its 6 million digital and print circulation, many consider The Times' crossword the pinnacle of success for a cruciverbalist (a creator or solver of crossword puzzles). Indeed, the Atlantic, which has its own crossword puzzle, has called The Times puzzle "the 800-pound gorilla of crosswords."
"The Times crosswords have always been a part of the culture," said Ohio State University student Margaret Seikel, 21, who had her first Times puzzle published Sept. 2.
"Plus they pay the best," said 24-year-old Trenton Charlson, a Columbus resident who has had 24 published Times puzzles and dozens of other puzzles in other periodicals.
Although The Times scoffed at crossword puzzles in the 1920s, calling them in an editorial "a primitive sort of mental exercise" and a waste of time, the newspaper changed its mind in 1942 and began to run a puzzle to offer readers relief from war news. Today, its crossword puzzles are syndicated to more than 300 other newspapers and journals, including ThisWeek Community News.
Seth Able, 53, of Bexley has had 13 Times puzzles published, and more than 40 additional puzzles run in other publications. His first came in 2003 in the Los Angeles Times.
"I love getting the idea and then into the process of constructing a puzzle. You get so absorbed in it, you lose track of time," Abel said.
A 2019 Sunday puzzle that he had created, titled "Don't Quote Me," incorporated famous quotes and the characters who actually never said them. For example, "Beam me up, Scotty" was the answer to one clue, followed by the answer to another clue: "Captain Kirk."
Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times since 1993 and puzzlemaster for National Public Radio, said that since the pandemic started -- and a change in policy that allows puzzle-makers to submit digitally to The Times -- submissions have mushroomed.
"We're getting more than 200 a week," he said. "I feel like a fire hose has been turned on me."
Shortz and two other editors review the submissions and select and edit the puzzles.
"If it's a themed puzzle, I look for something fresh, interesting, narrowly focused and new," he said. "I look for the quality of the vocabulary with as little stupid obscurity as possible. There are difficult words, and that's interesting, but if you're asking for a bug genus or a 50-mile river in Romania, that's not valuable."
Abel, who majored in English at Cornell University in New York and is an attorney who now works in real estate, said his interest in creating puzzles grew naturally.
"I loved solving crosswords and got interested in how they're made," Abel said. "I did some research, and after the kids went to sleep, I got started."
Then he would work on creating his early puzzles during a two-hour commute between Philadelphia, where he lived at the time, and New Jersey.
In "ancient" puzzle history -- like a few decades ago -- constructors built their puzzles with graph paper and pencil. Contemporary puzzle-makers work digitally and use online thesauruses, dictionaries and other resource materials. The websites xwordinfo.com and cruciverb.com, for example, offer tools for construction and all sorts of information about words, clues and puzzle solutions.
Daily Times puzzles are constructed in 15-by-15 squares, and Sunday puzzles are 21 by 21.With a Sunday puzzle, which often has a theme, "you have to figure out your theme answers first," Charlson said. "Once you come up with those set of answers, you have to put the black squares around them so your skeleton will look well. ... For my first published puzzle, all the theme answers had two XXs in a row, like (the actor) 'Redd Foxx.' "
Seikel, a senior majoring in economics and history, made a 2019 New Year's resolution to create a puzzle and get it published in The Times. She had a couple of puzzles rejected before one was accepted in April.
"It had been a rough day. There was the COVID stuff, and then we had to move out of our (campus) apartment because of a rat infestation," she said. "And then I heard my puzzle was accepted. What a great surprise!"
Charlson, a native of Galloway who graduated with a degree in English and creative writing from Ohio State in 2018, said he has been a Scrabble and word-play fan all his life. An editor's note for a puzzle published this summer, The Times described Charlson as ranked 213th in the U.S. and fifth in Ohio by the North American Scrabble Players Association.
"Even in grade school, I was making all these puzzles and trying to get my family to solve them," he said.
Charlson said he always admired puzzles that used only one vowel, and he did it himself in 2019.
The more puzzles a creator has accepted by The Times means better payment. A daily puzzle earns $500, but when one has three or more published, the rate bumps to $750. A Sunday puzzle begins at $1,500, with $2,250 paid after two have been published.
"We do have the biggest circulation," Shortz said, "It's the most prestigious and we pay the best."
The money is nice, but puzzle-makers do it for other rewards, as well.
"There's satisfaction in creating a puzzle," said Charlson, who said he can create a daily Times puzzle in a day or so. "Having the idea of a theme and having it materialize. ... And it's always exciting to have it come out in the paper and have people talking about it on the internet."
Seikel said she has had her second puzzle accepted by The Times and four others pending.
"I'm going to keep going," she said. "I enjoy it so much, especially now when you have to stay home most of the time."
"For me, it's just fun," Abel said. "The day it's actually published, I love thinking about people with their coffee and bagels working my puzzle."