Taking the Times Crossword Out for a Test Solve
The New York Times · by Steven Moity · October 17, 2021
A meticulous team reviews the crossword, vetting each clue and answer because “there is no such thing as a neutral word.”
Credit…By Jimmy Simpson
ByOct. 17, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
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As a crossword puzzle tester for The New York Times, one of Evie Eysenburg’s jobs is to call Will Shortz, who has edited the puzzle for 28 years, and tell him when something is wrong.
Ms. Eysenburg, a former middle school math teacher, plays each puzzle herself and looks for typos or anything that is factually incorrect or may be sensitive, and then notifies Mr. Shortz.
She is part of a team of ten that includes testers, fact-checkers and reviewers who study the puzzles for errors and provide feedback to make sure each puzzle will provide the intellectual challenge — and playful quality — that people have come to expect.
What does it take to be a good crossword tester?
“Flexibility of mind,” Mr. Shortz said. “The ability to take a clue, and see the many different ways it can be interpreted and figuring out which one works.”
The puzzles themselves originate with constructors, who submit about 200 puzzles each week for consideration.
Mr. Shortz and a team of four editors go through the submissions and select puzzles that will run each day of the week, with the difficulty level famously increasing from Monday through Saturday, and Sunday being the biggest crossword. They make changes and fine-tune them.
But before they are published, the puzzles are sent to a group of reviewers whose job is to try them out and look for any shortcomings, such as inaccuracies, typos and even reactions about how words or clues might be perceived by different groups of people.
The puzzles first go to three testers who work for Mr. Shortz. One is Nancy Schuster, a former crossword editor, and champion of the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the country’s oldest crossword competition. Like Ms. Eysenburg, she test-solves the puzzle and keeps her eye out for anything that is off.
Brad Wilber is the chief fact checker. A former librarian, he brings his attention to detail to meticulously check as much of the information as possible.
“You have to watch old commercials on YouTube, you have to check song lyrics, you have to check quotations,” Mr. Wilber explained. He then calls Mr. Shortz directly and goes over any errors he has found and discusses potential wording changes.
There is also another layer of vetting for the puzzles. Everdeen Mason, the editorial director for games, which includes the crossword, recently created a panel of seven testers for what she calls “a vibe check.”
“And by that I mean, is it fun to play?” Ms. Mason said.
The panel of seven started in May and tests as many crossword puzzles as possible, with an eye for sensitivity and inclusivity. Recommended to Ms. Mason by editors on the crossword team, the seven represent diversity in race, background, gender and sexual orientation.
As they play the puzzles all week, the testers — Lisa Nichols, Layla Forrest-White, Elizabeth Hira, Chris Jackson, Nate Cardin, Ade Koiki and Adam Lanphier — fill out a questionnaire on a Google doc with their feedback. “Did you understand the theme?” Ms. Mason said, listing some of the issues addressed in the document. “What are your favorite clues, what are your least favorite clues?”
Recently, Ms. Mason said, the word “deadname” in a clue “prompted a lot of discussion.” Deadnaming means to refer to a transgender person by their birth name rather than acknowledging their chosen name or identity. The panel discussed rewording the clue and eventually found a consensus where “we feel comfortable with the clue, and the constructor feels comfortable with the clue,” Ms. Mason said.
“There is no such thing as a neutral word,” Ms. Hira said, explaining that they strive to make sure every clue and response is respectful and inclusive.
Feedback from the panel is collected at the end of the week, and Ms. Mason presents it to Mr. Shortz and some of his crossword editors, who make final changes to the puzzles before they are published.
So even though playfulness is the aim of every Times crossword, “we really put these puzzles through the wringer,” Ms. Mason explained. “No one takes it more seriously than us.”