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!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructing Duo May Huang and Kevin Trickey!

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 fourth 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 May Huang and Kevin Trickey as our latest 5 Questions interviewees (and our first duo interview)!

Kevin and May - crossword background

For many modern constructors, making crosswords isn’t simply about building grids or writing clues. It’s also about contributing to the greater crossword community in a meaningful way.

And you’d be hard-pressed to find two people making bigger strides in that direction than constructor May Huang and programmer Kevin Trickey. They have launched their own free puzzle site, Crossworthy, to share a new puzzle every week, and May’s puzzles have found their way into outlets like The Inkubator.

But they’ve gone above and beyond by creating a free-to-use crossword construction tool, Crossworthy Construct. With the price of quality crossword-constructing software often proving a major hindrance to new puzzlers, Crossworthy Construct is an amazing resource for any aspiring cruciverbalist to try out.

May and Kevin were gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for May Huang and Kevin Trickey

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

In the early months of quarantine, May started playing the NYT minis and eventually began making her own minis that she would send out to friends and family throughout the month (her newsletter was called “May’s Minis”). As Kevin watched May iterate through fills on Microsoft Word, he started writing an algorithm that could churn out larger grids more quickly. In June, we started Crossworthy, a website for publishing our algorithm-generated and hand-made grids.

Unlike some constructors we know, we didn’t start out as avid crossword players before starting to make our own puzzles. But the creative and technical challenges of crossword construction align with our mutual interests — May is a literary translator who enjoys wordplay, while Kevin is a casual programmer who fancied a challenge. Now, of course, we love both playing crosswords as well!

2. You have your own puzzle website (and editing software!), in addition to publishing through outlets like The Inkubator. 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?

When we first started making puzzles, we didn’t expect this hobby to really take off, but it really has! We went from constructing puzzles using Microsoft Word (a good learning experience, but not sustainable) to developing our own software that streamlines our construction process.

Along the way, however, we were surprised to see how many resources already exist — tools and communities we wish we had known about sooner! We sometimes tweet about our construction questions and we’re always heartened by how instantly helpful fellow constructors can be. The best thing we’ve learned is that the crossword community can be a very kind and welcoming place.

Crossworthy Construct page

[Crossworthy Construct, May and Kevin’s crossword custom editing
software. Click here to check it out for yourself.]

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

A great puzzle, to us, is both personal and accessible; it should have words and clues that really resonate with the constructor, as well as elements that will speak to any player. Because we have different interests, however, we often clash over clues.

For example, most of May’s pop culture clues fly over Kevin’s head, whereas the biology terms Kevin tends to include are equally obscure to her. In this way, we keep each other in check, and try to produce well-balanced puzzles. Nonetheless, we’re still rookies in the field: we’re still learning about what makes a theme set stand out and which words make for sparkly fill.

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

Recent puzzles we’ve really enjoyed include Paolo Pasco’s “Busting Moves” puzzle (January 3rd, 2021) as well as Matthew Stock’s “Karaoke Bars” (February 21, 2021). Malaika Handa’s daily 7×7 project is fantastic, and Evan Birnholz’s meta puzzle “5×5” in the Washington Post was super eye-opening. We’re inspired by too many constructors to name — Barbara Lin, Caitlin Reid, Natan Last, Ross Trudeau, Kam Austin Collins…the list goes on!

We tend to like puzzles with themes that make us smile, and reveal an aspect of the constructor’s personality. Some of our own puzzles that fall into our category include “Valentine Poem,” whose theme words spell out a crossword-themed love poem, and “A President’s Ponderings,” a puzzle that includes presidential puns in its theme set.

crossworthy valentine

4. What’s next for May Huang and Kevin Trickey?

While we plan to continue publishing weekly puzzles on Crossworthy every Sunday, we also hope to start publishing more puzzles in other venues (May has a puzzle coming out from the Inkubator soon!).

We’re also spending a lot of time building out new features for Crossworthy Construct, our own free construction software. Our goal is to reduce the barriers to entry for new and aspiring constructors like us. Currently, anyone can use our site to construct their own puzzles, and we’d love to hear from as many people as possible about their ideal construction software.

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

Kevin’s advice: Find an angle that interests you the most. Like everything else in life, crossword constructing is the convergence of many disciplines, and you can choose to play to your strengths. For me, it was the technical challenge of coding that got me started, and it’s kept me invested a year later.

May’s advice: Don’t be discouraged if you have trouble solving the NYT puzzle; in fact, look beyond the NYT! There are so many more crossword publication venues and indie sites out there making great puzzles. There are many diverse voices in the crossworld and you can definitely be one of them.


A huge thank you to May and Kevin for their time. You can follow them on Twitter for all of their crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out their website Crossworthy to solve puzzles and try out their crossword constructing software! I cannot wait to see what they cook up next!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!