Sep 21, 2009

Interview with Rich Norris (Sequel)

It's almost been 6 months since we switched to LA Times. Rich Norris has been entertaining us every day with his witty wordplay and superb editorship.

As several of our crossword constructors pointed out in their interviews or comments, Rich makes them look smarter. He often changes 1/3 to 1/2 of the clues, not simply adjusting the difficulty level or avoiding the repeat, but injecting playfulness to the clues as well. I often have fun guessing which clues are his.

I feel a follow-up interview with Rich is needed in order to clear up some of the questions I've been curious about. Hope this will address some of points you've been discussing at the blog Comments section as well.

What is the latest status with the eased-up puzzle situation? How much longer will this phase last?

The easier clues will continue as we monitor feedback from solvers and local papers. Recent input suggests that the end-of-the-week puzzles are too hard for too many people. We'll be trying to find a level that brings more solvers into the mix on Friday and Saturday, yet still sufficiently challenges the more experienced solvers.

Why is there no puzzle title for LA/NY Times Monday to Saturday puzzle? How does it influence the theme answer selection or other aspects of puzzle construction?

When I took over at LAT in 1999, titles had never been used before. I considered instituting them, but I recalled Will Shortz telling me that one reason he decided not to start using titles when he became NYT editor was, simply, tradition (in my head I'm suddenly hearing strains from the "Fiddler on the Roof" song!). I felt the same way. LA Times puzzles had always been self-revealing, which is to say that themes were either inherently obvious or revealed by an answer in the puzzle itself. As a solver, I always preferred figuring out the theme without any title hints (except on Sunday), so I decided to keep it that way in my editing.

Can you give us a behind-the-scenes look at your editing process? How does a puzzle go from the constructor's hand to the local newspaper? What are the responsibilities of the test solvers and the final fact-checker Bob Klahn?

Once I've accepted a puzzle, I file it according to the day of the week on which I think it will be the most appropriate. Each day has its own backlog, and I pretty much publish puzzles in the order I accept them (except for special event puzzles). When the puzzle comes up for scheduling, I edit primarily for avoidance of repeat clues, for difficulty, and for accuracy. The first two of these are the most common reasons for clues being changed. I try not to repeat a clue for at least two months.

Once a week's puzzles are edited, they go to two testers, both former editors themselves. The testers comment on overall puzzle difficulty and clues they think aren't quite accurate or fair. They look for typos. Occasionally they pick up factual errors, but that's not their primary responsibility.

After I make changes based on testers' comments, I send the puzzles to my editor at Tribune. His main job is to check facts, but he also sometimes comments on difficulty. After we review his comments and agree on changes, I send the work to Bob, who's the final fact checker and all-around accuracy verifier.

How has your workload changed since the TMS puzzle switch? Are you able to make more puzzles yourself?

My workload has increased quite a bit, primarily as a result of increased submissions. Before the changeover I was receiving between 40 and 50 submissions a week. That number is now between 50 and 60, sometimes more. I do all my own correspondence. It takes between one and two full work days each week to keep up with it.

I only make puzzles when I absolutely have to. I'm making fewer puzzles now, but since I'm receiving more, I don't need to make as many, so it works out.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? What kind of themes/grids do you like the most?

If I publish a theme, it means I like it. It's hard for me to say which ones are favorites. I like puzzles with a lot of theme, as long as the volume of theme squares doesn't compromise the non-theme fill. I also particularly like themes that explore new territory without becoming overly complex about it. Don Gagliardo's money puzzle in August is a good example of that. The puzzle had a symmetry "error" which was tied to the theme. That was a truly creative concept, yet it wasn't an overly hard puzzle.

Asking me to define the perfect puzzle is like asking Ben Hogan what the perfect round of golf is! He said "18." The perfect puzzle is one without any black squares--15 rows and columns of valid 15-letter words and phrases. It's about as possible as shooting an 18 in golf. Yes, I'm being facetious, but what it all boils down to is that I don't think there is a perfect puzzle. There are many excellent puzzles, and those are the ones I publish daily.

12 comments:

Dennis said...

Wow, another interview with The Man! Nice job, C.C.

I'm disappointed that the 'easing up' will probably be continuing for a while, but I do understand the need to do so.

I really enjoyed reading about how a puzzle progresses from submission through publication; very enlightening. I'm curious; Rich, do you still enjoy making puzzles when you can? You sure as hell do an outstanding job of editing.

A great read; thanks to both of you.

Carl said...

Rich, I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, lots of information. Who are those two testers?

Mainiac said...

CC,

Thank you very much for this interview and the others as well. They are very insightful and have helped me in many ways to become a better solver.

Crockett1947 said...

Great interview. Thank you Rich and C.C. I never realized how many steps there were to getting s puzzle published after acceptance. That's quite a system.

Anonymous said...

I really like the new puzzles. Thank you, Rich Norris.

embien said...

Our local paper (The Oregonian) decided not to use the LA Times puzzles after TMS went away.

It's a tribute to Rich Norris and our blogmistress c.c., that I continue to do the LAT puzzles online rather than the insipid one chosen by the local dead tree folks.

WM said...

C.C. and Mr. Norris...terrific insight on the extensive work that goes in to readying a puzzle for publication.

I do like the levels of the current puzzles. Friday and Saturday could be a teensy bit more difficult, but then, we have the advantage of this blog to help make us better solvers. I definitely prefer a puzzle that is completely solvable by accessing both directions of clues and dislike crossings of multiple obscure ones.

I think that Mr. Norris generally does an excellent job in keeping the puzzles solvable and enjoyable...lots of AHA moments.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy the new puzzles. Thanks Rich Norris

Philope

Hahtool said...

Another great interview, CC.

Rich, I enjoyed your responses. Love the puzzles.

I have to laugh, though, that the reason for not giving titles to the puzzles is "tradition." Change is hard. I once had a high level job and wanted to make some changes in how the office was run. I was met with considerable resistance. The rational was "But Ms. X never did that." Ms. X had not worked in the office for over 15 years! Tradition, indeed!

Buckeye said...

Thank you c.c. for keeping us abreast of what's going on with crosswords and making this one of the best and most accessible blogs around.

Thank you Mr. Norris for taking time out of your busy schedule to enlighten us on x/w procedure. Very enlightening.

Some people, in my local rag, have complained about the late week difficulty of your submissions. That was before you "eased up" somewhat. I think they're happier now, but I know how impossible it is to please everybody.

Thanks to both of you and keep up the GREAT work.

I must be off!

PJB-Chicago said...

Spot on interview, C. C., with a gentleman obviously committed to his craft, his constructors and his audience. As we solve the puzzles day in and day out, it's too easy sometimes to overlook all the hard work that goes into bringing quality clues, grids, and answers to us so consistently. Thanks to both of you for outlining the process and for helping us be better informed solvers!

kazie said...

Thank you C.C. and Rich, for an enlightening and fun interview.

As others have said, or paraphrasing them, where would we be without the advantages this blog affords us?