In the history of The New York Times Crossword there have been twenty under 20-year-old puzzle constructors published. One of the few is Anna Shectman ’12, an English major at Swarthmore and regular constructor for the Swarthmore Phoenix crossword.
Shectman became interested in crosswords during her junior year of high school, after seeing the documentary Wordplay. She began to integrate The New York Times crossword into her daily routine and she now describes completing the puzzle as an “obsession.” The Friday or Saturday puzzles, the most difficult of the week, take her forty-five minutes to three hours. She also faithfully completes the KenKen puzzles adjacent to the crossword, but finds them to be much less challenging. If stuck on a crossword clue, she recommends taking “a break from the puzzle and coming back a few hours later to revisit.”
At the same time Shectman began solving puzzles, she also started constructing. “The film [Wordplay] explained the rules of construction and gave me insight into the close knit and eccentric crossword community, which was appealing to me.” When making puzzles, Anna occasionally uses a dictionary to find words for difficult parts of the puzzle matrix, but only as a last resort.
Shectman’s path to publication in The New York Times began with a grade-inflation themed crossword intended for the Phoenix. A friend who read over the puzzle before publication in the college newspaper declared it “Times worthy” and suggested that Anna submit it to New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz.
The grade inflation theme was inspired by the famed lack of GPA massaging that occurs at Swarthmore. Swatties are found of the expression “anywhere else it would be an A.” Shectman said that, “One of the thing I cherish about Swarthmore are professor’s high expectations.”
Shortz, who receives about 200 puzzles per week, accepted Anna’s puzzle in January; it was published on May 26, 2010. Anna describes the process as “slow.” She submitted a rebus crossword, a puzzle where there is more than one letter in each box, at the same time, and though it was accepted it has yet to be published.
Submitting to The Times has also given Anna the opportunity to learn from other puzzle constructors, particularly one of her heros, Will Shortz with whom she has corresponded with via email. Mr. Shortz accepted the rebus puzzle and congratulated Anna on the theme (which is confidential until publication in The Times), but he requested Anna rework the “inelegant parts of the grid” before it appeared in the paper.
The virtual puzzle community also weighed in on Anna’s crossword. “I received career advice and constructive criticism, and a less favorable review from a notoriously negative crossword blogger.” says Anna.
Anna’s next New York Times puzzle is tentatively scheduled for publication later this fall, but her puzzles are also still available in the Thursday Phoenix. Her first puzzle (with solutions) is available online.