Patrick Duggan (SAR’11), who recently sold two crossword puzzles to the New York Times, talks about the high art and low pay of the highbrow word game| From Gallery | By Nathaniel Boyle
Patrick Duggan (SAR'11) Photo by Vernon Doucette
Bostonia: Is there a name for someone who makes crossword puzzles?
Duggan: “Constructor” is the term most people would use.
How did you get started making crosswords?
When I found out that crossword puzzles are all individually made by some person — that it’s not a company or a computer program that was making them — I wanted to figure out if I could do it. I just tried it and eventually I got a good one.
Do you use some kind of software?
There are programs on the computer that can help you. If you have a string of letters with blank squares, they can give you a list of words that can fill it up. That’s definitely helpful, but it’s not going to help you make a crossword that’s going to be published by the New York Times or a major publication. A computer can generate plenty of dictionary words, but what makes a puzzle desirable nowadays is the kind of colloquialisms and modern slang that you won’t find in a dictionary. You try to keep it as modern as possible.
Can you make a career of this?
No. It’s not a high-paying thing. You get about $200 per puzzle, even for the New York Times. And they’re somewhat time-consuming to make. So you’d have to be exceptionally skilled and have a lot of connections if that was something you wanted to do for a career. That’s not my plan.
Where are the toughest crossword puzzles in the world found?
The New York Times. The puzzles published late in the week, Friday or Saturday, are considered among the harder puzzles. The LA Times has reputable puzzles. There’s a cleverness to them that makes them more difficult and also more fun to do.
What’s the Holy Grail for crossword makers?
Most people would say the New York Times. It’s attempted and solved by more people around the country than any other.
Are there Chinese crossword puzzles?
As far as I know there are crosswords all over the world. The fifteen-by-fifteen square box is distinctly American. If you go around the world, there are different shapes and different formats and rules for how to construct an “American” puzzle. It’s definitely a concept that’s used all over the place.
What advice would you give someone who’s terrible at crosswords?
The only way anyone gets good is by doing them over and over and learning the words in crossword puzzles that you don’t use in normal language. There’s actually a term for the language in crosswords: “crossword-ese.”