My Turn: Crossword constructor makes it big in The New York Times


by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In the wordsmith category, they are often unheralded artists, toiling across a literary landscape located down a puzzle-lined street where only the truly gifted reside.

Collectively, they are known as “crossword constructors,” those clever creators of puzzles that challenge – and bedevil – young and old alike across the newspaper readership spectrum.
Not surprisingly, the crosswords that appear daily in The New York Times are viewed as the gold standard among puzzle experts, due in large measure to the smarts of Will Shortz, a law school alum of the University of Virginia.

Shortz, a native of Indiana, eschewed a career in the law to become a puzzle master, serving as editor of Games magazine from 1989-93 en route to his longtime role as crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, almost universally regarded as the finest newspaper in the country. A 1974 graduate of the University of Indiana, Shortz holds a bachelor’s degree in enigmatology, a field of study that speaks volumes about his intellect.

The obscure-sounding degree, according to published reports, was a byproduct of a curriculum designed by Shortz himself. It revolves around the study of puzzles, which Shortz has parlayed into a successful career that cuts across the publishing and radio broadcast mediums.

The long and short about Shortz serves as a preamble to a few words about another editor, someone who recently crossed words with the man sporting a New York Times pedigree.
Brian Cox, editor of The Detroit Legal News for the past nine years, is a longtime admirer of Shortz, and several years ago began a crossword puzzle odyssey that sometime soon will
be framed with a happy ending.

Every week, according to a February 14 story written by Shortz for the “Times Insider” series, some 75 crossword puzzle submissions are reviewed for possible publication. Those deemed worthy of publication must bear a theme, which can be spotted in a handful of puzzle answers, according to Shortz. For readers of The Times, the difficulty of the puzzles increases over the course of the publishing week, climaxing with the granddaddy of them all on Sunday.

The submissions “come from freelance contributors across the United States and Canada, both regulars and newcomers,” Shortz writes, noting that, “I ask that the puzzles be sent by regular mail, because it’s easier for me to mark up a manuscript on paper than on a computer screen.”

In 2015, one of those submissions came from Cox, an exceptional writer who is a playwright and theatrical director in his spare time. He views crossword puzzles as “beautiful works of art,” the kind to be admired in a timeless sort of way.

Yet, his first foray into the world of crossword construction did not meet with success. In baseball terms, his first time up to bat with the haughty New York Times resulted in a swing and miss.
Undaunted, Cox stepped back into the puzzle box a few months later, taking two more hefty cuts, one of which could be termed a well-hit foul ball.

“He sent me a note of encouragement in rejecting the latest of those tries,” Cox says of Shortz.

Cox would wear the note like a badge of honor, using it as inspiration to try harder as he revised – and revised – his puzzle in hopes of passing muster.

Tweaking puzzles, Cox points out, is “no easy task,” and can be more accurately described as a “major makeover,” akin to turning an aging actress into 24-year-old supermodel Kate Upton.
Admittedly, Cox says he “lost count” of the number of revisions he sent until his latest effort titled, “Knock Knock,” earned the ultimate thumb’s up from Shortz on January 24.

There is some irony to the “Knock Knock” joke theme that Cox weaves through his N.Y.T.-bound puzzle. The first puzzle he submitted, way back when, carried a “Humpty Dumpty” theme. All nursery rhyme lovers, of course, know how poorly that turned out for the anthropomorphic egg.

Cox, however, displayed an uncommon sort of staying power – and without any help from “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.” His reward for climbing back atop the proverbial wall – aside from the joy of being included in the pantheon of crossword constructors for The New York Times – will soon arrive in the form of a coveted check from the publishing giant.

A $300 check, to be exact.

“In strictly financial terms, it probably equates to something north of a 3-cent an hour rate given all the work I invested,” Cox figures, doing his best to camouflage a smile. “Believe me, it was well worth it.”