The New York Times crossword puzzles are known for their difficulty. However, for second-year history Ph.D. student Evan Birnholz, simply solving the puzzles was not enough of a challenge.
Birnholz wanted to take his efforts to the next level and decided to create his own crosswords. Appearing in today’s edition, following countless hours spent crafting questions and clues, is Birnholz’s first New York Times crossword puzzle.
Birnholz spent years solving puzzles before trying his hand at constructing them himself. Then in 2009, he began submitting his puzzles to a variety of publications, including the New York Times, in hopes they would be published.
“At first I didn’t really know what I was doing in creating puzzles. I was coming up with themes that I thought to be creative, but as I found out, had been done many times before,” he said. “It took a lot of practice to get better at them.”
Over the past two years, Birnholz finally began to see his submissions accepted at national papers, including the Wall Street Journal. “I had to go through a lot of rejections initially, but I was persistent and kept trying to improve,” he said.
To create the puzzles, he begins with the long answers that follow the theme of the puzzle. “For instance, if I wanted a puzzle where the theme entries were made of two words with the initials B.G., I’d list all of the terms that I think would make for good, well-known entries, like BUBBLE GUM, BEER GARDEN, BOXING GLOVES, BILL GATES, and so on,” he said.
“A theme like this might lend itself to a good title like “The Bee Gees,” which you can sometimes insert as a separate answer in the grid as a way of tying the theme entries together — puzzle constructors call that kind of answer a ‘revealer.’”
From there, he makes sure the answers are symmetrical, starts positioning the words on a grid and populates the grid with black squares. “I have to make sure that I don’t create a grid shape that’s impossible to fill,” Birnholz said. “I don’t want to put myself in a situation where my theme entries force me to find a crossing five-letter word with the pattern A_Z_K, because there likely isn’t anything that works for that pattern.”
Next, he thinks of clues that are witty or funny to go with the answers. To create the puzzles he uses Crossword Compiler, a computer program that makes constructing the crossword puzzle much easier.
When Birnholz set out to publish his puzzles, he turned to puzzle blogs for information. An avid reader of Michael Sharp’s blog “Rex Parker does the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle,” Birnholz asked Sharp for advice. Sharp directed him to Cruciverb.com, a crossword constructor community website.
According to Birnholz, his current work as a graduate student in history has benefited from his puzzle construction.
“A constructor must have an attention to detail, almost to the point of being obsessive in avoiding reusing words in a grid, having consistent themes, and writing funny, orignal and accurate clues” he said. “I can apply that to being a historian with respect to the research I do and working to get the facts right.”
In addition to the puzzle appearing in today’s issue, three more of Birnholz’s puzzles have been accepted to appear in future editions of the New York Times.