Women and Crossword Construction, Part 2: The Themeless Situation

C.C. Burnikel suggested another discussion topic: “The themeless puzzles are dominated by male constructors. I wonder why other woman constructors are not making them.”

Our most prolific female themeless/freestyle puzzle-makers include Karen Tracey (a regular in the Washington Post’s Post Puzzler, and previously seen often in the New York Sun and New York Times), Paula Gamache (NY Times), and Sherry Blackard (retired from puzzle-making, and known for her fiendishly difficult themelesses in the NY Times). But a large majority of newspaper themelesses are indeed by men.

Tracy Bennett, NY Times/Chronicle of Higher Education constructor, crossword creator at Bust, a feminist magazine: I’ve been making themelesses pretty steadily—spent last year trying to win the Post Puzzler guest slot with no luck. One of those non-winning entries has been accepted by Will, but I don’t know when it will appear. I see some constructors waiting a year or more, so I’m not holding my breath. In that context of the long wait to publication, it’s kind of frustrating to see the same well-known bylines showing up weeks apart, or to read that Will liked a certain puzzle so much that he moved it up (though that’s his prerogative of course).

Amy Reynaldo: Making a themeless is more of a mathematical/patterning exercise than a wordplay one, and girls and women are often dissuaded from pursuing higher math. Perhaps honing the mathematical side of one’s brain is helpful for constructing themelesses? Look at some of the niftiest themeless constructors we have: Byron Walden is a math professor. Mike Nothnagel teaches math at the Culinary Institute of America. And I think David Quarfoot teaches high school math.

C.C. Burnikel, prolific LA Times/NY Times constructor, founder of the Crossword Corner blog: Good point on the math issue. I never thought of that.

Brad Wilber and Barry Silk, on the other hand, made a lot of themed puzzles before focusing on themeless only.

I feel a bit handicapped due to my background [ed.: C.C. grew up in China and English isn't her first language]. I don’t have a good grasp on snazzy themeless seeding entries. For example, I never heard of 1-Across in [a recent] Saturday’s LAT, so I’d never dreamed of putting it in a grid, not to mention a key 1-Across spot.

I’ve also learned that it’s extremely important to have themeless building skill in order to make smooth Sunday grids. Possibly one reason we see very few woman Sunday constructors also. In fact, zero for NYT this year.

Elizabeth Gorski, second-most prolific NY Times constructor, creator of the Crossword Nation weekly puzzle, regular constructor in the Wall Street Journal and other publications: I have long admired the many women who make excellent themeless puzzles. Sherry Blackard’s crosswords are most impressive. Sherry made a collection of themelesses which, back in the days of the New York Times Forum, received high praise from male and female solvers. When a puzzle appeals to men and women, the constructor has hit a home run!

Karen Tracey is co-author of a themeless book. We see a variety of top women authors in the themeless space (per xwordinfo database.)  When my own themeless puzzles were published, I received quite a few emails from male solvers who enjoyed them and wanted to see more. In fact, over the years I’ve received a lot of support from male solvers. Thank you, gentlemen, for your support!

Having made both themed and themeless puzzles, I’ve found this is true: If you can make a themed puzzle, you can make a themeless. Themed crosswords—especially Sundays—are much harder to make. A Sunday puzzle theme must be built around a themeless puzzle. A good fill is a themeless puzzle.

Having sold a few thousand puzzles over the years, two trends come to mind: (a) a themeless puzzle is easier to make (relative to a themed puzzle), but harder to sell; (b) a themed puzzle is harder to make, but easier to sell. (I’m not counting the record-breaking low-word-count puzzles; they are rare and not part of this discussion.)

To construct or not to construct? We’ve heard from editors about the oversupply of themelesses and the dearth of Monday/Tuesday puzzles in the newspaper inventories. If I choose to make a Tuesday-level puzzle, it’s not because I can’t make a themeless. (Of course I can.) It may be because a good Tuesday puzzle is easier to sell and I’ve developed a unique theme idea.  It’s a percentage play.    

But if I am commissioned to make a themeless crossword for a newspaper, magazine, or tournament playoff round—I will provide a product of superior quality. That’s a guarantee.

Obviously, I don’t buy into the myth that women can’t make themeless puzzles, or that few women try. But there’s hope on the horizon. I’m pleased to report that the younger generation of constructors and editors don’t buy into the myth either. In recent years I’ve worked with young people (men and women under 35) on new puzzle ventures. These colleagues are businesslike, focused, smart, and devoted to the craft. I am hopeful about the future of our business and the changes these people will bring to the production and quality of crosswords. The best is yet to come!         

 Amy Reynaldo: Following up on Liz’s remarks, I’d like to encourage more women to try their hand at making themeless puzzles, and perhaps expand their Sunday-sized grid-filling skills at the same time. I suspect that half or more of newspapers’ crossword solvers are women, and as one of them, I’d love to see the sort of zippy fill that women come up with. Paula Gamache made an NYT puzzle with MAN-BREASTS in it, whereas so many of Peter Gordon’s terrific Fireball crosswords contain things like baseball players I’ve never heard of. Which is not to say that there aren’t women who love baseball and men who know nothing of it—but hitting a broad generalization, there are words and topics that play to predominantly female or male sensibilities, and I would appreciate more of the female side.

(Note: Please forgive the gender binary here. I used to read a blog by a puzzle-savvy trans person, and I don’t know if they ever got into making crosswords but hey, there may well have already been a trans constructor who wasn’t out to the world. I’m in favor of all sorts of diversity and representation.)

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8 Responses to Women and Crossword Construction, Part 2: The Themeless Situation

  1. Jim Horne says:

    I don’t have any pre-Shortz info on women constructors — you’ll need to turn to David Steinberg for that — but as it happens, I do have statistical data about women constructors in the Shortz era by day of week and over time.

    It’s certainly true that Friday and Saturday puzzles are dominated by men, especially Saturdays and especially recently. In 2011, not a single woman appeared in a Saturday byline. In 2012 there were two: Laura Sternberg and Dana Motley. In 2013, it was back to zero. There are none so far this year.

    Oh, and I don’t think anyone has mentioned that XWord Info is free through the ACPT. All pages are available to everyone.

  2. Evan says:

    My experience is actually the opposite of Liz’s: I’ve had very tough luck selling themed puzzles but way more success selling themeless ones, both in terms of percentage and the raw number of my submissions. It’s possible that I’m better at making themeless grids than I am at themed puzzles, though I would have figured that I’d be more successful with themed grids if editors have greater need for them.

    None of that has any bearing on the question of why so few women seem to be getting themeless grids published, which is an interesting one. I’m curious what Will Shortz or Rich Norris would say about how many themeless submissions they get from female constructors.

  3. Will Shortz says:

    Good discussion, Amy.

    Speaking for myself and the Times, I get close to zero themeless submissions from women. And except for Liz, who is my most-published Sunday crossword constructor, I don’t get a lot of Sunday submissions from women either.

    About a month ago, when my file of Sunday puzzles was low, I asked my assistant, Anna Shechtman — who is a talented constructor herself, first published in the Times when she was 19 — to go through the unanswered submissions and pull out every Sunday-size puzzle. I don’t think there was a single one by a woman. And if there had been a good one by a woman, it would have been scheduled almost immediately.

    I can’t publish what I don’t get.

    So, yes, female constructors — I’m interested in seeing whatever you’d like to submit.

    –Will Shortz

  4. Sherry Blackard says:

    Thanks for remembering me! I abhor math so that blows that supposition right out of the water. One woman constructor who helped me along the way asked me who I thought I was —Frank Longo?! And a male constructor said to me, “why are you doing this, you make such nice themed puzzles” So there were a lot of pats on the head that, intended or not, made the journey from “cute theme little lady” to “killer themeless ma’am” harder than it should have been but I always knew that was the direction I was headed. In the end I guess that’s what it takes, knowing who you are no matter what others may think of you.

    • Huda says:

      “In the end I guess that’s what it takes, knowing who you are no matter what others may think of you.”

      Words to live by… I intend to quote you. Thank you!

  5. Huda says:

    Those data by Jim Horne are really interesting. I realize such data don’t tell the whole story, but they hint at the story that needs to be told. The gradient across the week is quite compelling, and remarkably stable across the years. And the fact that the overall percentage has dropped of late is also telling.

    Fascinating discussion, both specifically and because (to my mind) it’s emblematic of similar issues in other arenas. For example, echoing Will’s comment, publishers of first rate scientific journals say what he said about lack of submissions by women: “I can’t publish what I don’t get”.

  6. Francis says:

    I never know the sports names either.

  7. Bencoe says:

    Wow. I never realized how few Saturday and Sunday puzzles are constructed by women. The statistics are pretty crazy. A real eye-opener. But what do you do, except encourage female constructors to attempt more of these types of puzzles?
    I’m also terrible at baseball, but even worse at football. I think I know more about golf from crosswords than anywhere else.

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