A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the 2018 BosWords Puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and take a crack at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


Comedy Central by Andrew Kingsley

This unscored opening puzzle is a nice warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The revealer (INSIDE JOKE) explains the simple hook — words and phrases containing synonyms for “joke,” a la ACU”PUN”CTURE — and the easily-accessible fill entries make this puzzle a breeze.

Interesting grid entries included ZINN, YUAN, THE OC, and FAMOUS AMOS, and my favorite clues were “Ocean liner?” for SHORE and “Ending with ‘buck’ or ‘stink’” for AROO.

Puzzle 1: Cold Open by Laura Braunstein

For the second year in a row, Laura Braunstein constructed the opening puzzle of the tournament, and once again, she delivers a picture perfect appetizer for a day of solving. The cluing feels fresh and relevant, and the theme — phrases with a chilly starter, like ICY RECEPTION — is instantly gettable without feeling hackneyed or overdone. The grid fill is fun with hardly any crosswordese. A terrific start for the event.

Interesting grid entries included AIR GUITAR, TACO TRUCK, LISZT, and DOODAD, and my favorite clues were “Medieval peasant (no, not ESNE!)” for SERF — a nice reference to common crosswordese there — and the pairing of “Much ____ About Nothing” for ADO and “‘Much ____ About Nothing’ (1996 ‘The Simpsons’ episode)” for APU.

Puzzle 2: Not Ready for “Prime” Time Players by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb

This puzzle puts an interesting spin on the classic moniker for Saturday Night Live cast members by casting athletes from Boston-based teams whose jersey numbers are not prime numbers. (For instance, BOBBY ORR is “Bruins #4 who is an NHL and crossword legend.”) Although you need to know your Beantown sports figures for this one, the accessible fill makes it easy to cobble the names of the athletes together if sports isn’t your strong suit.

Interesting grid entries included BALL PIT, MASTER YODA, OPIUM, and BLUE MAN, and my favorite clues were “What this is” for PRONOUN, “What this entry isn’t” for ACROSS [this was a down clue], and “‘The Fast and the Furious’ films, e.g.” for OCTET.

Puzzle 3: Musical Guests by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Although Puzzle 3 was the toughest puzzle in last year’s BosWords tournament, this year’s contribution by Quigley didn’t have the most difficult theme of the day, but it did have the most challenging fill. (The crossing of VAPED and VSIX was particularly vexing.)

But the theme entries were very clever, concealing famous musicals within mashup entries — TRENTON OF BRICKS, which is TON OF BRICKS with RENT inside, for instance — all of which spanned the entire grid as 15-letter answers. Another topnotch grid and concept from one of the best.

Interesting grid entries included CUT BAIT, AFLAC, MINSK, and K-SWISS, and my favorite clue was “Like the main characters in ‘Scooby-Doo’” for NOSY.

Puzzle 4: Deep Thoughts by Joon Pahk and Lena Webb

This year’s toughest tournament puzzle — other than the actual championship themeless — Puzzle 4 had two tricks up its sleeve. First, the answer words in the bottom half of the grid extended beyond the grid itself, as the missing last letters in those Down answers spelled the word IDEA three times underneath the grid. (For instance, DALI, PACED, WEATHER VANE, and ONEIDA appeared in the grid as DAL, PACE, WEATHERVAN, and ONEID, and it was up to the solver to realize what was happening.)

But those missing IDEAs — the “deep thoughts” of the title — were also missing from the theme entries, so EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY had to be written into the grid as EUCLNGEOMETRY. It was diabolical, and a masterful example of gridplay at work.

Interesting grid entries included BANTU, MAJORCA, ADONAI, MY BABY, and ROPE RUG, and my favorite clues were “Buster’s target?” for MYTH and “HAL 9000 adversary” for DAVE.

Puzzle 5: Celebrity Jeopardy! by Finn Vigeland

The tournament concluded with a fun, punny hook, as Vigeland paired six celebrity guest hosts with descriptors to create common phrases like VOLCANIC (Chris) ROCK and BURNED (Jeff) BRIDGES. After the challenge of Puzzle 4, this was a pleasant solve that still made you work for some of the obscure fill entries.

Interesting grid entries included TIMESUCK, FBI AGENT, EBATES, and I GOTTA GO, and my favorite clues were “The Great Wall of China is visible from space, e.g.” for MYTH and “Deal breakers?” for NARCS.

Space Walks by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

This well-constructed tiebreaker puzzle abandoned the SNL theme for a sci-fi twist, and the resulting puzzle was very smooth, combining a good hook — eight phrases consisting of two B words — with a clever revealer: beloved Star Wars rolling droid BB-8. Although not strictly part of the tournament puzzles in either point value or style, this was a fun puzzle all around.

Interesting grid entries included MR. DARCY, OPEN BAR, BOO BERRY, and ACADIA, and my favorite clue was “Like inside-the-park home runs” for RARE.

Championship Themeless by David Quarfoot

The grand finale of the tournament was this fairly tough puzzle with lots of long entries crossing and some difficult cluing. Although well-constructed — particularly the corners with intersecting 8- and 9-letter entries — the inclusion of answers like H-TILE and ECON EXAM felt like a little bit of a cop-out, compared to the otherwise tight grid construction by the usually impeccable David Quarfoot.

Still, this outdid Puzzle 4 for toughest overall solve for the tournament. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included CHEMTRAIL, BOSOX, ARIOSO, TRAVEL BAN, and NEVERLAND, and my favorite clues were “Fitting position?” for TAILOR and “Pill-dropping alternative to Tetris” for DR. MARIO.


Overall, I would call this year’s array of tournament puzzles a rousing success. They clearly had fun with the Saturday Night Live-inspired hooks, and the puzzles were challenging and creative in their fill without being intimidating or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the most new-solver-friendly tournament out there in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging or as experimental as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500 — while still remaining engaging.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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The Future of Crosswords: Multilingual Grids?

[Image courtesy of Seton.]

Anyone familiar with crosswords these days knows that you need more than a thorough knowledge of English to be a topnotch solver these days.

Sure, English is still the basis for the vast majority of crosswords you’ll encounter — even if some weird, unexpected, and obscure words pop in from time to time — but you’ll need a grasp of other languages to complete most grids these days. (And I’m not just talking about European rivers or foreign currencies.)

After all, the Greek alphabet shows up in crosswords all the time. I can’t recall the last grid I completed that didn’t have ETA, IOTA, RHO, or PHI in it. And clues like “Fraternity letter” are rarely specific enough to help you fill the clue on your first try.

[Image courtesy of Greek Boston.]

You need to know your Latin to solve puzzles too. ET TU, AD HOC, DIES IRAE… plenty of words and phrases pilfered from Latin litter crossword grids.

The modern crossword will send you on a linguistic tour of the globe. From “Scottish Gaelic” for ERSE and “Indian nanny” for AMAH to “Kimono sash” for OBI and “German mister” for HERR, you could visit the languages of half a dozen countries in a single crossword.

But if you’re talking about other languages in crosswords, the top two are undoubtedly Spanish and French.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Spanish and French words are so common that Wordplay, the blog dedicated to The New York Times crossword, has entire articles dedicated to Spanish and French words you need to know.

For Spanish, they list entries like BESO for “kiss,” ESTA for “this,” and RIATA for “rope.” (Though they missed TIO/TIA for “uncle/aunt” in their rundown.)

On the French side of things, you get common crossword entries like AMI for “friend,” ROI for “king,” or SEL for “salt.”

(The crew at Crossword Unclued even wrote an article about how often French words are used in Cryptic-style cluing, for fans of that version of crosswording.)

[No, something a little tougher than that. Image courtesy of Mommy Maestra.]

All this multilingual puzzling made me wonder… has anyone tried to create a bilingual crossword? I’m talking about a crossword where a significant portion of the entries (if not half) are from a second language.

As it turns out, constructor Bryan Betancur recently accepted that challenge, creating “Bilingual Puzzle #1.” This puzzle not only features a fair number of Spanish words in the grid — not as filler but as significant entries (which I won’t mention, in case you want to solve it yourself!) — but many of the clues for Spanish AND English words are written in Spanish, ensuring a mental challenge beyond the usual crossword fare.

Yes, it was a confusing solve not to know whether the answer to a given clue would be English or Spanish, but that made it all the more satisfying when I was able to confidentally place words in the grid.

It’s the only crossword on the WordPress Blog “Bilingual Crossword,” but here’s hoping others join it soon.

In the cultural melting pot that is modern society, there’s not only opportunity for inclusivity, but there’s also opportunity for challenging, bilingual crossword grids to pique your interest (and make you wish you’d paid more attention in high school foreign language classes).


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5 Questions with Comedian, Animal Activist, and Puzzler Elayne Boosler!

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elayne Boosler as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

If you haven’t heard of Elayne Boosler from her decades-long stand-up career — including being named one of Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comedians of All Time — you’ve certainly seen her work in radio, television, movies, and print. Elayne is a triple threat — comedian, actress, writer — and the founder of Tails of Joy, a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and caring for animals.

She became a quadruple threat last year when she added her first New York Times crossword to her accolades in a collaboration with constructor Patrick Merrell. (Of course, she’s also appeared as an answer in the NYT crossword over 30 times. In her words, “Yes, it’s cool. But one day when I’m really famous, I’m going to be 18 Down, and then 22 Across is going to say, “See 18 Down”.)

Elayne 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 Elayne Boosler

1. How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve always had a touch of dysgraphia/dyslexia; my cursive writing (as they called it back in the 1800s) was always illegible, and when banks still checked signatures on checks I’d get about five calls a day. “But they are written on the same day, three checks in a row, and the signatures don’t match at all.” I know. I can read and write upside down and backwards. I remember driving in the car with my parents when I was really little, and reading a sign. I said, “Bar. R-A-B. Bar.” I can also sing any song you can throw at me, backwards, which once saved my life when I went to a school to talk to twelve-year-olds. I guess wordplay was the natural next step.

2. Now that you’ve made a New York Times-level crossword of your own, what was the most surprising part of the process for you? What did you enjoy?

I never passed any year of math in my entire life, and basically, making a crossword is math. The gentleman I made the puzzle with, Patrick Merrell, was a saint. If they threw some hyperactive puppy at me who thought she knew how comedy worked and said, “Write comedy together!”, and she emailed useless things to me three times a day, I’d kill her. Patrick was an unbelievably patient, wonderful, and talented teacher.

Though I’ve done crosswords all my life, as a layperson I never got the nuance of just how specific the theme clues have to be. It was mind-boggling. I think I sent Patrick clues and answers for a full month before he finally got to spell “water” in my hand. As an added bonus, Patrick wasn’t just brilliant about the words, he’s a crossword artist. His desire for grid symmetry and beauty was fascinating. I enjoyed all of it. Even the frustration.

Do you ever see yourself collaborating on or constructing another crossword?

I would love to collaborate on another puzzle. As you can imagine, after several months of thinking of nothing but themes, clues, and answers, I could not just turn my “crossword mind” off. So I have a LOT of lists of themes, clues, and answers, and I hope I get another opportunity to use them.

3. Many people know you from your trailblazing stand-up comedy career, or your appearances on shows like Night Court. But these days, you’re more synonymous with your charity work protecting animals. How did you get started with Tails of Joy?

I’ve always loved animals. I always knew I wanted to be a rescuer. Being on the road for forty-six years, I got to meet lots of rescuers in different states, and looked for a way I could have the most impact. What I learned was, three old ladies in Ohio will save more cats and dogs in a year than the entire bloated, overgrown Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which has $300 million and is NOT a rescue organization! I knew the “little guys” needed someone to keep them from falling through the cracks.

So I founded Tails of Joy twenty years ago, and that’s what we do. We’re a nationwide and beyond, all animal (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, sea life, wildlife, snakes, bunnies, big cats, primates, elephants, bears, everybody!!) rescue and advocacy group, which provides “Little Guy Grants” to the smallest, neediest rescue groups or individuals all across the country. If you’re reading this and you need help with an animal, contact us! All my money goes there. Every time a dog walks by my husband says, “There goes our beach house.”

4. What’s next for Elayne Boosler?

Thanks for asking. I have a boxed set of four of my specials, plus a new CD — Timeless — coming out on Comedy Dynamics on August 31st. I’m featured in the new season of “CNN’s History of Comedy”, Sunday nights at 10pm, and I’m featured in HBO’s new documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”. I have a new piece up at CNN.com, “Elayne Boosler: Saying ‘Joke’ is no Excuse for Offensive Behavior.” And I spend hours every day doing rescue.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

I’m sure they already know this. When you look at a puzzle and you can’t fill in even one word, and you walk away, you come back later and sit down and fill it all in in five minutes. What does that tell you? The subconscious is always working, it’s always carrying out your directives, conscious or not.

So it’s very important to always try to speak in the positive, because you are actually giving your brain orders. In comedy, I have never said “I killed” or “I died”. I don’t say that. If you want to remember your keys, don’t say “I hope I don’t forget my keys”, because your mind hears “forget my keys”. You have to say, “I hope I remember my keys”. In essence, the subconscious has no sense of humor, so be careful how you program it.


A huge thank you to Elayne for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (or visit her website, Elayneboosler.com) for updates on her many MANY ongoing projects, and be sure to visit Tails of Joy to explore all of the wonderful work she does for animals.

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The BosWords Crossword Tournament Returns Soon!

Sunday, July 29th, from noon to 5 PM, puzzlers from all over will gather at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts for the second edition of the BosWords Tournament, and registration opens today!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

The five themed puzzles in regular competition have been constructed by Laura Braunstein, Andrew Kingsley, John LiebJoon Pahk, and Brendan Emmett Quigley, and after the scores from those puzzles are tabulated, a championship themeless crossword by David Quarfoot awaits the top three solvers in each division!

BosWords is asking for $20 for adults, $20 for pairs, and $10 for students to attend and compete, which is a real bargain!.

You can check out their Facebook page for full details!

Will you be attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Publish More Women!

That was the message received loud and clear by attendees at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last year if they saw Erik Agard’s t-shirt. The future ACPT champion was amplifying a call that has resonated throughout the puzzle community for years now.

And yet, puzzles are often still regarded as a boys’ club.

Despite the fact that Margaret Farrar got the ball rolling. Despite the fact that Maura Jacobson contributed a puzzle to each of the first 34 ACPT tournaments and created over 1400 puzzles for New York Magazine. Despite a grand tradition of female innovators, tournament champions, and topnotch constructors that continues to this very day.

This topic once again took center stage recently when Will Shortz, gatekeeper for The New York Times crossword, posted his thoughts on the subject online:

Periodically I get asked, “Why aren’t more female constructors published in the New York Times?” And I always think, “Well, we don’t get a lot of submissions from women.” But until now I’ve never counted.

So this afternoon I counted. I looked through 260 recent submissions … and counted 33 by female constructors. That’s a little under 13%.

This figure is in line with the percentage of female constructors we publish. Last year, according to the stats at XwordInfo, 13% of the crosswords published in the Times were by women. So far this year the figure is slightly better — 15%.

Why this number is still so low, I don’t know.

In positive news, the number of new female constructors is significantly higher. In 2016, 31% of the 26 contributors who made their Times debut were female. In 2017, 19% were female. So far this year 27% have been female. XwordInfo lists all the names.

Our goal is to be inclusive. We want the Times crossword to reflect the lives, culture, and vocabulary of the people who do it, and having more female-made puzzles would provide better balance.

Still for us to publish more women constructors, we need to receive more puzzles by women. That’s the bottom line.

Our policy is open submissions. If you’re a woman who’d like to get into crossword constructing, we’d welcome your contributions, and we’ll be happy to work with you to get you published.

Reactions across the puzzle community have been mixed, but a number of people found Will’s response lacking. They asked what actual steps would be taken in order to encourage women and other underrepresented groups. Would there be additional support from the NYT for these sought-after constructors? Or would the status quo remain precisely that?

Those are questions worth asking. After all, the Times has been celebrating its 75th anniversary for the last year and a half with celebrity guest constructors. But how many of those celebrity collaborations have been with female constructors?

Three. That’s a project with huge visibility and mainstream media crossover potential, and the number is three.

And speaking of media crossover, it wasn’t that long ago — less than two years, actually — that the divisive clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM appeared in the NYT. Ruth Gordon wrote a brilliant piece in Slate highlighting how cluing standards at the Times could be exclusionary:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

So, how has the NYT crossword been doing over the last two years?

We can turn again to the insightful Erik Agard for context. While guest-posting on Rex Parker’s puzzle blog, Erik took a moment to celebrate and spread the word about Women of Letters, the marvelous 18-puzzle charity project we also discussed a few weeks ago:

It’s also a lot of women! In fact, there are more woman-constructed crosswords in this collection than there have been published by the New York Times so far this year. Those who fail to see the urgency in closing the gender gaps in crossword constructing and editing often posit that ‘you can’t tell the difference between a crossword written by a woman and one written by a man’ (ergo, whether women are equally represented has little bearing on the end product, so why should we care).

The puzzles in Women of Letters disprove that thesis in a big way, through the dizzying array of less-traveled roads explored by themes, grids, and clues alike. From the juiciest marquee answers in the themelesses to the simplest choice of referencing a legendary actress by her accolades and not just [Bond girl], the collection never ceases to be a breath of fresh, inimitable air. (As the young people say: “Your fave could never.”)

That comment was posted on April 29th, and yes, as of April 29th, the New York Times crossword had published 17 puzzles from female constructors (including male/female collabs). That’s 17 out of 119 puzzles for the year, or 14.3%.

Erik helpfully provided some other statistics for the sake of comparison:

  • Crosswords With Friends: 33/119 = 27.7%
  • The Los Angeles Times: 31/119 = 26.1%
  • American Values Club Crossword: 3/18 = 16.7%
  • Chronicle for Higher Education: 2/16 = 12.5%
  • Wall Street Journal: 9/99 = 9.1%
  • Fireball Crosswords: 0/19 = 0%

It’s also worth pointing out that, as of April 29th, our Daily POP Crosswords app stood at 87/119, or 73.1%.

If you update the listings up through May 15th, Daily Pop Crosswords published 95 puzzles by women over 135 days. March alone featured 21 puzzles by women across 31 days. Heck, in February, only two puzzles the entire month were constructed by men. (Er, man, to be more specific. The same chap constructed both.)

But those aren’t the only numbers worth celebrating. Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles maintain an impressive publication rate for The Crosswords Club subscription service. They publish six puzzles a month, so from January to May, that’s 30 puzzles, and 16 were constructed by women (including three collabs). The January issue was all female constructors.

That’s no surprise, honestly, given the company. At Penny/Dell Puzzles, women constitute the majority of not only puzzle editors, but upper management as well.

So, forgive me if I come off as flippant, but when Will Shortz asks, “Why this number is still so low?”, I have to ask why as well.

Because the constructors are out there, right now, doing tremendous work.


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