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May 23, 2007

Interview with Stanley Newman

Stanley Newman's latest book, Cruciverbalism, is a great little book that covers a lot of ground. There's a bit of biography – how he became crossword editor at Newsday. There's crossword strategy – including 100 essential words every solver should know. There are the hidden rules of the grid – tricks constructors use to trip us up. There's history – beginning with the first crossword puzzle. And then there is the most interesting part of the book – recent history. Mr. Newman tells us how he and a few others rebelled against the crossword establishment... and won.

After reading the book I thought it would be fun to interview Stan. He graciously agreed...

Paul: In your book you discuss some of the early history of crossword puzzles and also some of the more recent history.  I especially appreciate your role in the improvement of crosswords over the last couple decades.  How successful would you say your improvement campaign has been?  Are there any 'bad apples' still out there editing puzzles for major newspapers?

Stan: Nearly all syndicated crosswords have a contemporary feel these days, so there's no doubt that we won the "war".   As for any remaining "bad apples", it's not necessary to name names, but there are still a few major newspaper puzzles that aren't as carefully selected and edited as the New York Times and Newsday.  Crossword fans are certainly more discerning and knowledgeable these days, and it's pretty easy to spot the lesser puzzles.

Paul: I've analyzed almost 400 puzzles so far this year.  (See links to puzzles I solve.) They're still averaging about 5.5 crosswordese words per puzzle.  (I'm pleased to say your puzzles are averaging much lower than that.)  In fact, only 5 puzzles have had no crosswordese at all - 4 of those are yours.  Is it my imagination or are you putting a lot more emphasis on eliminating crosswordese lately?

Stan: Not just lately.  My arrival on the crossword-editor scene was predicated on eradicating useless obscurities.   The increasing skill of constructors, plus the excellent constructing software Crossword Compiler for Windows (CCW), has made crosswordese pretty close to unnecessary.  I use CCW for all the puzzles I create myself, and for removing obscurities from some of the puzzles I accept.  I do believe that I am the toughest editor in terms of not permitting crosswordese in the puzzles I publish.

But, if you say that you found only four of my puzzles free of crosswordese, that means that your definition of the word must be different from mine.  Words like ARIA, ERIE, ERA, even OREO and ALDA, appear very frequently in my crosswords, but, because they are part of everyday English and popular culture, I don't consider them crosswordese. 

Paul: Some of the old crosswordese standbys from the past haven't even shown up this year, e.g. ANOA, NENE, and OMOO.  ESNE has only shown up once.  One striking development - a word that showed up almost twice a month as recently as two years ago has only shown up once this year: ETUI.  Do you, and other editors, have some of these specific words on a list - words you absolutely will not allow?

Stan: I can't speak for other editors, but it's not necessary for me to keep a list of words I won't allow.  OMOO, being a Melville novel, wouldn't be a no-no for me.  I use NENE, Hawaii's state bird, occasionally.  But ESNE, ANOA and ETUI, never!  

Paul: How many puzzles do you personally construct per month?  How many would you estimate you solve every month?

Stan: I construct about five crosswords per month for Newsday, under my own name and my regular pseudonyms.  To me, constructing a puzzle is solving one, just from a different angle.  I don't solve very many crosswords of others regularly.

Paul: I hope to go on one of your crossword-themed cruises someday.  I understand you lead an instructional seminar on creating crossword puzzles.  Can you tell us a little about that?

Stan: For the past half-dozen years or so, I have hosted an annual weeklong cruise to various locales on a luxury liner.  In addition to the ships' regular cruise program (great food, ports of call, entertainment, did I mention the great food?), the program I conduct includes a crossword competition, informal games, and instructional seminars on any puzzle-related topics of interest to the group.  And yes, we do create a crossword together that ends up in Newsday.  I find that solvers have a much better appreciation for crosswords once they see how crosswords are constructed, and try to create their own without using obscurities.  The next cruise will be in February out of Fort Lauderdale, on Holland America Lines.  For more info, contact Special Event Cruises at 1-800-326-0373.  The Crossword Cruise Web page is

Paul: Do you also enjoy sudoku puzzles?  Do you think they will ever surpass crosswords in popularity?

Stan: I've been doing sudoku puzzles for more than 10 years, long before US newspapers carried them.  I don't think they will ever surpass crosswords in popularity.

Paul: Do you have an all-time favorite crossword puzzle?

Stan: The favorite crossword I've ever published in Newsday was "T Party", by S.E. Booker.  Every word of every clue started with the letter T, and there were T-shapes patterns of black squares in the puzzle.

Thank you, Stan, for the great interview.

I think I'll just comment on your response to my second question. Actually, I think our definitions of crosswordese are pretty similar – I agree that ERIE, ERA, OREO, and ALDA are not crosswordese. Our disagreement with the word ARIA may be more geographical than anything. Where I live – northwestern Minnesota – we would have to travel at least 120 miles to see an opera. Like you, almost no one here appreciates opera. Unlike you, almost no one here is familiar with the word ARIA. I made the decision when I began this web-site to put it in the category of 'crosswordese'. It is by far the most used crosswordese showing up in almost 10% of crossword puzzles.

[Stan took the opportunity to make a final comment.]

Stan: You raise, indirectly, a significant point here.  It's very important to me that I not inject my own personal likes and dislikes, or any biases from my Brooklyn upbringing,  in deciding what is "crosswordese", or "mainstream English".  By placing ARIA in your own "crosswordese" category just because operas happen not to be regularly performed near your home, is absolutely not an appropriate way to be making such decisions.  It's just common sense that a nationally distributed, general interest crossword not be subjected to any personal or regional biases.

I would love to hear from you, my readers. What do you think – should ARIA be considered 'crosswordese' or is it 'mainstream English'? Please email me and let me know what you think. I may discuss this more in-depth at a later date.

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April 3, 2007 Great Puzzle Alert!

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March 28,2007 Interview with Tyler Hinman

March 1, 2007 Clever Clue of the Month

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January 23, 2007 The State of Crosswords

January 2, 2007 December's Clever clue of the Month

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October 2, 2006 Clever Clue of the Month

September 1, 2006 August's Clever Clue of the Month

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July 15, 2006 Who Writes Better Puzzles, Humans or Computers

July 1, 2006 June's Clever Clue of the Month

June 10, 2006 6 Days 'til Wordplay

June 1, 2006 May's Clever Clue of the Month

May 1, 2006 April's Clever Clue of the Month

April 15, 2006 The Perfect Crosswordese Meal

April 1, 2006 Clever Clue of the Month for March

March 15, 2006 Crosswordese Hall of Fame

March 1, 2006 Your Opportunity to Vote

February 11, 2006 30 Minutes of Fame

January 23, 2006 Wordplay

January 1, 2006 Happy New Year

December 3, 2005 Christmas Shopping

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January 29, 2005 Video Google

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January 1, 2005 Let The Adventure Begin

Paul Stynsberg, © 2008