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You're a what?

As a crossword puzzle constructor, Daniel Stark belongs to one of the world's smallest occupations. But his work appears far and wide, as well as down and across.

He and his wife, Roslyn, construct crosswords in their Cumberland, Wisconsin, home and sell them for publication in The New York Times and a host of other newspapers, books, magazines, and newsletters.

According to Daniel, success in crossword constructing depends on catering to the market. Constructors must know the tastes of the editors who buy puzzles and the preferences of the puzzle solvers, themselves. "Some editors don't like abbreviations," Daniel says. "Others don't like commercial words like company names or products. You have to keep your market in mind. Some people like the clues to look like they came from the dictionary. Other people are looking for things that are funny, or they're looking for tricky, punny things.

"For the expert market, you have to come up with a theme for the longer words in the grid," Daniel says. "That's your starting point. Your theme can be any kind of mental trick or game or association. For example, you could have John Travolta movies or popular songs that have colors in them."

After Daniel chooses the longer theme words, he selects a grid that will accommodate them. "We have a pile of grids we keep for each size puzzle," he says, 11 and you say, `OK, I've got two 15-letter words here and one 17-letter word and two 19-letter words.' The grids are categorized by how long the words are, and you find a likely candidate just by kind of pawing through them and saying, `Yeah, that looks like a good pattern.'" Daniel notes that all crossword puzzle constructors use the same hundred or so grids, with minor modifications.

Like most constructors, Daniel uses crossword compiling software. First, he calls up his chosen grid onscreen and types in the theme words. He then selects his program's "autofill" function. Drawing on one of several customized dictionaries, this function automatically fills in the rest of the words in the grid, completing the puzzle. Over the years, Daniel has culled a separate dictionary to match the likes and dislikes of the puzzle editor at each major crossword publisher. Usually, he tinkers with the autofill output to adjust subtleties of word choice that exceed the capability of the software.

Next come the clues. "That's where the real writing aspect of the business comes in," Daniel says. "The ultra premium markets are looking for really fresh stuff, and I like rooting around and coming up with interesting things." To discover curious facts and trivia, he delves into the scores of reference books that fill six bookcases in his workroom. Accuracy counts. "When you're writing difficult clues," he says, "you have to find a way of documenting what you say."

Over time, the Starks have compiled databases of the many word clues they and other constructors have written. "The regular premium markets are not as demanding that everything be brand new," Daniel says, "so you can recycle some of the clues." But it's not as simple as it sounds. Selecting the clue that gels best with a puzzle as a whole is an art in itself.

Daniel has come a long way since his first puzzling construction. "I think I was in seventh grade," he says. "I attempted to construct a few puzzles, but I discovered you weren't allowed to make up arbitrary abbreviations to cover up areas where you couldn't get anything to match up."

For years afterward, Daniel stuck to solving crosswords. Eventually, he met Roslyn, who shared his passion for puzzles. "We both worked on puzzles in fits," he says, but neither aspired to a constructing career. The couple earned their living as computer programmers, until a casual comment spurred a change.

"My wife happened to say how impossible she thought it was for someone to devise a computer program to make puzzles," Daniel says. "I agreed with her that it was impossible and then started working on it." His pioneering efforts soon led to a successful program, and the couple began to make puzzles for sale. Before long, Roslyn quit her programming job to construct full time; Daniel gave up his former career a few years later. The two of them have constructed over 10,000 crossword puzzles since 1989.

According to Daniel, people often become puzzle constructors after having worked as English teachers or engineers, so they have college degrees. Even so, there are no educational requirements for constructors. Daniel came close to earning a bachelor's degree as a math major; his wife has a master's degree in English.

What's the best way to learn the puzzle making craft? Obtain crossword compiling software and practice, Daniel says.

Whether beginner or expert, no constructor makes a comfortable living solely by selling puzzles. Publishers typically pay a one-time fee for all rights upon publication; the puzzles accepted ,by an editor may appear in print 6 months to a year from the time of submission. The New York Times pays a maximum of $75 for a daily crossword puzzle, and most other buyers offer only $40 for a daily. Large Sunday puzzles bring in between $ 100 and $350 apiece. "Unfortunately," says Daniel, "there's only one Sunday per week."

To supplement the family income, Daniel also edits crossword puzzles for a book series published by Running Press. This places him in the ranks of an elite group: only a handful of puzzle editors work for a few publishers of books, magazines, newspapers, and crossword newsletters. "The editors are the ones who make the money," Daniel says, laughing. "They're on a fixed retainer or they're salaried, so--though they don't get rich at it--they do have a stable income."

Besides the Starks, four or five other American constructors generate significant income by selling puzzles, according to Daniel. These constructors tend to have more than one source of income, too. Several others sell puzzles on a smaller scale. Daniel estimates that 100 to 200 crossword enthusiasts each sell more than 5 puzzles per year in the United States. Similarly, another 100 to 200 people do variety puzzles, such as cryptograms, metacrostics, and word search puzzles, in addition to--or instead of--crosswords.

The opportunities and earnings for crossword puzzle constructors may not attract scads of new workers into the occupation, but a few hardy constructors will surely continue their wordy work. And the reason should puzzle no one. As Daniel puts it, "You get paid to do what you'd probably do almost for nothing, anyway."

Matthew Mariani is a contributing editor to the OOQ, (202) 606-5728.
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Title Annotation:crossword puzzle constructor
Author:Mariani, Matthew
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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