Mentoring for women (and others) who want to learn to construct crosswords

The first thing your mentor would tell you here is that you don’t want a 13-letter theme answer when you’ve got a pair of 8s in the theme … and that this grid is ugly and the theme is lifeless

Erik Agard wrote on Facebook:

among the many reasons 2017 was an execrable year: the numbers on gender in crossword puzzling remained very bad! in the new york times, for example, though 10 women had their debut puzzle run (the highest number since 2011), the overall proportion was 13% of puzzles constructed by women (the lowest number in my lifetime). [13% is terrible! Decades ago, it was closer to 50%.—Ed.]

in the spirit of a recent nyt article (“why is fixing sexism women’s work?”, lindy west, jan. 3), i’d like to ask something i’ve never thought to ask before: men of crossworld, what can we do to combat sexism in our community, and to boost those constructor figures by a percentage point or forty? what specifically are you personally going to do in 2018 to make it happen? please think about it and let me know in the comments, and let’s be each other’s accountability buddies.

Erik has now created the Facebook group Puzzle Collaboration Directory to serve as a connection point for would-be constructors to link up with seasoned constructors (many but not all of them men). There’s a group document with email addresses for constructors who’ve signed on to be mentors (10 so far, but the number will grow).

If you’ve wondered whether you could actually construct a publishable crossword—especially if you identify as a woman, person of color, or someone from another group that’s underrepresented in crossword bylines—well, what are you waiting for? There are terrific constructors lining up to offer their coaching. Many of them have been generously helping newbies for years, so you wouldn’t be imposing on them. There’s so much to learn about getting started, developing themes, designing grids, navigating the process of filling your grid, and writing clues that work for your solvers.

(Note from Erik on the Puzzle Collaboration Directory page: “it’s often said that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. this group’s foundational intent is to rectify that inequity for women, people of color, and folks from other groups underrepresented in the puzzle world. if you don’t find yourself described in the previous sentence, please know that you’re equally welcome here; please also respect that priority, and keep it in mind when you’re navigating this group.”)

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9 Responses to Mentoring for women (and others) who want to learn to construct crosswords

  1. Penguins says:

    regarding sexism, do we know the percentage of women submitting puzzles and their acceptance rate?

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      It’s not really relevant here. The object is to get more women (and people of color, etc.) making puzzles and submitting puzzles. There’s little reason to think that (a) women are making subpar puzzles that get rejected or (b) male crossword editors are rejecting good puzzles just because they’re by women.

      I do suspect that the “second shift” phenomenon cuts into some women’s free time for leisure pursuits like making crosswords. We can’t address that from within the crossword community, but what we can do is gather resources to coach newbies and get the word out that there are eager mentors ready to help them.

      • Penguins says:

        Agard asked, “what can we do to combat sexism in our community…” so I wondered if there was any data out there.

        • Amy Reynaldo says:

          I don’t know of any such evidence. It would not be shocking if there were a bit of unconscious bias at play (in terms of not being attuned to the sorts of references a woman might include in a theme, being more accustomed to the sorts of references men use), but there are many women who’ve got nothing bad to say about working with editors like Will Shortz, Rich Norris, etc.

  2. huda says:

    It’s a great idea! Being proactive and creating opportunities is a wonderful step, and especially lowering barriers.
    I don’t know if this observation from academia is relevant here, but I mention it just in case. Nowadays, women represent more than 50% of the graduate students in my field (neuroscience). But I recently noticed that, several years in a row, there were few women on the short lists of candidates for new faculty positions that our selection committees has sent on to us for interview. I looked into this and discovered that very few women were applying to begin with. I also learned that this is a fairly general phenomenon. I discussed the matter with some very talented women trainees who expressed concern about the competitiveness and worried that they would not be considered sufficiently qualified.
    So, now we try to reach out in a variety of ways. Whenever I have a chance in mentoring groups or talks, I tell the young women to take a chance, to not worry too much about dual career issues ahead of time, or about being turned down, etc. So, at least in academia, we need to uncover and lower the barriers that stand between the talent and taking advantage of opportunities.
    I hope that this new crossword endeavor will encourage young women to take chances, to build their own strategies for taking rejection in stride, so that they can showcase their talent. I feel that doing it in crosswords will generalize into other aspects of life.

    • Laura B says:

      I hope it will encourage not-young women to take chances too.

      • huda says:

        True! Absolutely.
        I guess I was thinking that acquiring this ability pays dividends for a long time if you start young. But it’s a great life skill at any stage, and we’re all work in progress– especially anyone from a group that has been historically made to feel insecure or less valued.

  3. Lisa Finkel says:

    I am a 61 year-old female puzzler who’s always wanted to construct but (1) doesn’t know where to start, and (2) is pretty well intimidated by the crossword community. I sort of feel like a nerd on the sidelines lookin’ at the cool kids. The idea of having a mentor, some coaching, some training, some something would be really meaningful.

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      Come on over to the Facebook page, Lisa! It’s a public group so I think you should be to view everything even if you don’t have a FB account. There’s a group document listing email addresses. Pick a constructor and write to him or her, and you can get started!

      Patrick Berry’s Constructor’s Handbook comes highly recommended. $10, PDF. That will give you advice on how to develop your theme, and then you and your mentor can go back and forth to polish the theme. It all spins out from there.

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