Published in Newsday: process deep dive

I have today’s puzzle in Newsday. Titled Face the music, it’s my debut puzzle in a print publication, so I’m obviously pretty happy about that.

The entire process has been a very positive learning experience. The Newsday puzzle editor, Stanley Newman, has been a fantastic (and patient) guide throughout. Working with Stan at Newsday is highly recommended.

In this post I want to provide a deep dive on the process, for a number of reasons: (i) as a useful resource for those looking to publish their own puzzle for the first time; (ii) as an interesting read for those curious about the process; and (iii) simply as a reference point for myself.

This post is a 10-15 minute read, I estimate.

I’ll look at the following: (i) theme development and query; (ii) theme placement and gridding; (iii) adding the fill; (iv) clueing; and (v) publication.

Before you go any further, I recommend solving the puzzle. You can find it on the Newsday crossword page, for 7 December.

Theme development and query

After using a ‘musical idiom’ in normal day-to-day life, I realised that there were more in-the-language musical idioms, and therefore there was the potential for a nice theme set.

My first step: thinking of as many idioms as possible, writing them in various tenses, classifying them in some form, and identifying how long each phrase was (the goal, of course, was to identify a theme set of four or five entries with the same classification and tense):

List of 'musical idioms' in a spreadsheet, showing their word length, type (being music, instrument or genre), and tense.

I stopped at this point, as I already identified a likely theme set (in bold), meeting the criteria of having the same category and tense: (i) HIT THE RIGHT NOTE (15); (ii) CHANGED YOUR TUNE (15); (iii) WENT FOR A SONG (12); and (iv) STRUCK A CHORD (12).

As a first-time print constructor, I was interested in getting fast feedback before continuing with a theme set. I checked Matthew Stock’s Crossword Publication Specs sheet to find venues open for submissions that also accept theme queries. I sent it in.

The first venue rejected the theme, stating: “this theme feels a bit scattered, since TUNE and SONG feel similar and NOTE and CHORD feel similar so we’re not sure all together they form a cohesive set”. There were also (in retrospect, extremely valid) concerns about my proposed clueing angles for the theme set.

I still felt the theme set was suitable for publication, and that the feeling of incohesiveness likely came from my clues. I adjusted those and sent it to a second venue: Newsday.

Less than 24 hours later, Stan responded accepting the theme set as a Wednesday puzzle! One typical crossword alteration, though: adjust CHANGED YOUR TUNE to CHANGED ONES TUNE.

As a Wednesday puzzle and first-time submitter, Stan asked me to take small steps and first come up with a 78-word grid, with the theme set placed.

Theme placement and gridding

A 15-15-12-12 theme set is pretty flexible and standard, so I started with a typical grid of themers in rows 3, 6, 10 and 13.

Crossword grid, empty except for the theme entries placed, with three down entries highlighted.

I came up with this initial grid, identifying the most constrained crossings as 8D, 10D and 46D (highlighted). However, with Crossfire telling me that this grid was fillable, I submitted.


While fillable, there was really only one high-quality entry possible for 10D: BIG ASK. A fun piece of fill. However, one option is not sufficient, Stan said. Serious problems very likely lay ahead with such a constrained start.

This was the most valuable piece of feedback I received. A grid shouldn’t just be fillable: it must be optimised: minimising constrained points and giving you as many options as possible (with a particular focus on entries crossing two or more themers).

My second attempt was much better. The three most constrained entries (49D, 18D and 19D, in that order) still had plenty of high-quality options. Accepted.

Crossword grid, empty except for the theme entries placed, with three down entries highlighted.

Adding the fill

Stan’s next step was for me to partially fill the grid. No clues yet. The initial goal was to see that my conception of “Newsday easy” entries was relatively close to his and met the style guide requirements. We started with the four corners.

Partially filled crossword grid.

I was very happy with this initial proposal. I felt all entries were easy enough, while also allowing some fun clueing angles (especially for GHOSTED, NO TASTE, SPANK, and CUSS AT). I shared this with Stan, with the following additional comments regarding the SW corner:

  • 52A: I believe CUSS AT is more well known, but the alternative CUTS IN can also easily be substituted here.
  • 52D: I would love to include BOCCE (it’s a fun sport!), but I’m not sure if it’s easy enough for a Wednesday Newsday. If so, that corner can all be a bit livelier.
  • One great alternative was NASCAR and NACHO at 52A/D respectively, but this led to being forced to use ONES at 69A. Arguably that duplicates part of CHANGED ONES TUNE, so I opted against it.

However, Stan’s feedback came thick and fast. “ASANA is not easy enough for a Wednesday Newsday. SPANK and CUSS AT aren’t typically acceptable for Newsday puzzles. NO TASTE is easy enough, but not easy to define in a straight-forward way. ONCE/ONES in the SE is a near duplicate to be avoided.”

Recognisable feedback. Newsday’s Monday to Wednesday crosswords are some of the easiest around, heavy on straightforward clueing and very light on anything potentially offensive or too risqué. I reworked the problem points and came back with this grid, which was accepted as-is:

Partially filled crossword grid.

Stan requested the full grid to now be filled.

Completely filled standard US crossword grid.

I was happy with this. A good mix of straight-forward entries, allowing a mix of clueing types and the odd pun. There were a few spots I could get my ‘voice’ to come through (which can be hard in really easy puzzles). Stan had two nits:

  • 7D, OBIT. “No one ever dies in a Newsday crossword”. An approach I can get behind.
  • 51D, ACNE. No comment with this, but I assume it doesn’t pass Stan’s “breakfast test”.

Given how close the grid was, Stan himself made the relevant adjustments:

  • 7D became A BIT, forcing acceptable changes to 8D (from RUGS to PUGS) and 6A (from CORN to CAP’N). This was already one of my alternative fills for this area (I keep a folder full of screenshots of alternative fills for each section).
  • 51D became ACME. This triggered a number of changes in the south section, with Stan’s proposal for 57D being ADAH {Esau’s first wife}.

I wasn’t happy with ADAH. While I felt it was a bit obscure, I anyway prefer to avoid religious knowledge in my puzzles, if possible. I riffed off Stan’s suggestions in that area and came back with ADAM {Comedian Sandler} for 57D, along with some other minor changes.

As a newbie, it was stressful “challenging” the suggestions of a long-time professional editor such as Stan: I simply didn’t feel like I had the cachet to do so.

Stan replied within a day: “I prefer your section. Editors need editors too.” It was time to move on to clueing. What a great, empowering response to a newbie.


I love clueing. But it takes for-ever.

Clueing easy crosswords like a Newsday Wednesday should feasibly be relatively straight-forward. However, if you want to squeeze in some fun clues and get your voice in your puzzle (which everyone should), it can almost be harder than normal.

Stan started off by requesting about a third of the clues. This was to ensure I had a “reasonably accurate mental picture of how the clues need to be”.

It looks like I did, with my clues accepted without comment. I put together the rest of the clues, which he again accepted without comment.

Here’s the final grid I submitted (with clues: puz, pdf):


I submitted the final grid in early August, with a response that it would be published some time in December. In early September the exact date was known.

In the meantime, a couple of administrative tasks:

  • Sign a standard legal agreement, asserting that the crossword is my original work and that I assign all rights to Stan.
  • Provide a profile photo and short biography for partners who publish this material alongside the crossword.

Then I waited. When the day finally came, I solved the puzzle and noted the clueing differences.

This is an occasional hot topic in the crossworld. Many constructors argue that any and all significant clue changes should be checked with the constructor beforehand, because it’s their name posted alongside the puzzle.

I certainly understand and agree with that. However, with my first published puzzle being an early-week Newsday crossword, I trust that Stan knows his audience better than me (a non-American, especially).

Nevertheless, here’s an overview of the adjusted clues. I’ve put those that I’m a little sad to see changed in bold, with my comment:

EntryMy cluePublished clueComment
ATARI70s Pong producerVideo game pioneerI always prefer specificity, and Pong’s a classic.
CAP’NRank of Quaker’s CrunchShip’s skipper, for short
CARES“Who ___?”Gives a darn
ABUTBorderShare a border with
NOAHTrevor of “The Daily Show”Trevor of “The Daily Show”
HIT THE RIGHT NOTEDid the most suitable thing for the situationDo what’s especially appropriate
GETSGraspsSees the point of
WISEDSmartened (up)Smartened (up)
SAGELearned oneGuru
DINERSRoad trip restaurantsRoadside restaurants
WENT FOR A SONGSold very cheaplyWas sold very cheaply
AVASTSalty “Stop!”Nautical “Halt!”I like alliteration when I can fit it in.
DUOPairPair of people
RIMCup’s edgeCup’s edge
SEE HERE“Now, listen…”“Now, listen…”
EVEDecember 24 or 31, for exampleDecember 24 or 31
PLEABegDefendant’s statement
ADOKerfuffleNeedless fuss
STRUCK A CHORDEvoked an emotional reactionAffected someone emotionally
CUTS INInterrupts, at a barn danceInterrupts, on a dance floor
ECHOTypical yodel reverberationTunnel’s sound effect
ASHENGhostly paleVery pale
AHEMAttention-getting coughAttention-getting sound
SLIPSlideMinor mistake
CHANGED ONES TUNEDid a 180 onStarted acting differentlyJust a personal preference.
TENTCampground shelterCampground shelter
CAMOG.I. garb, oftenHunter’s garb, for short
HERONLong-necked waderLong-necked marsh bird
OMENProphetic signProphetic sign
EDENSNirvanasBlissful places
ACHEPine (for)Muscle soreness
TAILShadow, as a spyBack of a comet
ARTSThe A of STEAM, in education__ and craftsJust a personal preference.
RETESTSExamines againMakeup exams
ISHSuffix meaning “Sorta”Suffix meaning “sort of”
CAREERVocationLine of work
A BITSlightlySlightly
PUGSDogs with flat facesDogs with flat faces
NTHUltimate math degreeUtmost degree
INNINGSBaseball and cricket divisionsBaseball game segmentsI’m British — of course I want to get cricket in there!
LOOSELiberal, as an interpretationNot at all tight
LATER“See ya!”In a little whileMore colloquial.
SHEDSGets rid ofStorage buildings
EGGOFrozen waffle brandToaster waffle brand
TWINIdentical siblingExact doubleI have identical twin daughters, so duh!
AFTSArea inside ships’ sternsMatinee times: Abbr.I don’t like AFTS as an abbreviation.
DOORPeephole placePlace for a keyhole
WARP‘Star Trek’ speed scaleTwist out of shapeI’m a proud Trekkie.
EVILDemeanour of many a fictional 19-DownWickedI thought this was an amusing cross-reference to TWIN.
NAMESExpecting parents’ decisionPhone directory listingJust a personal preference.
AD HOCImpromptu, as a committeeCommittee descriptor
SUETake to courtTake legal action
HEROSuper- or anti- suffixGuy getting a medalI much prefer the gender-neutral (don’t argue with me) angle.
OVERNot underHigher than
WEEDRoot (out)Unwanted garden growth
EARNPull inDeserve to receive
EDUEnd of an academic addressEnd of a university URL
ASSENTSAgrees toGives approval
GHOSTEDStopped all contact withWrote uncredited for anotherMuch more modern usage.
TINGLittle bell’s soundLittle bell’s sound
KEEN ONEnthusiastic aboutEnthusiastic about
ACMELooney Tunes corporationHighest pointWho doesn’t like a Looney Tunes reference?
CACTISpiny succulentsSpiny desert plants
USHERDirect, as at a theatreTheater workerI prefer the slight misdirect.
THANKExpress gratitude forExpress gratitude to
ADAMComedian SandlerThe first personI prefer the non-religious angle. Everyone knows Adam Sandler, right?
HOMEWhere a point might be drivenWhere you liveJust a personal preference.
LURETackle-box tempterAngler’s gadget
IN ONDrop ___ (visit unannounced)Close __ (approach)
PENSComposesSigning ceremony souvenirsJust a personal preference.
ECOGreen prefixEarth-friendly prefix
SHESpaceship pronounWhat to call a spaceshipSlight preference for including the word ‘pronoun’, happy they kept ‘spaceship’.

And that’s my puzzle. I hope you enjoyed my write-up and I hope to share more published crosswords with you in the future.

If you’re an aspiring crossword constructor looking for a publisher, I definitely recommend this route. I know the NYT is the big fish, but I definitely implore you to take a wider view and consider other venues as a priority (don’t forget the indies, too!). Stan was a dream to work with and I hope to work more with him in the future.

Waiter! Waiter!

This one’s been in my Drafts folder for quite some time! Now, after gathering dust over the last six months, I present to you my first real Thursday-style puzzle: Waiter! Waiter!

You can solve below, directly on Crosshare, or download the pdf, puz or ipuz.

Ten months since I submitted this to the Times. Ten months more construction experience. I’m still very happy with this puzzle’s fill, but more clearly recognise the theme issues that led to the oft-seen Times rejection: “playful and well-made puzzle that just didn’t emerge as one of our absolute favorites”.

Spoiler-filled commentary below the embed.

Spoilers be here!

I shared this puzzle, post-rejection, with one of my favourite constructors, Ross Trudeau of Rossword Puzzles. Ross gave me some great feedback that I want to share here as a kind of post-mortem.

Note: the below points are paraphrased and put into my own words. Hugely grateful for the feedback — thanks, Ross!

  • The revealer FLY IN MY SOUP is a partial phrase, which is conventionally seen as inelegant compared to the full phrase (in this case, the too-long (16) THERE’S A FLY IN SOUP).
  • The soups used in the theme entries are not entirely consistent, from two perspectives: (i) MINESTRONE is a one-word answer broken apart, while FRENCH ONION and CLAM CHOWDER are two-word answers broken at the natural space between words; and (ii) FRENCH ONION is almost exclusively referred to as “French onion soup“, but this is not the case for CLAM CHOWDER (and MINESTRONE, to a lesser degree).
  • The crossing entries don’t use the FLY rebus consistently (i.e. all the same or all different): NO-FLY and FLY SOLO are derived from the verb “to fly”, while MCFLY is just part of a name.
  • Finally, the location of the rebus entries are not symmetrically placed.

Taken individually, the above points are not necessarily grid-killers… but combined: absolutely!

Some other quick observations:

  • The dupe in FLY IN MY SOUP and the second word of each theme entries clue: {Ruined soup, …}. I’m fine with this for many reasons.
  • Purists may also say that my clue for IVER {Bon ___, band whose name derives from “good winter” in French} dupes FRENCH ONION. I feel strongly that this is totally fine, and not only because they’re in almost opposite parts of the grid.
  • OPERA DIVA would have been a NYT debut.
  • I’ve been fascinated by the Skeleton Coast in the NAMIB desert ever since I saw pictures of it as a child. Such an interesting place!
  • The story behind the Back to the Future / Space Man from Pluto clue is a short must-read for film fans.
  • I always like to get a couple of cross reference clues in, despite many people hating them. This time it was the abbreviation CEN for century and MOS for month, which was difficult, as I really wanted to clue the latter in relation to MOS Def.
  • Sharp-eyed solvers would notice RAMI crossing LYRIC, where both clues are about Bohemian Rhapsody.

I had a lot of fun coming up with and executing this theme idea. A great learning experience on my first Thursday-esque puzzle!

At sixes and sevens

Today, I’m lucky enough to be the provider of the daily 7×7 crossword over at Malaika Handa’s 7xwords project. Please go solve that puzzle (that link will work when my puzzle is live) and let me know what you think.

In December alone, there are some incredible constructors putting together a 7xwords: as you may imagine, I’m extremely nervous for my beginner puzzle to be book-ended by such experts.

While constructing my 7xwords puzzle, I rejected other versions for one reason or another. I’ve published two here already: Oh, Mitt! (on Crosshare) and Leave it alone (on Crosshare).

To celebrate my ‘debut’ over at 7xwords (and Sinterklaas here in the Netherlands, I suppose), I present to you another reject that I still really like: At sixes and sevens. You can enjoy it embedded below, directly on Crosshare or download the .puz file.

Have a gander

I’ve wanted to do a theme of this type for a while, but haven’t had the inspiration. However, when I found this revealer it was an obvious one: the “WILD GOOSE” part of the revealer is a perfect cryptic-esque clue for the hidden anagram in the other theme entries.

As usual, this puzzle was re-worked a few times before publication: various iterations of various quadrants, changed theme entries, etc. If it would be interesting (likely only for beginner constructors), I’d be happy to write some more about my process. Below the embed I give some stats and high-level thoughts, which would form the basis for an expanded commentary.

In the meantime, enjoy Have a gander embedded below, directly on Crosshare, or download the .puz or .pdf for offline solving.

Spoilers be here!

Theme: A WILD GOOSE CHASE as the revealer for three hidden anagram theme entries. Simple. I love this wordplay, but your mileage may vary. What I really like, though? Check out those three theme entries again: KISSES GOODNIGHT, GOES ON THE LAM, and WAVES GOODBYE. They all may at first suggest a theme related to leaving someone or something, right? I thought this was a nice bonus, as the solver may, in a way, be led on their own WILD GOOSE CHASE regarding potential themes.

Debuts: Five entries in this puzzle have never been published in an NYT puzzle: 22A, 19D (both of which don’t surprise me, but was certainly unexpected) and then the three theme entries (which does surprise me, as they’re great ‘in the language’ phrases).


  • There’s a potential duplicate in 18D’s clue and 61D’s answer. I purposefully left this in, for two reasons: (i) 61D partially uses a different definition of the word, and (ii) the two entries are on completely different parts of the grid.
  • There was one duplicate I removed: the original clue for 63A was “Top tier figure”. An obivous dupe with the nearby 41A. I vastly prefer this original clue, especially with the entry crossing 58D. Alas, it had to go.

Cross references:

  • While I generally like cross reference clues, I know that many people despise them. As such, I limited it in this puzzle to just 7D and 30D; a cross reference that really needed to be in place as the entries are quite boring on their own.
  • I had also considered clueing 60A with a cross reference to 42D (something along the lines of “Device on which you might hear many a 42-Down”).
  • Is 25A a cross-reference, or self-referential, or meta, or …?

Entries of concern: entries that I like, but gave me doubts. They remain in the puzzle only because during test solving people either had no problem with them or liked them also:

  • YAA crossing BASRA: Yaa Gyasi is not totally obscure, but certainly not a give-away for the difficulty level I was going for (Tuesday-ish). I really wanted to keep her in the puzzle, so the question was: is BASRA sufficiently well-known? From test solvers, it appears so (which is also a bonus, given that it’s add an extra non-Western item into the puzzle).
  • MEEMAW crossing SHAWM, REEVE and EMILIO: I’m a white Western male in my late 30s, so Christopher REEVE and EMILIO Esteves are total give-aways and (to me!) pleasant memory-triggering entries. But are they accessible enough for others — especially with the puzzles main ‘downer’: SHAWM nearby? I had never heard of MEEMAW, which crosses all three of these, so that significantly complicated matters. Luckily, my test solver only had a small hiccup here that was gettable without too much worry.
  • CINC crossing COMOROS: As a recent West Wing binger, Comander in Chief (CINC) was a given. Again, was it good enough for others when crossed with COMOROS? Test solvers said yes, luckily, as I really wanted to keep COMOROS in the puzzle, which was one of the very few workable options for crossing two theme entries.
  • ATF crossing ATARI: If I ever see ATARI during construction, I assure you it’s going in my puzzle. Crossing ATF, though? That was a demerit, for sure, but worth it considering the very lacklusture alternatives.
  • AFTS, DRATCH and TSARDOM: All of these I was unsure about. AFTS seemed like an obscure abbreviation, but nobody had any problems with it. I’ve heard of Rachel DRATCH… but have sufficient other people? TSARDOM in itself I have no problem with, but I really wanted to keep this ridiculous clue in the puzzle. As you can see, they all remain: evidence that my test solvers had no problems with these individual entries. I just made sure to clue the crossings as fairly as possible.

Rhetorical questions

Guess what⸮ Here’s a new puzzle for you, just before the month ends. How about that⸮

So, what are you waiting for⸮ Solve this and let me know what you think — feedback greatly appreciated!

Need I say more⸮

(The ‘⸮’ symbol is the rhetorical question mark or percontation point, developed in the 1580s by Henry Denham. Falling out of use in the 17th century, the symbol was designed “so that instead of the main opening pointing back into the sentence, it opened away from it”. I can’t see myself ever using it again.)

Enjoy Rhetorical questions embedded below, directly on Crosshare, or download the .puz or .pdf.

Test solve thanks go to Norah, whose puzzles you should also check out.

A Tale of Two Pauls (mini)

Flashback! This was the first mini crossword that I ever constructed and was also the first crossword in any form that I made public. I’m still pretty happy with it and think it’s a fun solve.

I’m a big fan of the Crosshare Daily Mini, which along with each day’s 7xwords puzzle are the only minis that I solve consistently. Pleasantly, this was the featured daily on 12 April.

Enjoy A Tale of Two Pauls!

Suspicious, Suspicious (mini)

A quick 5×5 mini I threw together earlier in the week after notcing the harmony between the mini-theme entries 1-Across and 3-Down.

I love the history of 3-Down and will very likely do some sort of full-sized puzzle on their hits and misses over the years. Full of great trivia!

I decided against using something related to that mini-theme as the title for this puzzle, opting istead for Suspicious, Suspicious to further the red herring in two other entries.

Justice League-ish

Up until March this year, I hadn’t watched any of the DC films, so I rectified that and watched them all one quiet week.

In homage, this mini (5×5).

I only discovered after putting this puzzle ‘live’ that 8A is almostly exclusively British English. I don’t think it presents any major problems, but if I’d known beforehand I likely would have tried a different construction. Regardless… enjoy Justice League-ish.

Flip it and reverse it, or: Crosswordese

This full-sized 15x puzzle is a clue/answer switch theme on some common “crosswordese”.

Likely too ‘inside baseball’ for publication, I had some fun coming up with the theme entries and putting the grid together.

This is certainly not the first puzzle to use this theme. Another nice example is crosswordESE by Lyle Broughton, published by Ria on gecxwords.

Fun fact: this is the first 15×15 puzzle I’ve published online! I first constructed it in the heady pre-Coronavirus days of late-2019 and completed it in March 2020! It has languished in my drafts folder ever since. You can solve on pdf if you like.

Crossword difficulty matrix

Looking to expand your crossword-solving horizons into new areas or just curious how the various mainstream puzzle venues stack-up against each other in terms of difficulty?

I made the above crossword difficulty matrix / heatmap to help.

Created primarily from personal experience and with a dash of inspiration from various other sources (e.g. Steve Weyer’s CommuniCrossings and Matt Gritzmacher’s Daily Crossword Links), this naturally presents a skewed and subjective view of the crossword landscape.

A few important notes:

  • This covers only the largest mainstream venues (i.e. those known to most non-crossword-solving Millennials).
  • I’m focussing exclusively on regular puzzles (so no cryptics here, such as The New Yorker’s Sunday offering).
  • I’m also focussing on “full-sized” grids (generally 15x or 21x, hence the absence of Vox’s Monday to Friday 9x midis).
  • It’s wrong! I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of these rankings. Hell, I do, too! It’s an impossible challenge, but a good first step. Give me a break.

I’d like to do something similar for the many fantastic indie venues. That’s a challenge for another day.

Have a suggestion? Leave a comment (or say something over on the relevant Reddit thread)! Thanks. 👍🏻

Also worth a read: PuzzleNation also put together a nice article about this overview (also), with useful feedback from some crossword luminaries!