Too Topical? Too Safe? Too Family Friendly? — What Belongs in Crosswords?

Building a great crossword is a balancing act.

Your grid entries need to be interesting, yet accessible. You need to navigate long crossings and tight corners without resorting to too many abbreviations, too much crosswordese, or creating the dreaded Natick, a crossing of two obscure entries. Some solvers don’t like partial phrases, others don’t like proper names or brand names.

Your cluing has to be clever but not impenetrable. How much wordplay is too much? How many fill-in-the-blank clues before your clue section resembles your grid? The cluing must be fresh and vibrant yet timeless and not too of-its-era to make the cut for reprint and collection later.

No matter how you clue it, older solvers may decry newer names, slang, terminology, or pop culture references, while younger solvers will bemoan not just older references they consider passe, but long-established crossword-friendly words they quickly tire of seeing.

And that’s all without considering the difficulty in creating engaging, interesting themes or gimmicks for the puzzle.

Man, it’s amazing crosswords get made at all.

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[Image courtesy of Mike Peters and The Comic Strips.]

That question of fresh entries and cluing vs. older/more familiar fare is a curious one. It raises further questions.

For instance, how much can you talk about what’s going on in the world?

By referring to unpleasant topics, however topical, will you alienate solvers who use the crossword as an escape? Or do you risk the puzzle feeling too sanitized and safe by NOT acknowledging the circumstances of the world at the time of the puzzle’s publication?

There are arguments for both sides. I mean, who wants to see ADOLF in a grid? (But then again, it’s not like IDI AMIN has a hard time finding his way into grid fill.)

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Margaret Farrar believed that crosswords should avoid “death, disease, war and taxes.” Purposely avoiding unpleasant fill and cluing is informally known as the “Sunday Morning Breakfast Test.” (Our friends at Penny Press know plenty about this, as they shy away from unpleasant entries with diligence.)

But on the flip side, to ignore the unpleasantness of the world potentially ignores the people that unpleasantness affects.

As we continue to push for greater representation in crosswords in both editorial staff and constructors, you cannot deny that including the experiences of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community somewhat necessitates facing those unpleasant aspects of our history and our society.

To exclude them is to exclude potentially thought-provoking and important fill and cluing. (One could easily argue that the vast majority of our own Eyes Open crosswords would not pass the Sunday Morning Breakfast Test.)

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[Image courtesy of Charmy’s Army.]

Not everyone greets adding new cultural fill with open arms, of course. A few years ago, an LA Times crossword solver complained to us (on our holiday gift guide post, of all places) about “ignorant ghetto language” in the crossword. He referred specifically to innocuous entries like “sup,” “did,” and “street cred.”

Thankfully, he is an outlier.

But on the topic of excluding words from crosswords, when Will Shortz was asked about it, he had an interesting response:

If a word or term is used in the columns of The Times, or in cultured society in general, I think it’s probably O.K. for a crossword, even if it’s touchy or slightly unpleasant. I strive to have crosswords reflect real life as much as possible. … I don’t believe in banning words, except for the very worst. And I’d be happy to abolish the term ‘breakfast test’ completely.

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I think this is a topic I’m going to ask crossword solvers about more often. I’d be curious to see where they stand on crossword content and topicality.

I suspect opinions will vary, but I also suspect that most solvers welcome new fill, new entries, and new references in clues. Every crossword is an opportunity to learn and expand one’s knowledge, and add to the mental lexicon of crossword knowledge we each build as we solve.

So where do you stand, fellow puzzlers? Do you prefer your crosswords as an escape or as a puzzly reflection of the world around us? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

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[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Malaika Handa!

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 sixth edition of our 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 Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

You have to be fairly ambitious to get into constructing crosswords, but Malaika Handa is setting the bar pretty high.

Less than a year into her cruciverbalism career, she’s already been published in outlets like Grids These Days, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and the American Values Club Crossword.

But she’s best known as the creator and curator of 7xwords, an attempt to create a puzzle for every possible 7×7 crossword grid in a single year. If that’s not impressive enough, she launched 7xwords after having only constructed crosswords for a few months!

Malaika 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 Malaika Handa

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I started solving the New York Times puzzle about two years ago, when I got a job that had a commute. Eventually, we switched to working from home, but I still would solve the puzzle every morning. I didn’t realize regular people could make puzzles (“crossword constructor” felt akin to “astronaut” in terms of attainability) until a crossword blogger I liked refilled a corner as an example of how to make it better. That blew my mind! I started making mini puzzles in Excel, and then finally bought Crossfire around October 2020. Hand gridding is not for me, I’ve learned!

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a canonical great puzzle– or if there is, I am frankly uninterested. Appealing to every single solver seems like an impossible task, and a good way to end up with a puzzle that’s a little flat and lifeless. I like to solve puzzles that are fun for me, Malaika Handa, to solve! (I hope that framing doesn’t seem selfish.) Puzzles with pop culture references that I know, computer / math stuff, make-up / fashion stuff, Twitter slang.

Adam Aaronson had a puzzle with SYNTACTIC SUGAR in it, and I plunked it in with no crossings. I solved the rest of the puzzle floating on a cloud. I love that term so much– when I was a teaching assistant in college (one of my favorite jobs I’ve had) I taught it to my students, and I think it is a lovely and evocative phrase. I bet a lot of people had never heard of SYNTACTIC SUGAR before, so maybe that was really tough for them, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same opinion on everything.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own? 

When I write puzzles, I like to use fill and clues that make me really excited, even if it’s things other people might not have heard of. (I think that’s called “voice,” by the way.) Once I clued ISLA as [Stephanie Perkins’ heroine] and all my test solvers said they had never heard of that reference. I kept it in the puzzle anyway.

Then my older sister solved it and when she got to that clue, she texted me with a zillion exclamation points and we freaked out over how good Stephanie Perkins’ books are. My number one advice to other constructors is: If a particular entry doesn’t make you excited, what is it doing in your puzzle? (By the way, sometimes the answer is “it’s holding in place three other entries that make me excited” and I think that’s fine.)

Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

I love hearing people’s favorite clues. Mine are Robyn Weintraub’s [Batting equipment?] for FAKE EYELASHES, and Mollie Cowger’s [“Thank God it’s Friday”?] for SHABBAT SHALOM, both of which I, no exaggeration, think about probably once a week. My favorite clues that I’ve written are always clues from my most recent puzzles. So right now there’s 50-Across from this puzzle ((Editor’s note: Great clue, but NSFW)), or [Wireless device] from this puzzle.

3. Your 7xwords puzzle blog has become something of a sensation in the puzzle world, shouted out by fellow constructors like Erica Wojcik, Kevin Trickey and May Huang. Where did the concept for 7xwords come from? What have you learned from the project so far? Will 7xwords reach its ambitious goal by week 52?

The site started with the discovery that there are 312 legal 7×7 crossword grids, which works out to a six-days-a-week midi puzzle. (I talk more about the 7xwords origin story and the math behind it in this episode of Fill Me In, at around 24:30. And if you’re curious about the code I used to build the grids, feel free to message me on Twitter!)

I’ve learned so much from this project, I don’t even know where to start. Stuff like “How to make an html page exist on the Internet instead of just locally on my computer” and “Having a separate email address for a project like this will make your life one hundred times easier.” I’ve also gotten a lot better at articulating why a particular clue or crossing feels like it needs improvement. That’s a skill that has come from copy editing *checks notes* about 150 midi puzzles. Back in January, I was operating mostly under vibes (“this feels like it could be better”) but now I can usually identify what needs fixing, and how to fix it.

As for whether we’ll reach the goal… I do have a constructor locked down for every single grid. So it feels very promising. I have also seen that final grid, with no black squares, and it exists. So, even more promising!

4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?

The most concrete thing coming up is my puzzle in the Boswords summer tournament! Registration will open on July 1. Join us!! It’s going to be a super fun time.

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

I would love for solvers to remember that just because they personally didn’t like a puzzle doesn’t (necessarily) mean the puzzle should not have been published. (Sometimes it does, of course. Like Woody Allen tribute puzzles– we can just stop with those.)

Also, when you’re solving, look up entries that you don’t know! It’s a game, not a test.


A huge thank you to Malaika for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her 7xwords puzzle site for both the 7×7 puzzles and her other crosswords! Whatever she does next, I’m sure it will be brilliant!

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Vague Cluing: Yea or Nay?

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When is vagueness in crossword cluing a bad thing?

That’s kind of a loaded question, because I think it depends on the clue and the solver’s knowledge base. But there are definitely good vague clues and bad vague clues.

Someone on Reddit’s r/crossword forum mentioned the clue “Son of Zeus,” which got a laugh from folks who remember their Greek mythology and just how… prolific Zeus was.

But to me, this isn’t necessarily a bad clue. You know the number of letters (4 in this particular case), which helps narrow down the field a lot.

There are some synonym-style clues that do lend themselves to multiple answers, which can be frustrating for solvers.

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For instance, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Kingly,” you could have REGAL or ROYAL, and those shared letters add a level of uncertainty and challenge to the grid. Similarly, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Escape” or “Sidestep,” you’ve got EVADE, ELUDE, AVOID, and DODGE all as possibilities. That’s a little tougher.

But all of these clues seem fair to me. The vague cluing style that really irks me is “Certain [blank]”.

“Certain cat,” for example, might as well just be “Cat.” The word “certain” adds literally NOTHING to the clue. “Type of [blank]” and “Kind of [blank]” clues can also fall into this trap, but there are a fair number of cases where those clues point toward a category, not just an example of that particular group, so “Type of” and “Kind of” still provide some context.

But “certain” is a waste of typing. You could have given me a helpful adjective, or a misleading one, or a funny one. Instead, it’s the least helpful addition possible.

That sort of vague cluing is infuriating, because there’s no cleverness or art to it. Obviously, the only exception here would be some sort of wordplay involving the definition of “certain.” Something like “Certain thing?” for LOCK or GIVEN. But those are pretty rare.

In the end, vagueness can be a tool for clever cluing or a bit of filler in a long-overused clue. It’s all up to the constructor.

Are there are any vague clues or cluing tropes that get your goat, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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How Outdated Is Too Outdated in Crosswords?

One of the biggest complaints levied at crosswords in general involves the vocabulary often employed to fill the grid.

Whether you call it crosswordese, obscure trivia, outdated vocabulary, or intentional gatekeeping through language, it’s a problem some solvers never overcome, contributing to a negative, exclusionary reputation for crosswords.

Let’s talk about the two extremes first. I genuinely believe that there’s no intentional gatekeeping in crosswords. There are ongoing efforts to include more women, more voices of color, and more LGBTQIA+ creators in construction, and even constructing equipment is becoming more affordable through efforts like Crossworthy Construct.

But not knowing common crossword parlance is a barrier to enjoying crosswords.

There is work to put in for new solvers to get up to speed in crosswords. Those common crossword words and names that we take for granted — ETUI, ALEE, OLIO, ARIA, ICER, and more — represent the combined breadth and history of grid construction in crosswords. Those are the words you learn as part of your process to become a better solver, building a personal lexicon of crosswordese.

So where is the line? When does something pass from “charmingly difficult crosswordese” to “off-putting irrelevancy”?

In essence, how obscure is too obscure? How long can an old clue/entry linger without feeling outdated or exclusionary to new solvers?

It’s a good question, one that’s not not so easy to answer.

How long do we refer to “vamp” THEDA BARA, when her heyday was farther and farther back with every passing day?

How long do we continue to reference the Aral Sea, considering that there practically is no Aral Sea anymore? It’s mostly the Aralkum Desert now.

When it becomes part of history, is it acceptable? After all, calling Tokyo “Edo” or referring to Iran as “Persia, once” happens all the time.

Obviously, outdated terminology or obscure words aren’t as big an issue in crosswords as genuinely exclusionary and offensive entries, but it’s still a topic worth discussing, because it prevents the community from growing.

New entries, fresh entries, entries that speak to other members of the population… they have incredible value. Seeing yourself and your culture, your heroes, your history, your slang represented in crosswords builds a bond between you and the art of puzzling itself.

I’m sure outdated references and obscurities will never truly go away. Some of those letter combinations are just too valuable to constructors.

But it will be interesting to see how crosswordese and those potentially gatekeeping words change and evolve as we press forward.

Maybe in 30 or 40 years, “crosswordese” as a whole will feel more inclusive. One can only hope.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Chez Knox!

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 fifth edition of our 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 Chez Knox as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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It doesn’t matter if they’re squares or hexagons; if you’re talking grids of repeated shapes, Chez Knox has you covered.

Her debut crossword puzzle will be published by The Inkubator later this year, so you know her skills with squares are topnotch. And as for the hexagons, she recently contributed the Alabama hexagon to a crowd-sharing effort to complete a 50-states quilt. The national quilt museum even had exhibition space reserved for the quilt before COVID complications cancelled the exhibit.

And now, fellow quilting/sewing enthusiast Shannon Downey is taking this Internet-united work of quilt creativity around the country to share the power of art and craftivism, thanks to creative folks like Chez.

Chez 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 Chez Knox

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

The Sunday newspaper was a bit of a ritual around my house growing up. My dad and I always read the comics and did the word puzzles together.

2. 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?

Everyone genuinely wants to help a constructor succeed. I think I’ve been most surprised at the size of the cruciverbalist community – there are a lot of people out there into this kind of work!

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

A great puzzle has a very clever theme connecting dots I’ve never before connected.

A good clue gives me so much joy! Lately I like finding puzzles with a well-executed clue echo. There’s a hint of nuance to this technique that makes me smile. (A clue echo is when the same clue is used twice in a puzzle. It is usually one word or a very short phrase. The answers contrast each other but connect through the clue.)

One example might be: 2D and 34A may both be clued as “Green” and the answers might be ENVIOUS and UNSEASONED.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I try to avoid crosswordese – common fillers like ENO, OLIO, EKE, etc. But sometimes they are little words that sneak into a grid fill so that the sanity of the constructor is saved.

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

My favorite themes are ones that highlight words inside of theme words/phrases. It could be a hidden word that plays on the meaning of the theme entry word or a handful of theme entries containing a common word among them. In the grid design, squares that make up this word would be shaded or circled.

An example of this kind of theme is given in Patrick Berry’s Crossword Constructor Handbook.

Theme entries:

  • CLAUDE MONET
  • MADE MONEY
  • SIMON DEMONTFORT
  • DESDEMONA
  • PANDEMONIUM

Do you see the common word here? (It’s DEMON)

I find Erik Agard’s puzzles to be particularly eloquent and clever. They challenge me in a new way and I love that! That’s the kind of feeling I want my puzzles to give people.

4. What’s next for Chez Knox?

The day-to-day answer is more puzzle construction practice. My goal is to get to a place where one of my puzzles is being published once a month.

Zooming out from the day-to-day, I’ve had a lot of change in my life recently so I don’t want to think about anything new for a while! My husband and I are settling into a new house while I’m setting into life as a Waldorf class teacher after 20 years in the field of IT. I have a class of first graders that I will teach all the way through eighth grade! (How fun is that?!)

Meanwhile, daily crossword puzzles keep me grounded and in connection with my love of the English language. I am SO EXCITED to be a boring person who delights in making a home, teaching, sewing, and solving/constructing crossword puzzles!

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

There are lots of free constructing resources available but if you’re serious about creating your own puzzles, you’ll need to pay for things like software and word lists.


A huge thank you to Chez for her time. You can follow her on Instagram for all of her creative endeavors, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her Inkubator debut! I can’t wait to see what she creates next!

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