Across Lite and the New York Times: A Crossword Kerfuffle

How do you solve crosswords, fellow puzzler? Are you a pencil-and-paper solver, an app solver, an online solver?

There are lots of options for solvers, depending on which outlet you’re talking about.

Unfortunately for some fans of the New York Times crossword, there will soon be fewer ways to access the flagship crossword.

It was announced recently that the NYT will no longer be supporting Across Lite, a third-party file format that some solvers use to import the puzzle into their solving app of choice.

I’m not sure how many solvers use Across Lite — there are millions of daily solvers of the Times crossword — but the online reaction has been fairly negative. Both Crossword Twitter and r/crossword feature numerous posts from disillusioned solvers, including Dan Feyer, multiple-time ACPT winner, who considers this little more than a cash grab by the NYT. (He has gone on to explain his point in greater detail in further tweets.)

I have no doubt that the staff at the Times anticipated some kind of blowback. I mean, we’re puzzle people. Puzzlers, despite an incredible capacity to learn and adapt and suss out all sorts of puzzly solutions, can be set in our ways. We like what we like.

While sitting in with my friends at the Penny Dell Puzzles table at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament one year, I offered a woman a free pencil. She went on a three-and-a-half-minute diatribe about the inferiority of the pencil and what she views as appropriate qualities for a solving pencil. After she was done, I waited a few seconds and then said, “Miss, you don’t HAVE to take the pencil.”

Like I said, puzzlers like what they like.

Of course, I can see both sides of the argument. The Times is under no obligation to support non-NYT methods of using the puzzle. I mean, knowing how hard our programmers here at PuzzleNation work to make sure our puzzles are accessible across many platforms, I suspect the NYT has the same issues with their own puzzle distribution, let alone worrying about non-brand formats.

But then again, there are reasons third-party platforms exist. Several solvers with visual impairment issues claim that the official app lacks the functionality they need, and they prefer to solve through third-party apps.

That’s a gap that needs to be closed, and if the NYT won’t, someone else will. I know other apps are already being suggested or developed in the wake of this decision.

One big reason is comfort: solvers are hoping to avoid losing the solving style they prefer.

Others begrudge the NYT for being so proprietary and locking away their expansive library of puzzles behind services that they find unwieldly or unreliable.

I’m intrigued to see what happens in the weeks and months to come. Do other apps rise to prominence and fill the gap formerly served through Across Lite, or will the Times respond to the criticism by stepping back or updating their own platforms?

Either way, I’m sure crossword fans will have plenty to say about it.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Erica Wojcik!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the second edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Erica Wojcik as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Erica has only started constructing crosswords over the last year, but she’s already making waves. Most notably, she has spearheaded the Expanded Crossword Name Database, a resource for constructors where the crossword community at large can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords.

She currently has a puzzle up on Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and we’ll start seeing her creations in outlets like The Inkubator in the coming months. I have no doubt her byline will be appearing elsewhere soon!

Erica was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Erica Wojcik

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I used to do morning crosswords with friends in college, but only sporadically. In 2015, my husband got me hooked on the NYT crossword and ever since, our daily routine involves solving the Times puzzle together and reading Rex Parker’s blog. I study language development as a professor of psychology, and crosswords perfectly combine my interests in language and problem solving.

I’d been curious about constructing for a while, but finally decided to try it out in February 2020. I tweeted something about wanting to construct and tagged Anna Shechtman and Erik Agard on a whim, and they both gave super advice and other constructors chimed in as well. I was so shocked and delighted by how nice and helpful everyone was!

But, it was February 2020 and before I could actually dive in, the pandemic struck and I was stuck juggling a job, a toddler, and a newborn. I got my head above water in November, downloaded Across Lite, read Patrick Berry’s Handbook, got hooked up with a mentor via the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory and very quickly became obsessed.

2. You have a puzzle in the pipeline with The Inkubator and you’re awaiting feedback on submissions to several of the major outlets. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Oh man, I’ve learned so, so many things from so, so many people! The most surprising part of constructing has been discovering the fun, welcoming online crossword community. I had no idea! It’s been such a delight to chat and joke and learn from so many folks. The most important (and most cliche) thing I’ve learned is to ask for help when you have a question. So many folks are willing to collaborate or share tips.

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love puzzles that have personality and teach me something new, which usually means crosswords that have colloquial/contemporary phrases and avoid common crosswordese. Of course, I’ve learned that this is SO HARD to do. I end up ripping up entire grids because I have AMTOO and OSHA gnawing at me. But it’s worth it when you fill a grid that is just so clean and fresh throughout.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

There are WAY too many constructors that I admire to list here! But in recent memory…. I absolutely loved Nam Jin Yoon’s Saturday NYT puzzle at the end of January. So many good phrases. Such clever cluing on the shorter fill. I’m also a huge fan of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 blog. Those make me laugh out loud all the time.

4. What’s next for Erica Wojcik?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for the Expanded Crossword Name Database, and one thing that several people have asked about is whether I can create a similar database for cultural things (teams, places, organizations etc.) So I’ll be getting that up soon!

I’m such a n00b at constructing, so I’m still just constantly playing around with themes and grids and trying to really find my voice. I love love love collaborating so I hope to do more of that, too!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

Read Patrick Berry’s Handbook and join Crossword Twitter 🙂

A huge thank you to Erica for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to contribute your ideas to the Expanded Crossword Name Database! I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what she creates next.

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