This guy knows crosswords
Finn Vigeland, CC ’14, is the News Editor here at Spectator, alongside Sammy Roth. When he’s not doing that, however, he lives in a world of puzzles. He has a passion for crossword puzzles, and constructs them as a hobby. You can see one of his creations in today’s New York Times — he is the author of today’s Sunday puzzle.
This is Vigeland’s second crossword puzzle to make an appearance in The Grey Lady. Last time, Bwog interviewed him and found out how he first got into this somewhat unusual hobby. For this occasion, we’ve decided to focus more on the mechanics of how he does what he does.
Vigeland’s been solving crosswords since he was a kid. Not a kid anymore, his personal record for solving a puzzle is 4:35 — that’s four minutes and 35 seconds — in a Monday edition of the New York Times crossword. That time, while not the fastest in the world, is just a shade longer than it would take some of us to find a pen. He times himself with each weekday’s edition of the Times crossword. Monday puzzles take him, on average, five to six minutes to solve. “I don’t really keep track. I just know what I have to beat.” On Sundays, he doesn’t time himself, opting instead to “soak in the puzzle.” That usually takes him about half an hour.
Constructing a crossword puzzle, on the other hand, takes much, much longer. He started on this morning’s puzzle in August 2010. The first step in creating a crossword puzzle is to come up with a theme. The theme of the puzzle is then implanted into certain of the crossword’s answers, most importantly the “revealer” — an answer that tips readers off to what the theme is. Vigeland often tries to come up with revealers that span the entire grid. On weekdays and Saturdays, that means making a revealer that is 15 letters long. Sunday puzzles feature a larger grid, so a grid-spanning revealer would be 21 letters vertically or horizontally. Vigeland remembers exactly where he was when he came up with the revealer for this morning’s puzzle: “I was sitting on my family’s dock on the Niagara River in Canada.” It was a warm, sunny day and the phrase just popped into his head (the weather situation is kind of ironic — you’ll have to see the puzzle to know why!). In this instance, he thought up the revealer first, and the phrase helped him choose his theme.
With the first answer determined, he set to work on constructing a puzzle around it. Since the revealer tips off the theme of the puzzle, it makes sense that he began coming up with his themed answers next. This is not an easy task: Theme answers must all be of equal length, and placed symmetrically on the grid. “This rule was invented to help the solver identify theme answers at a glance,” Vigeland explains. He came up with the theme answers — six of them in all — but there was a problem. “There was one theme answer that I didn’t like at all, and it ruined the whole thing for me.” So he put the puzzle aside, and didn’t return to it for several months. Then, last spring, he finally came up with a better solution. With his revealer and his theme answers set, all that was left to do was to finish the puzzle.
All answers not related to the theme of a crossword puzzle are called “fill.” Fill can be placed anywhere on the grid. This is a lot of work: At this point, Vigeland had only determined seven of the words or phrases that would appear in his puzzle. A Sunday puzzle usually has somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 answers. “The fill has nothing to do with the theme, but you still have to come up with interesting words, obviously.” Once this time-consuming process was completed, it was time to write the clues. “I’m always asked, ‘Which comes first? The clues or the grid?’” he says. “The grid necessarily has to come first.” In the case of the New York Times, the Sunday crossword is difficult, but it’s not the most difficult. A puzzling week starts on Monday with the easiest crossword. It progresses in difficulty through to Saturday, which is the hardest puzzle of the week. Sunday puzzles are larger and more widely syndicated, so they’re better known — but the clues shouldn’t be the most difficult to decipher. “Sunday usually falls in at around Thursday-level difficulty,” Vigeland explains. The clue for the revealer in this morning’s puzzle reads “Weather comment represented visually by this puzzle’s circled letters.” This meta comment about the nature of the puzzle is a fairly standard way of cluing the revealer, according to Vigeland. “Everything else, you try and clue with medium-level difficulty.” When the New York Times accepts a puzzle, constructors also get some help from the paper’s Crosswords Editor, Will Shortz, who will balance out the difficulty and update clues to make them more timely or interesting as needed. “QB Tebow,” at 27-Across, was a particularly timely update on Shortz’s behalf.
Almost a year elapsed between the day that first answer popped into his head and the day he submitted the completed puzzle to the New York Times. It was accepted for publication just before Thanksgiving (the Times receives more than 100 crossword submissions a week, explaining the long delay between submission and acceptance). And today, you can see the completed product in this morning’s paper.
After reaching what many consider the pinnacle of the crossword world, Vigeland is still focused on continuing to create puzzles. One day, he hopes to have one of his puzzles featured in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (a tournament in which he will be competing for the second time this year). To those of us looking to improve on our crossword skills, he offers this advice: “Start solving on Monday. Try the whole puzzle. Think outside the box. If you don’t finish, look at the answers — you aren’t going to learn if you don’t know what you missed. Truly, if you do enough of them, you will become better.”
That sounds like good advice, and we’d offer only one revision: Don’t wait for Monday! Start solving by checking out Vigeland’s puzzle this morning. If you have trouble, you can always go to his dorm and demand better clues — an advantage you probably won’t have on Monday.
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