Manchester University
Oak Leaves

September 30, 2016



Prof. Leonard Williams 'Puzzles' NYT Readers

Virginia Rendler

When Professor Leonard Williams grades papers, his comments contain nary a cross word. But the Wall Street Journal recently welcomed one—a crossword puzzle, that is.  

The professor of political science and Dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences has been doing crosswords since his teenage years. His stepfather introduced him to the crossword world, and he published his first works in 2001. Williams’s crosswords have since been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. 

Being published in the Wall Street Journal is no small feat by any means, but it has become more accessible as of late. “Until recently,” Williams said, “the Wall Street Journal didn't do crosswords every day of the week; they only did one a week, and so they were a little more restrictive in their openings to people and now they're less so. They've opened it up more to different constructors.”

Going about creating a puzzle is no simple process. “Coming up with the theme is the basic idea,” Williams said. The theme comes first, then it is set up in the grid. The black squares, referred to as the blocks, are next, followed by the fill and finally the clues. 

According to Mark Shenk, the puzzle editor for the Wall Street Journal, the crossword process is a collaborative effort. “Submissions are first looked over by my assistant Mark Danna to make sure they meet the basic specs, and then he and I look over all of them together,” Shenk wrote in an email. “Some puzzles are good to go from the first time we see them, and at other times there may be a lot of back-and-forth.” Williams’s puzzle had a few edits to its fills, but its theme was satisfactory. The professor made a few corrections and the Journal published the puzzle. 

Crosswords are not a solitary hobby. There are crossword tournaments and an extensive community. “There are probably a few hundred people who publish at least one crossword, then there are a smaller handful of people at the top who repeatedly show up in the publications or are editors,” Williams said. “It's a fairly small group at that high end, much like there is a small group who are really expert at solving in the tournaments. 
“It's always exciting to have an idea come to fruition, and follow it out because you don't typically put down the first thing you think of,” he continued. “You have to research, and writing clues can be like writing mini poems. You have to try to tap into the zeitgeist and make associations for people without giving anything away.” 

Williams, who has been at Manchester since fall 1982, intends to continue his crossword career, and hopes to see his puzzles once again in the New York Times.