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Sara Goodchild

A Puzzling Process

Photo by Matt Smith

Like editing, solving puzzles is often a solitary endeavour. But not always! On the second Tuesday of every month, people get together in pubs across North America, Europe and beyond to solve puzzles at an event called Puzzled Pint. When I started going a few years ago, I never guessed that these entertaining nights out would lead to an exciting creative challenge and insights into my own editing career.

Puzzled Pint puzzles are different from standard crosswords or Sudokus in three key ways. First, they often do not provide instructions — part of the puzzle is figuring out how to solve it. Second, each set is based on a theme, such as Alice in Wonderland, Game of Thrones or Sherlock Holmes. Third, you use the solutions from the first four puzzles to solve a final puzzle — the metapuzzle.

Having enjoyed these inventive puzzles month after month, I started itching to write my own set. I decided on a Dracula theme and worked on my ideas for several months, producing a set of puzzles that I felt pretty good about. I sent them in and waited, imagining a glowing response approving my puzzles for release with perhaps a few minor tweaks.

As an experienced developmental editor, I should have known better.

What followed was a challenging, humbling and enlightening experience. Puzzled Pint has established a rigorous process for editing their puzzles, which is particularly impressive when you realize it’s an entirely volunteer-run organization.

The process begins when a puzzle submission comes in and an editor is assigned. My editor, Neal Tibrewala, analyzed each of my puzzles based on his attempts to solve them. His emails were friendly and diplomatic, but, having written emails like these myself, I could read between the lines: I had a lot of work to do. Neal and I collaborated on the puzzles one by one — I sent him revisions and he gave suggestions — until we arrived at versions we were both happy with.

The puzzles were now ready for the next step: playtesting. Neal sent a link out to the volunteers who run Puzzled Pint events in each city. They attempted to solve them, giving each one a “fun” and “difficulty” rating and providing comments. Neal analyzed the feedback to present me with a summary of the scores and a representative set of comments. After several more rounds of revisions, the puzzles went to QC for a final polish.

I have come out of this process not only with a better understanding of how to construct puzzles, but with some reminders about good developmental editing practices that will help me in my own work. Key among these is the importance of knowing your audience and purpose. Puzzled Pint’s clear idea about who their puzzles are aimed at (tipsy beginners) allows their editors to focus their comments and efficiently interpret playtest results. Being on the other side of the editor-author relationship also reminded me what it’s like to be edited. It’s easy to forget how vulnerable you feel when you open yourself up to criticism, however kind and skilful, of something you have made and are proud of.

Tonight, two thousand or so people will be tackling my Dracula puzzle set. Thanks to my talented editor and a well-defined testing process, I can relax and enjoy the evening, knowing my puzzles won’t bite.

~~~

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About the author

Sara Goodchild

Sara Goodchild is a developmental editor and writer working mainly in educational publishing and specializing in K–12 science. Cryptic crosswords are her favourite kind of puzzle.

10 Comments on “A Puzzling Process”

    • Sara Goodchild

      says:

      Thanks, Robert! I enjoyed your post very much. I feel like a certain amount of optimism is necessary during the act of creation, right? Otherwise we edit ourselves to a standstill.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    “Key among these is the importance of knowing your audience and purpose.”

    Yes, absolutely, that is what it is all about.

    • Sara Goodchild

      says:

      Thanks, Anita! It’s at the core of everything, for sure. But surprisingly easy to forget, sometimes, in the thick of things. It was good to be reminded.

  • Lisa

    says:

    As an avid Puzzled Pint-er and a Toronto editor, this was so cool to read! Thanks for sharing your experience (and I’m sorry to be missing tonight’s puzzles as I’m out of the country).

    • Sara Goodchild

      says:

      Hey! That’s great! Hope we can meet at a future PP. 🙂

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    What an interesting post, describing a fascinating application for editorial talent and skills! Did your particular editor have any traditional editorial experience or was he simply a puzzle fan who came by those qualities naturally?

    PS: Very nice to catch up with you again, Sara, after all these years …

    • Sara Goodchild

      says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Rosemary! Lovely to see your name. 🙂 Neal is an independent consultant for software companies and also acts as an expert witness for law firms on software patent-related cases—that’s his “day job.” But he told me he also spends about 20 hours a week on average on Puzzled Pint activities. He has not had formal training or traditional experience as an editor, but learned about puzzle editing from other Puzzled Pint puzzle experts. Since beginning to work as an editor with them, he has worked on several hundred draft puzzles and has analyzed the results of several thousand playtests. And yes, I think he naturally has many of the qualities of a good developmental editor—an analytical mind, tact, patience, etc. I learned so much from him. The puzzle community is growing so much and I’m not sure how much formal training is actually out there, so it’s a wonderful thing to have an organization like Puzzled Pint that can provide a structure for editorial feedback and playtesting for aspiring puzzle constructors such as myself!

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    I somehow missed this one. Interesting post!

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