Entry 4

It is the harsh pattern suffered by crossword makers everywhere: We usually hear from solvers only when we’ve made a mistake.

Publish a year’s worth of artistic masterpieces, brimming with florid wordage masterfully woven, and see where it gets you. No fan mail, no rapturous letters to the editor, no free whores—just harsh indifference.

But commit the mortal sin of letting an error creep into a clue, and hear from the people ye shall. The worst are the sports puzzles, since sports fans are extremely statistics-conscious. When I used to make monthly puzzles for Major League Baseball’s Web site, I once erroneously referred to Dodgers third-baseman Ron Cey as a catcher. My punishment was a torrent of harsh e-rebukes, one of which ended with the question, “So, what’s your problem?”

Scabies, but why was that his business?

It’s also common to receive correspondence from people who think they’ve found a mistake, but who are in fact themselves mistaken. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times puzzles, tells the story of a woman who wrote in protesting his use of GOUP, which Will had clued “Rise.” The woman was indignant, claiming she couldn’t find GOUP in any resource: “I don’t know what dictionary you’re using,” she wrote. I wonder if she ever figured it out.

I’ve made about seven mistakes in Slate puzzles over the past 26 months, for which I blame society. Once I had ROBIN COOK clued as “Britain’s foreign secretary,” unaware that he had relinquished the post to Jack Straw several weeks prior. Another time I had Norm Mineta listed as Clinton’s energy secretary, when he was actually at Commerce.

Will Shortz says that about 20 errors get past him at the Times per year (out of about 30,000 clues, an amazing batting average, and that’s out of 365 puzzles, far more than the 52 a year I do for Slate). Most of them are pretty trivial and get noticed by only a solver or two. For example, in July 2000, Will had a clue “Kitchen whistler,” with the answer TEAPOT. But a reader pointed out that it’s the tea kettle that whistles, not the pot. Picky, picky!

Another time, Will clued ONE as “Impossible score, in U.S. football.” But technically, if a team forfeits a game, the score is officially rendered 1-0.

Still, some people expect nothing less than perfect accuracy from their crosswords. The editor of the Washington Post Magazine’s crossword was abruptly fired last year for supposedly allowing too many errors in the puzzles. He got his revenge when they ran a blurb in the magazine touting the new puzzles, and it began, in big type on Page 4: “Begining [sic] January 6th, the Magazine’s crossword will have a new look.”

So you see what pressure we’re under to get things right!

I’ve got three puzzles to edit today, which is why I brought this up. First, I drag out the Holy Trinity: dictionary, almanac, and atlas. Then I solve the puzzle in red ink, since that stands out on the page. Next, it’s time to circle the words that need to be verified. If I’m not pretty close to positive of a fact, it gets looked up. Off the top of my head, for example, I had xenon’s boiling point at -101.7 degrees Celsius; but since I haven’t boiled xenon in years, I checked. Good thing, too, since it’s actually -107.1 degrees Celsius.

Cursed numerical dyslexia!

The Internet is also a huge help in looking things up. Back in the late ‘80s, I remember having to call a local D.C. sports radio station when I had to check something sporty I couldn’t find in my reference books. Those days are gone. The Net also allows editors to include far more interesting clues than they could previously. For example, if I had to clue OSLO in the pre-Web days, I’d be stuck using my general knowledge or what I found in the almanac, which wasn’t likely to be much. Now, I can do a Net search on Oslo and come up with a fresh, engaging clue like “Site of the Munch Museum” (that’s a reference to painter Edvard Munch, for all you lurking Salon readers).

Speaking of munch, it’s time for food and Law & Order. One of these days I’m making a Jerry Orbach puzzle. That guy kicks ass. And yes, I know the artist’s name is actually pronounced “moonk”—so no harsh e-rebukes, please!