I’m Mike Shenk, and I’ve been crossword editor and puzzle writer for the WSJ since 1998. I’ve created over 10,000 crossword puzzles in my life, including many of our weekly contest crosswords link. Ask me anything (except the answer to this week’s contest)!

PROOF: https://i.redd.it/im06minwkx5a1.jpg

UPDATE: I'm stepping away now. Thank you all so much for your questions!

Comments: 183 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

PizzaBuffalo213 karma

Do you solve crosswords in other publications (NYT, USA Today, LA Times, etc)? Or, since crosswords are your work, do you avoid them as a hobby (i.e. like a professional chef who doesn't want to cook at home)?

wsj227 karma

I solve a few crosswords. I do Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest puzzles, and Peter Gordon's Fireball crosswords. I solve the Times puzzle sometimes, especially the unthemed Saturdays.

pancakeNate202 karma

Are you and Will Shortz friends, enemies, or frenemies?

wsj277 karma

Will and I are friends. We worked together for years at Games Magazine, and I'm a judge every year at his crossword tournament.

RunDNA107 karma

My great-uncle spent years building up an alphabetized exercise book with every answer that appeared in his favourite daily crossword (it was a very repetitive puzzle.) And then every day he would look up every clue in his book and fill in the answer.

Do you approve or disapprove?

wsj129 karma

Sort of a do-it-yourself crossword dictionary. Nice.

bewildered_forks101 karma

What are some bits of crosswordese you'd be happy to never see again?

wsj181 karma

If I consider it crosswordese, I'd be happy to never see it again. My current top nonfavorite word is STYE.

dubbsmqt66 karma

Are there words you're sick of using, but they are convenient for connections, like 'ewe'?

wsj94 karma

Yes, lots of those words that appear so often they're hard to clue in fresh ways. But they do glue the rest of the puzzle together.

DuronHalix66 karma

How did you manage the transition from being a crossword solver to a crossword constructor in terms of how you approached puzzles? In the same vein, how did you manage the transition from constructing puzzles to mostly editing them at the WSJ?

wsj82 karma

At some point, I just thought "I wonder if I could make a puzzle." So I did. (The early results were pretty bad.) Editing is a lot like constructing, asking "How could this puzzle or clue be better?"

bewildered_forks43 karma

Do you have a favorite puzzle? Like, a specific puzzle that you've done.

wsj76 karma

I'm not sure I have an absolute favorite. One of my favorite Friday contest puzzles was "Rainbow Connection." (I won't spoil it in case you can find it on the WSJ site.)

wsj145 karma

Hi, Maddie here from the WSJ interrupting for a minute. Here's a link to Rainbow Connection: https://www.wsj.com/puzzles/crossword/20180629/41573/index.html?mod=wsjreddit

PeanutSalsa40 karma

As you create more and more crossword puzzles, does the job get easier or harder?

wsj65 karma

Filling grids becomes easier--you get to recognize which areas need to be tackled first and what words will fit. Coming up with new themes gets harder, since you feel like you've seen everything.

Dirty_Old_Town32 karma

From time to time, I hear a song on one radio station and then a minute or two later hear it on another station. This may happen for a few songs in a row, and I'm convinced it's just the DJs messing with each other. Well, one time I was travelling for work and I was doing a couple different crosswords every day - I noticed that for that whole week, several words appeared in common between the two crosswords. Do you think it was coincidence or do crossword editors mess around from time to time like radio DJs?

wsj46 karma

I've noticed that too, but it is just coincidence. I don't collaborate with other editors to plant common words. (Though maybe there's a super-meta contest idea in that...)

smacksmacksugarsmack31 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. 2 questions: 1) What goes into your process of reviewing a submission, and how long does it take to review one puzzle? 2) From acceptance of a puzzle, what then has to be done to get it published in the WSJ?

wsj53 karma

My assistant Joanne and I look at every submission separately and then compare notes. It usually doesn't take long to look over a puzzle--usually less that 15 mimutes--but we get so many, we have a big backlog (months) of puzzles we haven't gotten to.

Once a puzzle is accepted, I add it to the files. Every week, I pick a set to use, pick the days they'll run, edit them and lay them out. Then they go to the test-solvers to check. Once the revisions are made, they get uploaded to the WSJ.

MicrowaveEye25 karma

Did you grow up wanting to work in crosswords?

wsj70 karma

I didn't have those ideas until I got to college, where I made a crossword for the daily student paper. Then I thought it would be great to make a living making puzzles, but I knew that wasn't realistic. Years later, I'm still surprised.

doyoulikeme5519 karma

How much pull does an editor have at the paper in terms of increasing pay for constructors, setting editorial standards, etc.?

wsj33 karma

I've been pretty much allowed free rein on deciding on the puzzle style. Getting more pay for constructors is tougher, since the WSJ is a big organization with lots of levels to go through, so my pull isn't as strong as I'd like.

Metalhart0018 karma

What's an innovation in crosswords that you would love but the Public isn't ready for?

wsj30 karma

I'm not sure there's any innovation I could come up with that some clever constructor hasn't already done. With all of the self-published crossword sites online now, a constructor doesn't need to worry what the public is ready for.

VoraciousSnail17 karma

What do you think of wordle? do you like it?

wsj43 karma

It's weird, I kinda think it's silly but I still do it every day.

doyoulikeme5516 karma

What do you think of (modern/indie) crossworld’s drive in increasing diversity among constructors, and what do you think print outlets could do better in this area?

wsj18 karma

I'm happy the indie outlets are doing what they are. I'd love to get more puzzles from underrepresented groups, but my philosophy is that I'll use any good puzzle submitted to me.

doyoulikeme5515 karma

What do you look for when evaluating puzzles submitted to WSJ?

wsj25 karma

First: the theme--is it fun, clever, fresh?; is it well balanced and consistent?

Next: the filler words--are they good, lively words and phrases, with a minimum of abbreviations, partial phrases, crosswordese?

Last: the clues--if everything else looks good, the clues can always be fixed.

pdxscout15 karma

I've never seen the word abecedarian in NYT puzzles. I always thought it would be an excellent addition to the game. Are there words that you would love to include but can't (or won't) for some reason or another?

wsj21 karma

The only words I can't include are the really offensive ones, and anything longer than the grid will fit.

JeffRyan115 karma

Who's your favorite crossword-famous person? Yma Sumac? Erle Stanley Gardner?

wsj11 karma

Yeah, no favorites. Too hard to come up with fresh clues for those folks.

ForkShirtUp14 karma

Do you get hate mail?

wsj34 karma

I don't get hate mail. If the WSJ mailroom gets any, they're nice enough not to share it with me. I do get occasional lukewarm-or-worse reviews on some of the puzzle blogs.

hedgehogsinhats13 karma

Are computer-generated crosswords kinda of crummy?

wsj33 karma

Many of them are. The key to making a good computer-generated crossword is to spend a lot of time tweaking the word list. And even after that, the computer can't write good, clever clues.

IndyDude1113 karma

Do your worry your job won't be around much longer? Have you given any thought to what you'd do if crossword editor wasn't a thing anymore?

wsj23 karma

I'm not too worried. I've been doing this for decades now, so if it goes away I'll be ready to retire. Though I hope it lasts another decade or two.

patodro13 karma

Are you a pen/paper solver? Or do you prefer digital puzzles?

wsj25 karma

Until recently, I was pen solver (with plenty of cross-outs). When my printer conked out a while back, I switched to digital and haven't gone back to paper.

wsj3 karma

Until recently I was a pen-and-paper solver (with plenty of cross-outs). When my printer conked out a while back, I switched to digital, and haven't gone back to paper.

TheBlueSlipper13 karma

What are some of your favorite clues that you made up during your career?

wsj46 karma

One of my early favorites was "Play with matches" for TENNIS.

aoserc10 karma

What do you normally change when editing puzzles? i.e. do you change grid letters, entire clues, wording of clues, grammar/spelling, all of the above? What might prompt you to change grid letters or clues?

wsj12 karma

Any or all of the above. First I'll look at the grid fill to see if any areas can be improved. After I'm happy that the grid is as good as it can be, I'll edit the clues which can mean tweaking a few or rewriting whole swaths. Which day of the week the puzzle is scheduled for can mean making the clues easier or trickier. And when the puzzle is laid out, I might need to edit more clues to fit on the page.

doyoulikeme5510 karma

What’s your favorite (non WSJ)? What’s your favorite indie outlet? Favorite blogs? Favorite constructors?

wsj16 karma

My favorite puzzles to solve are the themeless Fireball puzzles (which, since I'm crazy, I like to tackle with just the Down clues) and Matt's contest puzzles (though I don't always solve the meta). I won't name favorite constructors except to say I like the ones who require the least editing.

bewildered_forks10 karma

Any crossword pet peeves, either as a solver, a constructor, or an editor?

wsj29 karma

As an editor, I don't like an answer word in the grid to appear in a clue for a different answer. My test-solvers are very good at pointing those out.

bewildered_forks9 karma

Any tips for someone who'd like to give creating puzzles a try?

wsj22 karma

Get a copy of Patrick Berry's Crossword Constructor’s Handbook from his website. And look for the Facebook groups for new constructors.

paramedic-tim9 karma

How long does it take you to completely create a puzzle?

wsj18 karma

It varies a lot. Sometimes it feels like the grid is cooperating and sometimes it feels like it's fighting me. For a daily puzzle, it might take two hours or less, or it might take days, putting it down and coming back to it. Cluing adds more time.

Kittystar129 karma

What is your process when creating a puzzle?

wsj37 karma

The first step is coming up with a theme, and finding theme answers of good lengths that balance each other. Then I place them in a grid, decide where black squares look promising, and then fill in the restof the words. Clues come last.

Beavshak8 karma

Have you every put any kind of hidden messaging into puzzle? Say with a certain collection or sequence of words?

wsj10 karma

Obviously there's often something hidden in the Friday contest puzzles. Other than those, I've probably hidden messages in puzzles in the past, though nothing comes to mind.

mrshatnertoyou7 karma

When are you going to have other constructors other than you and Matt Gaffney create the Friday meta puzzles?

wsj11 karma

We have occasionally Friday metas from Patrick Berry and Peter Gordon. But since I need to test-solve every meta to gauge its solvability, I'm need to be picky about those I'll invite.

bewildered_forks6 karma

Is there a word or phrase you'd love to work into a puzzle but haven't been able to yet? And if not, are there any you're particularly proud to have included, especially if they were debuts?

wsj10 karma

I wish I had a better answer, but no, no particular word I've been dying to include. And I don't keep track of debut words, so I guess I don't have one to be proud of.

Bubbagumpredditor6 karma

Do you ever just come up with a crossword item and just cackle maniacally as you fit it in?

wsj12 karma

I'm not really a maniacal cackler. (Maniacal, maybe.)