5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

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 Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne 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 Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

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

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

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

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

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

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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What Makes a Thing a Thing in Crosswords?

A few months ago, there was a debate amongst the solvers and readers of The Guardian’s Crossword Blog concerning which words are fair entry fodder for crosswords.

It started with this comment on a post about cluing the entry WHITE KNIGHT:

I wonder if all the clues that are giving some sort of synonym for a chess piece are quite playing fair (including my own). Obviously, it’s a chess piece, but it wouldn’t be in a crossword because it’s a chess piece. If I solved a puzzle and found BLACK PAWN to be one of the solutions I’d feel a bit miffed.

I asked Penny Press Editorial Director Warren Rivers about this very subject, and he mentioned that WHITE KNIGHT would cause him no issue — it reminded him of this Ajax commercial — but an entry like WHITE ROOK would be a problem, because it’s not a standalone concept (as far as he is aware).

It’s an intriguing discussion, all centering around arbitrariness. Should the determining factor of “crossword worthiness” be whether the entry can be found in a dictionary or another reputable source, like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable? Does a textbook definition make a thing a thing?

Not necessarily, as slang, phrases, partial phrases, and anecdotal entries make it into puzzles all the time.

In the Lollapuzzoola puzzles we looked at recently, entries like ONE-NIL, NASCAR DAD, SIREE (as in “no siree”), NO REST (as in “for the wicked”), and TELL ME THIS all appeared as answers in grids. Would you accept all of these as fair entries? Most of these wouldn’t pass muster in Penny Press puzzles.

The partial phrase, of course, opens up an entirely different can of worms. For instance, would you be upset to see “At a ____” cluing LOSS? Probably not. But what about “At ____” cluing ALOSS? Maybe so, maybe not.

Where do you stand on this issue, fellow puzzlers? Is there a particular cluing or entry style that bugs you? Do you have an example of something that made it into a puzzle recently that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny?

Or does nothing come to mind? If so, does that mean the issue doesn’t bother you at all as a solver?

Either way, let us know in the comments below!


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The Crossword From Hell

This is an innocuous looking grid. A smattering of black squares. Classic diagonal symmetry. At first glance, this could be any crossword.

But this isn’t any crossword. This is The Crossword From Hell.

A brilliantly tongue-in-cheek takedown of obscure cluing and other frustrating puzzle conventions, The Crossword From Hell challenges you to come up with, among other things:

–The opposite of “forty”
–Person who did not speak quote
–Color I am thinking of
–Color I will be thinking of for tomorrow’s puzzle
–He batted .219 in 1953
–“… a ______” (Keats)

I have to confess, I love this puzzle. The mix of fill-in-the-blank clues that could be ANYTHING and the incredibly obscure, yet specific, requests for trivial minutiae delightfully skewer the worst crossword constructing practices, particularly crosswordese.

This parody puzzle is the creation of Dr. Karl M. Petruso, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. I reached out to Dr. Petruso regarding his hilariously snarky rejoinder to the puzzle community, and here’s what he had to say about the puzzle:

Yes, that puzzle is my only foray into crossword composition (well, fake composition, truth be told. I did field at least one email from somebody who said he had solved all the clues but one, and he believed that I cheated on that word. I suspected he was pulling my leg…).

Since my grad school days in the ’70s I have been a snooty puzzle solver: only the NYT puzzle, and even then, nothing earlier than Thursday, always in ink. I was able to solve maybe a third of the Saturday puzzles, but it took me well into the next week to do it. I love the clever themes and wordplay in the Sunday puzzles, and could often complete them, but by no means every time.

I decided to take my frustrations out on clues that were at once obscure and too much trouble for someone as lazy as me to remember the words for. Creating that puzzle was very satisfying, kind of like an exorcism or something. I don’t know. I have always thought the web is the perfect place to post snark and work out dark impulses.

Perhaps the funniest thing about this exaggerated crossword is that, to many who struggle with tougher crosswords, it probably doesn’t seem exaggerated at all.

Great crossword puzzles manage to be clever and challenging while sidestepping many of the pitfalls featured in The Crossword From Hell. But this is a wonderfully funny reminder of what you should strive NOT to do.

A huge thank you to Dr. Petruso for his time AND his creative efforts on behalf of puzzlers everywhere.


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Crosswords LA is on the horizon!

It’s kind of cool that it feels like there’s always another crossword tournament on the horizon. Just last month, we had BosWords AND Lollapuzzoola 10.

And now, we’re about a month out from Crosswords LA! It’s happening on Saturday, October 21, at the University of Southern California, and registration is open now!

The format is simple. Four divisions — Expert, Regular, Rookie, and Doubles (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors. Plus there’s an unscored Casual division for spectators and puzzlers who don’t want to compete!

Competitors will complete five themed puzzles made by constructors C.C Burnikel, Andrea Carla Michaels, Susan Gelfand, Lynn Lempel, Aimee Lucido, Erin Rhode, and friend of the blog Patti Varol! That’s right, an all-female lineup of constructors!

Then the top three solvers will tackle a championship puzzle, complete with live play-by-play commentary!

You can check out their webpage here for full details!

Are you planning on attending Crosswords LA, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 10 puzzles!

Lollapuzzoola celebrated ten years of puzzling this year, and although I was not in attendance, I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzles. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with topnotch themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Passing the Torch,” so every puzzle had something Olympic or athletic about it, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.

This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “Olympic season.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.

That being said, the Olympic theme was well-executed and working back and forth made for an enjoyable solve.

Interesting grid entries included BALLSY, ONE-NIL, BIONIC and A-MINOR, and my favorite clues were “Asian river (or mountains) (or maybe both, I can never remember)” for URAL and “One might check it at the door” for EGO.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Puzzle 1: Let the Games Begin by Paolo Pasco

The tournament proper gets off to a strong start with Puzzle 1, a really clever opening solve where the letters in various Olympic events have been removed from the other entries along that row. For instance, the first answer in the top row, JUDO, has each of its letters removed from the four subsequent entries: (J)ABS, FA(U)ST, (D)RIPS, and GO(O)DS.

This technique made for a curiously sized grid — 23×13 — but an impressive grid overall, since each of the words with missing letters still formed actual words. BENCHED became BEND and TRYOUTS became TOUTS when the CHE and RY were removed to be part of ARCHERY.

Interesting grid entries included K-POP, LABOR DAY, NASCAR DAD, and SIREE, and my favorite clues were “Mythological character who had a problem with hot wings?” for ICARUS, “Prop for Fred Astaire or Yoda” for CANE, and “Pair in a boat” for OARS.

Puzzle 2: Crossword De-Cat-hlon by C.C. Burnikel

Puzzle 2 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was a relatively easy solve, one that most solvers would no doubt finish well before the end of the 20 minutes allotted. But it was also hilariously interactive. The themed entries were instructions for different catlike actions for you to perform aloud!

For instance, MEOW FOR SOME MILK was one answer, and the clue instructed you to do so nine times, one for each “life.” It’s a very funny idea that no doubt must have made for a fairly unique and chaotic experience at the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included HOOKUP, PALE ALE, and HEEHAW, and my favorite clues were “Palindromic Swedish band with a palindromic hit” for ABBA and “Car mechanic’s wiper” for RAG.

Puzzle 3: Gym Playlist by Erik Agard

We take a break from the Olympics specifically to focus on music in Puzzle 3, where we have song titles broken into two parts on different lines, like NINETOFIVE, which would have read out in order, except TOFIVE was one row lower. Why? Well, because they become UNEVEN BARS, as the revealer explains.

It’s a very playful theme that mixed well with some engaging grid fillers, and a really fun solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included MAURITANIA, SCHMOE, MENUDO, MEDICO, and POUFS, and my favorite clues were “Titular thief of literature” for GRINCH and “Singer Lavigne who allegedly died in 2003 and was replaced by a lookalike” for AVRIL. (Now that’s some trivia!)

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Puzzle 4: New Biathlons by Francis Heaney

Probably the toughest puzzle of the tournament, save for the finals, Puzzle 4’s themed clues felt more like clues for a cryptic puzzle than a regular crossword. There were essentially two clues for each answer. The first was a “new biathlon” — a sport formed by combining two events into one hybrid event, like skiing and shooting — bookended by parts of an additional word. The second clue was a description of the word chain also formed both those letters.

For instance, 20 Across was clued “Indian instrument + new biathlon = Caption of a photo in which reviewer Gene and an alien sit atop a carpet, next to a sailor.” That’s a LOT of information, but it does make sense when you complete the answer: SISKELETONRUGBYTAR. You have SITAR with SKELETON RUGBY inside it, and you also have SISKEL ET ON RUG BY TAR.

Couple that with some hard grid fill, and you have a difficult but really engaging puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included CATARRH, UNICEF, ESTADOS, LAUNDROMAT, and TELL ME THIS, and my favorite clues were “When repeated, ‘Look, Senorita Sorvino’!” for MIRA and “What the wicked get” for NO REST.

Puzzle 5: Stick the Landing by joon pahk

The tournament puzzles closed with joon pahk’s immensely clever Puzzle 5, which presented four themed entries that vaulted the black squares between neighboring spaces on the same row in order to complete the answer. You see, each black square represented a pole vault, and those poles — MAY, SOUTH, SKI, and TOTEM — were found elsewhere in the grid. So 86 Across, MAY, bridged the gap between 24 Across’s JOHNM and YER to form JOHNMAYER.

This gimmick meant that, for instance, there was no 25 Across clue, because 25 Across was part of 24 Across, just separated by a black square, which I confess was confusing at the outset until I figured out the puzzle’s hook. Still, it was a very satisfying solve and one of the highlights of the day.

Interesting grid entries included BROUHAHA, I GOT THIS, UM OK, DC AREA, and DASHIELL, and my favorite clues were “Insult that Bugs Bunny mistakes for ‘maroon’” for MORON and “Cow who hasn’t had a cow” for HEIFER.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. But this year, there was an additional challenge to tackle.

As both solvers in person and at home were warned, “Each finalist will have a personal Marker Caddy. The Marker Caddy will be holding a cup of several markers. We aren’t going to say anything else, except that we’ve never had Marker Caddies before. Just this year. That is all.” Non-finalists were provided with a small four-pack of crayons containing a green, a red, a blue, and a yellow crayon.

Those colors would come in handy, as there were four O’s in the grid that needed to be marked with the colored markers. The first O in LOW RESOLUTION was blue, so that OSTATES would really be BLUE STATES, just as the last O in LOW RESOLUTION was red, so that OPEPPER was really RED PEPPER.

The same followed for the O in AS TO and the O in OUTS, so that BIGOTAXI would read BIG YELLOW TAXI and THEOMILE would read THE GREEN MILE.

Couple that with some very tough cluing — in the Express Finals anyway — and you’ve got one heck of a finale to the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SQUAWKS, HEY WAIT, LA PLATA and GAMETE, and my favorite clues were “Station not popular with Rush fans” for MSNBC and “Nancy who solved ‘The Clue in the Crossword Cipher'” for DREW.

There was also a tiebreaker puzzle I quite enjoyed, especially with clues like “Do goo” for GEL and “Boxing great, or her father” for ALI.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative puzzle gimmicks — the markers, the cat activities, the athletics in the grids (like pole vaunting or uneven bars) — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory longer.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. The tenth year of the tournament showed that Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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