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How Crossword Puzzles Are Really Made

Editor's Note: Last week, we published an item on how crossword puzzles are made. As many, many readers pointed out, we didn't have our facts straight. You deserve better. So today we've enlisted the help of professional crossword puzzle writer Matt Gaffney. Matt currently creates crosswords for The Week, New York Magazine, and  Washingtonian, and he also wrote our book of crosswords. Let's try this again.

WORD-WEAVING 101: HOW TO LOVINGLY AND SKILLFULLY CREATE A CROSSWORD PUZZLE

If you’d like to solve the puzzle discussed in this article before reading further, click here.

When I tell people at parties that I write crossword puzzles for a living, by far the most common question they ask is, “Would you excuse me for a moment?” If that level of social esteem sounds like something to which you might aspire, follow along as I construct a crossword puzzle from start to finish.

OK, the real first question they ask at parties is, “Which do you write first, the clues or the grid?” Answer: neither. The first thing you do is come up with your puzzle’s theme.

A crossword puzzle’s theme is some unifying motif among certain answers in the grid, generally the longest answers. Crossword themes range from vaguely comprehensible to hellishly complex. For this puzzle we’ll stick to the former.

With an eye toward impressing the client, I decide right off the bat that MENTAL FLOSS should be one of this puzzle’s theme entries, and therefore search for a way to incorporate that phrase into a wider, hopefully amusing pattern. A few minutes of theme-storming later and I spot the TV show ALF bridging the two words in "MENT AL FLOSS." That’s kind of amusing, and my spidey-sense tells me there could be something theme-worthy here.

I decide that this puzzle’s theme will feature two-word phrases bridged by a one-word TV show title. Hidden words are a common theme gimmick, and if I can come up with a fitting title that explains the wordplay involved—something like “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” playing on how the show is “interrupted” by the break between the two words—then we’ll be golden. And I’ll put circles in the grid to highlight the shows, since it’d be tough to understand the theme without them.

Time to make a list of all the one-word TV shows I can find. Google and Wikipedia are my friends here, but my BFF today is IMDb, specifically this page. After 30 minutes of list-scouring, I’ve scribbled down the best few dozen candidate shows, so it’s time to look for the ones that can hide in a two-word phrase. Three-letter shows like ALF or CSI (in "TRAFFI C SIGNS," say) are fine, but it’d be much cooler to use four-, five-, or even a six-letter show if I can find some that work. The phrases I settle on need to be symmetrical in length so they can offset each other in the grid. So if I'm going to use the 11-letter MENTAL FLOSS in the top left, I'll also need an 11-letter entry in the bottom right as its mirror image. The only exception is an entry going across the middle of the grid, which provides its own symmetry.

When I’m done paring the list down, my theme entries look like this:

MENT AL FLOSS hiding “ALF” (11 letters)

JOE L OSTEEN hiding “Lost” (10 letters)

ALABA MA SHAKES hiding “M*A*S*H”(13 letters)

S WING STATE hiding “Wings” (10 letters)

LI VE EPISODE hiding “Veep” (11 letters)

So that’s a decent set, and I like the mix of recent and old-school programming so everyone from teenagers to Baby Boomers and beyond can relate.

I didn’t get my six-letter show, but had a few close calls: COM BAT MANEUVER isn’t quite strong enough (just 75k Google hits) for “Batman,” and “Roswell” came within one letter of being a killer seven-letter show hidden in HE RO’S WELCOME. Can’t get everything you want in life, but this is still a B+ group. Did I miss any good ones? Let me know in the comments if so.

Black square placement is next, guided by some long-established rules: Entries must be at least three letters long, so no TV Guide-style two letter words allowed. The grid must have “180-degree rotational symmetry,” meaning that if you turn it upside-down, the pattern of black squares will remain the same. And finally, the maximum word count permitted in the grid is 78.

With theme entries and black squares placed, my grid looks like this:

Now for the toughest part of the process: Filling the grid, and not just with words that fit but with ones that are fun as well. "AREA" and "ARIA" and "ONO" and "ERIE" are all perfectly good words, but they also appear so often in crosswords that it’s tough to come up with an original clue. You know how many times I’ve scoured Yoko Ono’s Wikipedia page looking for something new to say about her? A lot of times.

Another common party question: “Can’t a computer just fill the grid for you?” Answer: Yes, sort of. A few holdouts (like myself, about 25% of the time) still use graph paper and pencil to fill their grids, which has its own advantages (your brain has fresh entries that haven’t made it into databases yet) and disadvantages (it takes longer, and you might miss something obvious the computer finds in two seconds), but mostly, the process is semi-computerized now, a dance between the human brain’s judgment and the silicon monster’s brute force. You still need both to get a good final product, but autofill programs are gradually making the human contribution less and less important.

I start my fill-work in the center of the grid, a common divide-and-conquer strategy which will leave me with the more blocked-off edges to knock out later. If I start at the edges, I might later find it impossible to finish the center that connects them all, and then I’d be back to square one (rim shot).

The center is also a logical place to begin here since there are three theme entries running through it, which constrains my fill choices. The peripheral sections all have just one or two themers in the area, which makes life easier for me out there.

After about two hours I’ve got a fill I’m satisfied with, especially considering the five theme entries (which is on the high end). As with the theme entries, the fill has a decent balance of contemporary ("HBO," "OMG," "GOLD’S" Gym) and classical ("KABUL," "PARIS," "LBJ"). I'm not too thrilled with having to use the obscure "CIS," the abbreviation "ONT," or the partial "DEO," but that’s how it has to be with crosswords, and I've kept the dreck to a minimum. Plus there’s some catchy stuff in there, like "EASY NOW," "CON JOB," and the cross-referenced "STEELY / DAN" to balance it out.

Now it’s time to clue this thing. I aim for that same mix of old and new, with a few misdirecting clues thrown in to keep the solver on notice. My favorites are [Word that reverses to a “Seinfeld” character] for "REMARK" and [Felt something on your head?] for "FEDORA."

Sometimes, a marginal entry can be rescued with a good clue, like ONT here. Abbreviations are considered suboptimal, but this one is saved by the misdirecting [Neighbor of N.Y. and Minn]. Hopefully you were trying to envision what U.S. state could possibly border both of those.

Finally, it’s time to fact-check all my clues. Crossword editing tip: check everything, especially the clues you know something about already. That’s where the errors come. For instance, I’ve read three or four Michener books, but "IBERIA" at 2-Down isn’t one of them. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; my original clue referred to it as a Michener “novel,” since all of his books that I’ve read have been novels. I checked this one to be safe—and sure enough, Iberia is a work of non-fiction.

The very last step is a quick test-solve to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It all looks good, so I export the puzzle into a tidy e-file and send it off to my editor at 17-Across (which rhymes with its answer, "MENTAL FLOSS").

Total time elapsed, from theme concept to clicking “send,” is a little under six hours. And here she is:

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The Most Searched Shows on Netflix in 2017, By State

Orange is the New Black is the new black, at least as far as Netflix viewers are concerned. The women-in-prison dramedy may have premiered in 2013, but it’s still got viewers hooked. Just as they did in 2017, HighSpeedInternet.com took a deep dive into Netflix analytics using Google Trends to find out which shows people in each state were searching Netflix for throughout the year. While there was a little bit of crossover between 2016 and 2017, new series like American Vandal and Mindhunter gave viewers a host of new content. But that didn’t stop Orange is the New Black from dominating the map; it was the most searched show in 15 states.

Coming in at a faraway second place was American Vandal, a new true crime satire that captured the attention of five states (Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin). Even more impressive is the fact that the series premiered in mid-September, meaning that it found a large and rabid audience in a very short amount of time.

Folks in Alaska, Colorado, and Oregon were all destined to be disappointed; Star Trek: Discovery was the most searched-for series in each of these states, but it’s not yet available on Netflix in America (you’ve got to get CBS All Access for that, folks). Fourteen states broke the mold a bit with shows that were unique to their state only; this included Big Mouth in Delaware, The Keepers in Maryland, The OA in Pennsylvania, GLOW in Rhode Island, and Black Mirror in Hawaii.

Check out the map above to see if your favorite Netflix binge-watch matches up with your neighbors'. For more detailed findings, visit HighSpeedInternet.com.

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Afternoon Map
Monthly Internet Costs in Every Country

Thanks to the internet, people around the world can conduct global research, trade tips, and find faraway friends without ever leaving their couch. Not everyone pays the same price for these digital privileges, though, according to new data visualizations spotted by Thrillist.

To compare internet user prices in each country, cost information site HowMuch.net created a series of maps. The data comes courtesy of English market research consultancy BDRC and Cable.co.uk, which teamed up to analyze 3351 broadband packages in 196 nations between August 18, 2017 and October 12, 2017.

In the U.S., for example, the average cost for internet service is $66 per month. That’s substantially more than what browsers pay in neighboring Mexico ($27) and Canada ($55). Still, we don’t have it bad compared to either Namibia or Burkina Faso, where users shell out a staggering $464 and $924, respectively, for monthly broadband access. In fact, internet in the U.S. is far cheaper than what residents in 113 countries pay, including those in Saudi Arabia ($84), Indonesia ($72), and Greenland ($84).

On average, internet costs in Asia and Russia tend to be among the lowest, while access is prohibitively expensive in sub-Saharan Africa and in certain parts of Oceania. As for the world’s cheapest internet, you’ll find it in Ukraine and Iran.

Check out the maps below for more broadband insights, or view HowMuch.net’s full findings here.

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site HowMuch.net.
HowMuch.net

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site HowMuch.net.
HowMuch.net

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site HowMuch.net.
HowMuch.net

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site HowMuch.net.
HowMuch.net

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site HowMuch.net.
HowMuch.net

[h/t Thrillist]

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