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Will Shortz & Joel Fagliano edit a crossword puzzle

Will Shortz sometimes provides comments to XWord Info about individual puzzles but for the Saturday December 20, 2014 crossword by Kevin G. Der and Ian Livengood, he wrote this fascinating, detailed explanation of his editorial thought process.

Pro Tip: Click each answer word below to see all the other choices Will has made to clue that word.

Joel Fagliano
Joel Fagliano
Will Shortz
Will Shortz

Comments from Will Shortz:

Most people have no idea what editing a crossword involves. Even my bosses at The Times are clueless, I'm sure. So I thought solvers might find it interesting if I explained my changes on a particular puzzle clue by clue. I chose today's puzzle, because Kevin and Ian are both good clue writers, and the changes touch on a lot of different points.

To set the scene: I work in my home office with my assistant, Joel Fagliano, who has become a crackerjack clue writer himself over the past few years. We're surrounded by dictionaries, two computers, and a wide array of reference books. Generally speaking, Joel and I have the same likes and dislikes in clues. [They even tilt their heads at the same angle!] When we decide to change one in a manuscript, we brainstorm, throwing out ideas to each other in rapid succession, listening to reactions from the other person. Usually we both have to like a clue in order for me to use it.

GridOriginal constructor's clueAnswerComments from Will ShortzNew clue
1 AWhere much grass growsPOT FARMSLovely. Great start for the puzzle. Ten years ago I probably wouldn't have allowed this, because I eschewed drug references. They felt unseemly for The Times, given that marijuana was universally illegal. But now that marijuana is legal in several states, and some of its stigma has dissipated, I think an occasional pot reference is OK, especially when it's clever.
9 ACurrency from which "shelling out" originatedWAMPUMDidn't care for this, as it felt vague. Using a slang term with the same general meaning:Moolah
15 AStrongly rhythmic jazz offshootAFROBEATWhile I let this pass, Frank Longo, my chief test solver and backup fact-checker, couldn't verify that Afrobeat is an "offshoot" of jazz. Dictionaries define Afrobeat as a fusion of jazz, soul, and funk.Jazz/funk fusion genre
16 AOne with a crest and shieldIGUANASince almost no one knows what the "shield" of an iguana is (it's a tiny spot on the side of the head), I didn't feel comfortable throwing this at solvers. New clue, slightly more helpful, and more understandable:Creature with a crest
18 ASelectCALL ONNot on-target enough. New clue (just as tough):Tap
19 AArm of the sea?TENTACLEGood, but I've used this clue five times already, most recently in November.Place for a sucker
20 AMass recitalsCREEDSDidn't like this, because I felt there is only one creed that's recited at Masses. Multiple recitals of the same creed are not "creeds."Faiths
25 APlato portrayer in a 1955 filmMINEOToo vague. Many solvers wouldn't know the film reference.Plato portrayer in "Rebel Without a Cause"
26 AOrg. catching some 11-DownDEA(11-Down = MULES) -- Slight change, with more accurate wording:Org. seeking to catch 11-Down
27 ASafe cracker?POPGUNNice idea, but I couldn't justify the word "cracker" here. A popgun pops; it doesn't crack.Cork's place, maybe
31 ABreeder's objectiveDOCILITYMaybe ... or maybe not. It depends on the breeder and the type of animal.Tameness
35 ATeemingAPLENTYSince "aplenty" usually follows the noun it modifies, it doesn't substitute well with the given clue. Generally you want a clue and its answer to be interchangeable in a sentence, be in the same part of speech, and have the same meaning.In abundance
38 ADelishREAL GOODJoel and I thought this was OK, but Frank objected, saying the clue was too specific for such a general phrase.Positive response to "How ya doin'?"
42 ARecipients of a 2009 Congressional Gold MedalWASPSI had no idea what this meant, and I hate, hate, hate clues like that. So we spelled it out. (Incidentally, it's very hard to clue this meaning of WASP without repeating any part of the acronym -- "women," "Airforce," "service," or "pilots." Try it yourself!)Flying female fighters in W.W. II
44 AGhanian food stapleYAMSToo obscure. Also, fwiw, the usual adjectival form of "Ghana" is "Ghanaian."Orange side dish
46 ALike most puzzlesCLUEDToo vague, and maybe not even accurate, as many types of puzzles don't have clues.Hip, with "in"
51 A___ Bullet (Calvin & Hobbes alter-ego)TRACERToo trivial.Kind of bullet
53 ABefore making one's debutPRENATALGood. It just needed a question mark, because of its stretchiness.Before making one's debut?
57 AWarnings that come in five colorsALERTSToo specific. Only the warnings from the Department of Homeland Security come in five colors. Besides, you don't even need the clue's last five words.Tip-offs, maybe
60 AEnterprise figureNET SALESToo vague. This could refer to any business-related figure. The new clue doesn't change much, but is more accurate and a little misleading besides:Important figure in business
3 DOne delivering a knockoutTRANKGood. It just needed "informally" at the end. The slanginess of the answer needs to be signaled somehow.One delivering a knockout, informally
5 DOnes repeating "I do"?ABBANice, but too vague. We added the year "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" was a hit in the U.S.Ones repeating "I do" in 1976?
6 DDraw from, perhapsREACH INTONot exact enough. You can reach into something without intending to draw from it. The new clue avoids repeating "in" in the answer, which is not easy:Access, as a pocket
7 DFilm critic JanetMASLINJanet Maslin has been primarily a literary critic since 1999. She was a film critic for The Times before that.Literary/film critic Janet
8 DReadySTEELEDNot on-target enough. You can be ready for something without being steeled for it. Steeling suggests filling oneself with resolution or determination.Girded
10 DStabilizing lab supplyAGARAgar, as a stabilizer and thickener in food products, is used much more in kitchens than in labs.Stabilizing kitchen supply
12 DModern way to losePALEO DIETFirst, the primary purpose of the Paleo diet is to eat in a healthy way, not to lose weight. Second, clues about diets that mention "losing" have gotten old.Faddish food regimen
13 DParagon of ease, in ItalyUNO DUE TRECute, but it's not clear that "One, two, three" has the same usage in Italy as it does here. The new clue has been used twice before in The Times, in one wording or another, but long-enough ago, I think, to be used again.Italian count?
14 DGreat white, sayMANSLAYERToo vague.Murderer
23 DDr. ___ (nemesis of the Fantastic Four)DOOMGood, except for the word "nemesis," which, strictly speaking, means "a formidable and usually victorious opponent." Since Dr. Doom is not usually victorious in the comic books, we changed "nemesis" to "archenemy."Dr. ___ (archenemy of the Fantastic Four)
27 DHolder of some wheelsPARTY TRAYToo vague.Caterer's preparation
28 DIago or Cassio, e.g.OPERA ROLEKind of mean, because Iago and Cassio are much better known from Shakespeare than opera. The new clue is still deceptive:Figaro, e.g.
29 DOnes with recess appointments?PLAYMATESStretchy, but Joel and I liked it. And there is a question mark. So we kept it.
32 DResult of extreme volatilityCOUP D'ETATToo vague, and not very interesting. The new clue is all Joel's, btwPower outage?
36 DQueen's complaintYOWLToo remote. What queen is this?Caterwaul
39 DSoft French cheese named after the crown princeDAUPHINThe French cheese seems to be quite obscure. It's not listed in most dictionaries, so that part of the clue was not particularly helpful.Heir apparent of a French king
43 DPart of a recurring Eastwood ensembleSERAPENice, but vague. We made the clue more specific:Wear for Clint Eastwood in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
48 DCyber Monday activityETAILNice, and relatively timely. We kept it.
49 DWhere Deer Isle and Moose River are locatedMAINEAs the population of Moose River, Me., is 218, according to the 2010 census, this seemed too obscure a reference, even if the town's name does scream "Maine."Home for Deer Isle and Moosehead Lake
50 DDock who claimed to throw a no-hitter on LSDELLISFirst, it wasn't clear to me if the name was Dock Ellis or Ellis Dock. I wanted to clear this up for anyone who doesn't know. Second, the verb tense seemed off. And third, I thought a little more information would give the answer context.Dock ___, Pirate who claimed to have thrown a no-hitter on LSD
54 D"What's in ___ Head" (children's board game)NED'SToo obscure. This game gets fewer than 7,000 hits on Google. Also, fwiw, names of games don't get quote marks in The Times."___ Declassified" (old Nickelodeon show)

Well, there you have it. Feel free to quibble over some of Joel's and my changes. I hope, though, that you think the edits as a whole are an improvement. Btw, almost all the clues not discussed above are Kevin's and Ian's. Joel and I are big fans of them both.

Will Shortz