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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The Boswords Crossword Tournament Returns This Weekend!

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Yes, fellow puzzlers, it’s tournament time again!

This Sunday, July 25th, from 1 PM to 6 PM Eastern, the Boswords Crossword Tournament returns! The fifth edition of this event will be contested online for the second year in a row, so it’s the perfect opportunity to test your puzzly skills.

If you haven’t signed up yet, registration closes tomorrow at 5 PM Eastern.

With two divisions to choose from — Individual and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels are welcome to enjoy some challenging and clever crosswords in a day of puzzly fun and camaraderie.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb (along with talented puzzle editor Brad Wilber) have gathered a diabolical Ocean’s Eleven-style crew of terrific constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship themeless final) will be constructed by Malaika Handa, Andrew Kingsley, Chandi Deitmer, Wyna Liu, Hoang-Kim Vu, Rob Gonsalves, and Jennifer Lim!

Boswords is asking for $25 for adults, $35 for pairs, and $5 for students to (virtually) attend and compete, which is a real bargain! (Also, for anyone with financial difficulties, there is a discounted rate available.)

If you want to solve the puzzles at your leisure and outside of the competitive setting, it’ll only cost you $10 for the puzzle packet, which you’ll receive Monday by email.

To check out the full details of this year’s event, click here! (And for our rundown of last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!)

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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Solving Crosswords and Stopping Bad Guys With Superman!

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

When you think of comic books and puzzles, one character instantly springs to mind: The Riddler. He’s easily the most iconic puzzly figure in comics, and his many twisty challenges for Batman have ranged from simple word games to death-defying escape rooms.

But did you know that Superman also has some puzzling in his expansive superheroic past?

In fact, Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to complete crossword puzzles!

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[Image courtesy of Superman Fandom Wiki.]

Yes, back in 1948, from April 15th until May 3rd, The Adventures of Superman radio show (aka the Superman Radio Program) featured Superman facing off against a gang of kidnappers and thieves, as well as a devious mastermind, in “The Crossword Puzzle Mystery.”

At that point, the crossword hadn’t even become a daily feature in The New York Times yet. (The first Sunday edition crossword debuted in February of 1942. The daily version wouldn’t appear until 1950.)

So how did crosswords cross paths with The Man of Steel?

Well, it all starts with Lois Lane on an airplane, solving a crossword in order to find out where she’s going. Lois had received a tip from Horatio F. Horn, a local correspondent for The Daily Planet, and now she finds herself on a hunt across (and down) America for her next destination.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via Alpha Coders.]

The puzzle leads her to Moundville, a mining town where Horatio has gone missing. She meets a sinister gold-toothed man, and then goes missing herself. Cub reporter Jimmy Olsen soon arrives in Moundville, trying to locate both Lois and Horatio, but having no luck.

Eventually, Clark Kent gets involved, solving the same crossword puzzle as Lois and heading to Moundville himself. He arrives just in time to save Jimmy Olsen from being dragged off a cliff by a spooked horse. (You know how it is with spooked horses in old mining towns.)

After a hotel fire (an attempt on Jimmy and Clark’s lives), Clark finds three more crossword puzzles, but they’re partially destroyed. So he returns to Metropolis to track down solvable copies of each crossword, hoping they’ll reveal the whereabouts of Lois and Horatio.

Yes, one of the episodic cliffhangers was Clark solving crosswords while Lois and Horatio were held in a secret cave at gunpoint. It’s gloriously silly.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via David Morefield.]

Solving the crosswords leads Superman to believe that someone in Moundville is planning to steal a shipment of gold, so he returns to the town and teams up with Jimmy and a local sheriff to get more information. He deduces that a particular shipment going out that night is the target, and manages to rescue Lois and Horatio from the gang of ruffians planning the theft.

It turns out that the mastermind of the thefts is the owner of a Metropolis newspaper syndicate — who supplies puzzles to all the papers, including The Daily Planet — and would alert a vast network of gangs in the West to various gold shipments going out by putting the name of the town in the puzzle.

That’s how Horatio ended up investigating in the first place: he’s a crossword fan himself and noticed the pattern.

The serial concludes with Superman capturing the rest of the thieves in Moundville while the Metropolis police arrest the nameless puzzle mastermind. Good job, everyone! Another crime spree thwarted, thanks to solving puzzles!


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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via View Comic.]

The plot of this radio serial is quite similar to the plot of the first Crossword Mysteries film — both featuring thieves informed about targets through the local crossword — and honestly, it tickled me to imagine all these gun-toting ne’er-do-wells scattered throughout the western states, solving crossword puzzles every day and waiting to see where they’d need to go robbing.

This plan also implies that the crossword constructor NEVER mentioned towns or cities at other times, because that would send his goons on wild goose chases. Imagine all the abbreviated Canadian provinces they’d be searching, not to mention the European rivers.

Perhaps this fiasco resulted in The Daily Planet hiring their own crossword editor, because later on in the comics, we see someone in the newspaper offices with a crossword pattern on his wall:

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[Image courtesy of Adam Talking Superman, who offered this caption: Huge fan of the newest Daily Planet character, crossword puzzle guy listening to Perry White’s vocabulary!]

Still, it’s fascinating to know that a major radio program — one with over two THOUSAND episodes — devoted literal weeks of airtime to a crossword-themed mystery.

It also makes you wonder what else is lurking in the daily crossword grids. What other devious crimes are afoot right under our noses?

I guess we better keep solving, folks! Our puzzly vigilance could be a crime-riddled town’s only hope!


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Where to Look for Crossword Reviews/Commentary?

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Occasionally, we’ll get a message from a PuzzleNationer who wonders why we don’t review the daily New York Times crossword or some of the other prominent daily newspaper crosswords.

It makes sense to ask. After all, we try to cover all things puzzles and games here — great clues, trivia, brain teasers, puzzles in pop culture, interviews, game reviews, how to’s, puzzle history, the Crossword Mysteries — so why not the top crossword outlets?

Well, to be honest, there are already several crossword blogs doing a dynamite job of covering those. So today, I want to discuss some top-notch blogs that discuss and review the daily crosswords!

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For the New York Times crossword alone, there’s Wordplay, XWord Info, and Rex Parker.

Wordplay is the official New York Times crossword blog, and not only do you get great analysis from knowledgeable minds, but you get live solve-alongs, insight from constructors, and more.

XWord Info is my go-to for details on construction and a fair, informative review. People occasionally accuse XWord Info of being too favorable to the puzzles/constructors, but I think they call it right down the middle, and there have been times where reviewers and constructors leveled stern criticism at a puzzle’s editorial process OR how it was discussed on XWord Info itself.

Rex Parker’s blog can be more critical of Times puzzles — as we’ve said before, he borders on the curmudgeonly — but he has terrific advice about grid construction, theme entries, and more that several constructors have told me proved to be invaluable in their early days learning to construct.

His blog is probably not for everybody, but he remains one of the most influential voices in crossword reviewing today.

Oh, and if you’re looking for some terrific reviews of the NYT Mini Crossword, check out this great Instagram account!

Of course, the NYT crossword isn’t the only game in town.

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If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Times Crossword, there’s the terrific L.A. Times Crossword Corner blog to keep you up to date on that puzzle, breaking every puzzle down clue by clue. (There’s also LAX Crossword, which offers answers and clue explanations.)

If you enjoy the USA Today crossword, Sally Hoelscher offers Sally’s Take on the USA Today Crossword daily, offering up theme explanations, things she learned from the puzzle, and sharing terrific opinions and thoughts that would absolutely be beneficial to newer solvers.

And although it’s not a blog per se, the XWord Muggles Forum offers an interactive space to discuss and break down the Wall Street Journal weekly crossword contest, as well as other meta crossword puzzles.

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But, if you’re looking for more of a one-stop-shop experience, then you should check out Diary of a Crossword Fiend.

Crossword Fiend covers NYT, LA Times, WSJ, Universal, USA Today, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Inkubator, AVCX, and more! Not only that, but you’ll get reviews of puzzles from independent constructors like Elizabeth Gorski’s Crossword Nation, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords, and others.

They post their solving times, analyze the puzzles, and spread the word about other puzzly projects and crossword news. It’s a fantastic site.

And before I wrap up this recommendation post, I do want to shout out the community on Reddit’s r/crossword subreddit. It’s a forum for discussing puzzle opinions, sharing works from aspiring and developing constructors, and yes, reviewing and sharing thoughts on the major outlets (mostly the NYT).

Most of the posters and commenters are genuinely good folks who love crosswords and enjoy discussing them, and it’s a pretty pleasant place to visit if you’re a crossword fan.

Do you have any favorite Crossword Review Blogs that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Loads of Crossword Tournament Info! Boswords, Indie 500, and Lollapuzzoola!

In the last week or so, crossword fans have been treated to a bevy of announcements regarding upcoming tournaments and events, and we’ve got all the details for you!

So let’s get started!

First off, Boswords is back for the summer!

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Sunday, July 25th, from 1 PM to 6 PM Eastern, puzzlers from all over will virtually gather for the fifth edition (and second edition online) of the Boswords Tournament, and registration opens today!

With two divisions to choose from — Individual and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship themeless final) will be constructed by Malaika Handa, Andrew Kingsley, Chandi Deitmer, Wyna Liu, Hoang-Kim Vu, Rob Gonsalves, and Jennifer Lim!

Boswords is asking for $25 for adults, $35 for pairs, and $5 for students to attend and compete (or as a discounted rate), which is a real bargain!

(And if you want to solve the puzzles but not compete, it’ll only cost you $10 for the puzzle packet, which you’ll receive Sunday night by email!)

You can visit the BosWords website for full details! And to check out our thoughts on last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!


The team behind the Indie 500 crossword tournament also reached out to solvers to announce that they’re releasing the puzzles intended for the 2020 edition of the tournament as a downloadable puzzle packet.

And they’re doing so as part of a charity fundraiser. All it takes is a $10 donation to one of the charities listed here, and you’ll receive some top-flight puzzles.

What a marvelous way to do some good AND keep the puzzly spirit of the Indie 500 tournament alive. (Click here for full details!)


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But that’s not all. The Lollapuzzoola team also posted updates regarding this year’s virtual edition of “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” Saturday, August 21st, will be Lollapuzzoola 14!

The format is simple. Two divisions — Solo and Pairs — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

There’s also the Next Day Division, where you’re outside of tournament contention but you get the puzzles the next day to solve on your own!

With five tournament puzzles plus the championship round (and bonus puzzles!) — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve!

Click here to solve the announcement puzzle, and to check out the full details of this year’s event, click here! (And for the rundown of last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!)

Will you be virtually attending Boswords or Lollapuzzoola, or contributing to the Indie 500 charity promotion, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Best (Crossword) Correction Ever: A Six-Month Anniversary

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Last week we marked two fairly auspicious anniversaries in crossword history, celebrating 15 years since the release of Wordplay and 150 years since the birth of crossword inventor Arthur Wynne.

There are loads of crossword-related anniversaries worth celebrating. The birthdays of constructors and influential editors. Anniversaries of events like ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, and others.

Heck, in a few years, we’ll be seeing the centennials for Margaret Farrar’s first book of crosswords for Simon & Schuster AND the invention of the cryptic crossword by Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), not to mention one hundred years since there was a Broadway musical revue about puzzles!

(Somebody really needs to get to work writing Wordplay: The Musical.)

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[Dancing Will Shortz cameo!]

Well, this week, we have a somewhat less momentous anniversary, but still something that brings a smile to my face when I think of it.

But first, a bit of context.

If you’ve read a newspaper for any length of time, you’ve come across the corrections section. Corrections are part of newspaper publishing. No matter how good your content or how thorough your editing and proofreading, some things slip by on occasion.

This is as true for the crossword as it is for any other section of the paper. Back in April of this year, a Tuesday mini crossword puzzle featured incorrect clues for two across entries, and the correction appeared the next day.

Some corrections are better than others, more memorable, more interesting. And today is the six-month anniversary of what I consider to be the best correction, crossword or otherwise, ever in the New York Times.

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But, hilariously, the story doesn’t end there.

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[Image courtesy of muppet.fandom.com.]

They then had to issue a correction for the correction, which is just icing on the cake:

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Then, a sharp-eyed puzzler on Twitter under the handle @CoolKrista pointed out that the correction was STILL wrong. You see, the first Muppet to lobby Congress was Kermit the Frog in the year 2000.

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[Image courtesy of muppet.fandom.com, specifically an article titled
“Kermit’s political affiliation,” which is just so great.]

(And yet, the water remains potentially muddied. After all, do you consider Big Bird a Muppet? Because Big Bird went to Congress back in 1989.)

These are the sort of minutiae-filled rabbit holes that the Internet was pretty much designed for. How can you not love it?

You can follow the whole saga on the New York Times Wordplay Twitter account. Please enjoy.

Oh, and Happy Six-Month Anniversary, Best Correction Ever. We salute you.


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