With the Summer Olympics still fresh in our collective consciousness (not really, but roll with me here) I feel an analogy between crossword puzzle constructing and a track and field event is particularly apt: Crossword puzzle constructing is like competing in the high jump, in that the bar is continually being raised. Now, before you complain that this is the least original comparison in the history of comparisons, let me add a twist: It's like competing in a new version of the high jump, in which the bar is raised some unknown amount after you jump. So you might launch with enough initial velocity to pull off a successful jump, only to have your heels clip the bar that moved up a few inches mid-flight.
So too a crossword puzzle constructor might make a themeless puzzle that is perfectly cromulent by the standards of the day, only to watch it deteriorate, relatively speaking, in the exceptionally long queue of accepted New York Times themeless puzzles, while better, more beautiful puzzles are being published throughout Crossworld. I felt like this happened, to some degree, to some of my early themeless puzzles, so in order to keep up with the Joneses (the Collinses?) I decided to adopt a new strategy: Make better puzzles. Make puzzles that will still hold up two years after I make them.
To this end, I decided to "cut the crap" from my puzzles. Of course, there is a certain level of Crosswordese that is always going to be present in any puzzle. But I'm not talking about the odd OREO or OLEO or ERLE; I'm talking about the things that aren't actually things that we've come to accept in our crossworld puzzles -- things that only people who are well-steeped in crossword argot would have any idea about. In particular, I've identified five categories of entry I'm trying to eliminate from my puzzles completely:
1) Arbitrary partials. In yesterday's puzzle there were three such entries -- A PIPE, A DAY, and I LED. This is three too many for me. Partials were once a necessary crutch for constructors, but today, with software assistance and massive word lists, I feel confident saying their total elimination from crossword puzzles is possible and would be a net positive.
2) Plural abbreviations that nobody ever actually pluralizes. PHDS, MBAS, RAS -- plural abbreviations like this are all fine, because people actually use them (e.g., Among the four RAs in Highland Hall there are two future PhDs and two future MBAs). But can you give me a non-contrived example in which a plural abbreviation like ESTS or STES or ISLS or DECS is used? No, you cannot.
3) Names in which an ampersand is replaced with the word "AND". There is so such a root beer brand as A AND W; there is no such a channel as A AND E; and the S AND P is not shorthand for a stock market index. These things do not exist, so they do not belong in crossword puzzles.
4) Names in which numerals are replaced with words. This is similar to above. There was once a spy plane called U-2; there was never one called U-TWO.
5) Random Roman numerals. This one is the trickiest because I think some Roman numerals are okay -- just not "random" ones. What makes a Roman numeral random? To me, it is that it can only be clued through other Roman numerals or through a random year. For example, CXLI ("10% of MCDX") and MCXI ("45 years after William I invaded England") are both out, but III ("Rocky ___") is fine. It's a judgement call, but I lean heavily to the side of not using Roman numerals at all.
I bring all this up because this is the first themeless I made with these guidelines in place, and I think it shows. It's very low word count (just 66 words), and the dreck, I believe, is minimal. (Some might balk at some of the proper nouns -- ERLE, HEDDA, VESTA, HORAE, NEDS, SALBANDO -- but I've certainly never minded lots of proper nouns in a puzzle.) So I suspect a solver's opinion of this puzzle will come down to what he or she thinks of the longer answers. If they think things like ZUGZWANG, ZOOCREW, PARTYFOUL, and HOMESLICE are fun and lively, then they will probably like this puzzle. If they think these answers are more on the "meh" side, then they probably won't. I am very curious to see how solvers respond, and I have my fingers crossed that the former camp will be much more populous than the latter.
Adding to the intrigue is that Will and Joel really liked this puzzle. My initial submission was rejected because half the grid wasn't up to snuff. So I worked very hard on a revision. I was hopeful it would be accepted, but I got more than just the typical "Yes!" in response. Here is what Joel wrote:
This is not just good now, it's great. Maybe your best work yet, actually. The right side is just jam-packed with fresh stuff, and when you pair that with the already stellar left side -- well, we're just really excited to run this.So at least there are two people who like it.
Alright, before this entry gets too long, let's hit some bullet points and call it a day.
- I really like the word/concept ZUGZWANG. As I mentioned at XWordInfo and WordPlay, there is an aspect of compulsion to a zugzwang that I couldn't capture in the clue. Below is a good example: Whoever's turn it is loses because their only legal moves exposes their pawn to capture. If you could pass in chess, this would be a stalemate. But you can't, so it's a zugzwang.
- There were two articles about crossword puzzles appearing in the mainstream media this week. I was going to write some thoughts on them in this entry. But it is already pretty long, so, fearing a "tl;dr" scenario, I put them in a separate post, here.
- Although I'm a huge baseball history buff, I don't love SAL BANDO's presence in this puzzle. I don't mind it, but I don't love it either. I mean, he began his career a half-century ago and isn't an all-time great or anything, so I imagine he is unknown even to many casual baseball fans. With that said, he was actually a very good ballplayer -- supremely underrated -- and he is one of two baseball Sals who crop up in crossword puzzles from time to time (the other being Sal "The Barber" Maglie), so hardcore solvers were probably able to cull the name "Sal Bando" from the deep recesses of their brains, even if they don't know anything about baseball.
- I struggled a bit with the clue for HOMESLICE. I thought about going "Buddy from the block, in dated hip-hop slang," but I thought that would be too easy for Saturday. Plus, I'm not sure if this term ever really was an authentic part of hip-hop slang. It seems like it could be something that was only ever used "ironically" by white kids from the suburbs (which is how I know it). I'm not sure. And Google isn't much help with this one either. If you search for "homeslice", you mainly just get links to pizzerias.
- Below is the grid of my first version of this puzzle. HOROLOGICAL is boring, but I did have a nice clue for it -- "Like clockwork?"
- And after I go into great detail about how I tried so very hard to "cut the crap" from this puzzle, what's the biggest complaint mentioned by Jeff Chen at XWordInfo? "...there was a bit much of the RFD SOC ESTO NSW type of crossword glue for my taste..." *Sigh.* I have to say, I don't understand this. He mentions only four entries, one of which I think is actually a pretty well-known, if old, abbreviation (RFD), and none of the others is terrible. I stand by it: I think this grid is quite clean, especially for a 66-worder.
- Well, Amy Reynaldo at Diary of a Crossword Fiend said "mostly the fill is crisp," so I'm rounding that up to her agreeing with me. Rex Parker didn't really comment about the fill at his blog. His commentary is much more goofy than critical. I guess that's better than getting panned. Interestingly, both he and Amy found it easy for a Saturday, while Jeff found it exceptionally difficult -- different strokes, I guess.