May 2018


Constructing crosswords

by Liz Hillman EyeWorld Senior Staff Writer

Dr. Haight started creating crossword puzzles a few years ago and has since had several appear in publications such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Source: Bruce Haight, MD

San Diego ophthalmologist has landed puzzles in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times

Perhaps you’re someone who likes to settle into a comfortable chair once a week and complete the Sunday newspaper’s crossword puzzle. Maybe you do such puzzles daily or only while sitting on an airplane after you’ve exhausted all other reading possibilities.
While many have at least tried to do a crossword puzzle, have you ever thought about the process of constructing one? Bruce Haight, MD, Eye Associates of San Diego, La Mesa, California, neither solved crossword puzzles nor created them until about 5 years ago. Now, he’s had dozens of puzzles published in prestigious newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Dr. Haight said he started attempting to solve The New York Times crossword puzzles when he got an app on his tablet. He started doing all Monday puzzles because that’s the easiest day of the week in the Times, he said. When he had a handle on those, he progressed and new feels good with Monday through Wednesday puzzles.
“I still have trouble with the later days of the week,” he said.
Something Dr. Haight thought was missing from the puzzles he was solving were puns.
“I like puns. I’ve got a bunch of corny puns with my grandkids and I thought, there are not enough puns in crosswords; I’m going to make one,” Dr. Haight said of why he set out to create and market his first puzzle back in 2012.
He worked with a friend, an already experienced crossword constructor, on this first crossword puzzle, which featured a bunch of puns as the theme. The puzzle was rejected.
“Looking back on it, it was not even close. It was a bad puzzle,” Dr. Haight said.
Of the crossword puzzles he has created, it was lucky number 39 in 2013 that was first accepted by Will Shortz, The New York Times crosswords editor, a man Dr. Haight described as the Mr. Crossword of the country.
“[This] was the realization of my dream and all those hours of work. Looking back on that puzzle, it was an incredibly bad puzzle, and [Mr. Shortz] bent over backward to accept it. … It was a crummy puzzle, the first one, but I was proud of it,” he said.
Since then, Dr. Haight has had 35 puzzles published in The New York Times, including the coveted Sunday slot. Even still, his overall acceptance rate is only about 25%.
“It’s competitive. You’ve got professional puzzle makers, and The New York Times gets about 80 puzzles a week on its desk and only accepts seven. …You’ve got to be willing to put up with quite a bit of rejection,” he said.
Dr. Haight said he sees crossword puzzle construction as a challenge, which is why he keeps it up despite the rejection rate. He went from making three to four puzzles a week while he was overcoming the crossword-constructing learning curve to only doing about one to one and a half now.
Making a crossword puzzle starts with a theme. Dr. Haight said he will sometimes get inspiration for themes from things he sees in everyday life, and other times it comes from browsing through old puzzles.
“They want an interesting theme that hasn’t been done before or maybe you have a new twist on it,” Dr. Haight said.
After fitting his theme words into a 15x15 grid for a weekday puzzle—21x21 if it’s for a Sunday—and adding black squares, Dr. Haight uses a program to populate fill words into the empty boxes. It takes some time to find fill words that you want to keep in the puzzle.
“The second best thing that [editors] are interested in is the fill; they want interesting fill words,” Dr. Haight said.
Once the fill words are populated, he creates clues. Clues for a Monday crossword will be easier, getting tougher as the week progresses. Saturday is the toughest day of the week. A good portion of these clues will likely be changed by the crossword’s editor, but Dr. Haight said it’s mostly the theme and fill words that influence selection of a puzzle.
After completing a puzzle—a weekday puzzle takes 4–5 hours—Dr. Haight submits it. While the Los Angeles Times accepts electronic submissions, Dr. Haight said Mr. Shortz with The New York Times is old fashioned and only takes print submissions through the mail.
Dr. Haight has created a couple of puzzles with ophthalmology themes. Two have featured the giant E on the Snellen eye chart. One of those did not have any words featuring the letter “e.”
“It was pretty hard to come up with a puzzle with no Es,” he said.
Another was based off of the words, “I SEE.” While “I SEE” was one of the fill words that provided a clue to the theme, the actual theme was words starting with “I” and “C,” such as “Internet café.”
A Valentine’s Day puzzle where the theme was “BOXED ROSES” included “BOXED” and “ROSES” in the center and at four points in the puzzle where the letters “r,” “o,” “s,” and “e,” formed the shape of a 2x2 box.
Dr. Haight also makes crossword puzzles with images, called grid art. His creations have featured a Scottish terrier, fish, birds, and bats. Constructing these “visual puzzles” is something Dr. Haight said he enjoys.
As for goals for this hobby, Dr. Haight said he has never gotten a Saturday slot in The New York Times before. While it’s “kind of” a goal of his, he said he won’t be surprised if he doesn’t get it. The Saturday Times crossword is notoriously difficult to solve, and he doesn’t try his hand at this level too often, only 2–3 times per year.
Another goal is to make it to 100 puzzles accepted by The New York Times. If he sticks with it for another 10 years, Dr. Haight said he thinks he’ll make it.

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