5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Erica Wojcik!

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 second 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 Erica Wojcik as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Erica has only started constructing crosswords over the last year, but she’s already making waves. Most notably, she has spearheaded the Expanded Crossword Name Database, a resource for constructors where the crossword community at large can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords.

She currently has a puzzle up on Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and we’ll start seeing her creations in outlets like The Inkubator in the coming months. I have no doubt her byline will be appearing elsewhere soon!

Erica 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 Erica Wojcik

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I used to do morning crosswords with friends in college, but only sporadically. In 2015, my husband got me hooked on the NYT crossword and ever since, our daily routine involves solving the Times puzzle together and reading Rex Parker’s blog. I study language development as a professor of psychology, and crosswords perfectly combine my interests in language and problem solving.

I’d been curious about constructing for a while, but finally decided to try it out in February 2020. I tweeted something about wanting to construct and tagged Anna Shechtman and Erik Agard on a whim, and they both gave super advice and other constructors chimed in as well. I was so shocked and delighted by how nice and helpful everyone was!

But, it was February 2020 and before I could actually dive in, the pandemic struck and I was stuck juggling a job, a toddler, and a newborn. I got my head above water in November, downloaded Across Lite, read Patrick Berry’s Handbook, got hooked up with a mentor via the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory and very quickly became obsessed.

2. You have a puzzle in the pipeline with The Inkubator and you’re awaiting feedback on submissions to several of the major outlets. 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?

Oh man, I’ve learned so, so many things from so, so many people! The most surprising part of constructing has been discovering the fun, welcoming online crossword community. I had no idea! It’s been such a delight to chat and joke and learn from so many folks. The most important (and most cliche) thing I’ve learned is to ask for help when you have a question. So many folks are willing to collaborate or share tips.

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

I love puzzles that have personality and teach me something new, which usually means crosswords that have colloquial/contemporary phrases and avoid common crosswordese. Of course, I’ve learned that this is SO HARD to do. I end up ripping up entire grids because I have AMTOO and OSHA gnawing at me. But it’s worth it when you fill a grid that is just so clean and fresh throughout.

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

There are WAY too many constructors that I admire to list here! But in recent memory…. I absolutely loved Nam Jin Yoon’s Saturday NYT puzzle at the end of January. So many good phrases. Such clever cluing on the shorter fill. I’m also a huge fan of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 blog. Those make me laugh out loud all the time.

4. What’s next for Erica Wojcik?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for the Expanded Crossword Name Database, and one thing that several people have asked about is whether I can create a similar database for cultural things (teams, places, organizations etc.) So I’ll be getting that up soon!

I’m such a n00b at constructing, so I’m still just constantly playing around with themes and grids and trying to really find my voice. I love love love collaborating so I hope to do more of that, too!

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

Read Patrick Berry’s Handbook and join Crossword Twitter 🙂


A huge thank you to Erica for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to contribute your ideas to the Expanded Crossword Name Database! I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what she creates next.

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New to Crosswords? Solve Along With the Try Guys!

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As someone who has attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in the past, I can attest to how blisteringly fast some of the top solvers are.

And there’s a lot that goes into a top-ranked solving technique. There’s the regular experience of actually solving on paper in pencil (which is very different from solving on a screen), and years of familiarity with crossword tropes, building a well-established lexicon of common crossword words, letter patterns, and cluing styles to draw on.

There may be a natural gift or affinity for puzzle solving as well, or simply a knack for reading past clever wordplay and cracking tricky clues and elusive themes faster than most.

In any case, it’s a curious alchemy that makes a top-notch solver. But you don’t have to be top 3 in a tournament to be fast. I am routinely impressed by the average times posted by constructors and fellow puzzlers alike.

During the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, for instance, plenty of fellow solvers completed puzzles in less than half the time it took me.

So when I heard that YouTube’s famous experimental quartet The Try Guys were testing their puzzly mettle against a respected constructor, I happily watched along.

In the video, the team tried to group-solve a Monday New York Times crossword in the time it would take magician and crossword constructor David Kwong to solve FOUR New York Times puzzles.

I won’t spoil how things turned out — watch the video for that! — but I do want to discuss the role David played as puzzle ambassador in the video.

If you know someone who is intimidated by crosswords, or maybe wants to try solving them but hasn’t yet, I would highly recommend sending them a link to this video.

David does a terrific job introducing the Try Guys to the rules of crosswords, discussing everything from themed entries and rotational symmetry to some of the common crossword tropes we all know and love. (He even explains the famous November 5, 1996 quantum puzzle where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could fit in the grid.)

He helps demystify the puzzle, but manages to do so in a way that still makes the challenge seem fun. The Try Guys go from being apprehensive about the race to being excited to bring their own unique trivia knowledge and skills to the table.

Not only does it encapsulate a lot of what’s fun and enjoyable about crosswords, but it serves as a small sampling of competitive solving, which might make fellow puzzlers more interested in participating in a tournament someday.

In short, it’s great fun AND great PR for crosswords. I don’t think it’ll make me any faster as a solver, but I enjoyed watching nonetheless. Nicely done, David. Nicely done, Try Guys.


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Representation in Crosswords: A Fresh Look

Problem-solving-crossword

We live in a data-driven world these days. Everything is quantified, analyzed, charted, and graphed. Your social media use alone is an absolute treasure trove of data that tells businesses all sorts of information about your activities, spending habits, and more.

So it should come as no surprise to you that the world of crosswords is no different. In recent years, we have been able to analyze decades of crosswords like never before, drawing important conclusions and uncovering trends both intriguing and shocking.

Back in 2016, the data analysis of programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were then edited by Timothy Parker. Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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This led to Parker’s removal from both the USA Today and Universal crosswords.

But the impact of data analysis in crosswords doesn’t stop there. In 2018, Erik Agard compiled stats on how often the work of female constructors appeared in the major crossword outlets across the first four months of that year. It was an eye-opening piece about gender disparity among published constructors, backed up by smart research.

And there has been a greater push for inclusion on the construction side of crosswords. Back in March, at the urging of constructor Rebecca Falcon, several outlets participated in Women’s March, a concentrated effort in the puzzle community to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

(It comes as no surprise that two of the voices encouraging female puzzle creators are Erik Agard and David Steinberg, both of whom stepped up massively in the wake of the Timothy Parker scandal and have been advocates for greater inclusiveness in crosswords.)

womensmarch

[The list of all of the female constructors involved in Universal’s Women’s March project.]

This does raise the question, however, of inclusiveness when it comes to cluing and crossword entries.

And that question has been tackled quite brilliantly by Michelle McGhee in an article for The Pudding.

Striving to “better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles,” McGhee made a strong point about the influence crosswords have as a reflection on society:

Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).

A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and significant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.

And she put the data to work to prove her point.

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Sampling tens of thousands of crosswords from Saul Pwanson’s puzzle database, she and her fellow researchers sorted people mentioned in crossword clues and used as crossword answers by race and gender according to US Census categories.

And their conclusion, sadly, was hardly unexpected:

We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else.

Not only did they chart the percentages of representation, but they also created charts illustrating the most commonly referenced people in crossword answers in the New York Times puzzle.

The goal? They wanted to quantify the concept of “common knowledge” in crosswords in the hopes of redefining it in a way that better reflects a true common knowledge, one that represents everyone.

I’m only scratching the surface of this article, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of crosswords, what they say about society, and what they COULD say about society. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read McGhee’s full piece here.

It’s the sort of journalism, commentary, and data analysis that helps push a problematic aspect of crosswords into the spotlight and keep it there. Yes, there have been great steps forward for representation in crosswords, both within the puzzles and in the realm of constructors, but we can do better. We must do better.

And work by folks like Michelle McGhee and her graph-savvy data miners is a valuable part of the process.


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Crosswordese in a Random Picture

It’s always fun when you encounter crosswordese in the wild. By definition, crosswordese involves words you only see in crosswords, so a real-world encounter is a rare and curious thing.

Someone posted the following picture on Reddit, in a post titled “How NYT constructors dress, presumably.”

(It differs wildly depending on the constructor, by the way.)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to it. But there are several classic crossword entries in this picture.

The A-LINE dress, the YSL on the purse, the ECRU shade. Quite the OLIO of puzzly elements.

Sure, the dress isn’t MIDI — though the coat might be! — but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Naturally, the commenters on that page suggested other crossword entries that might be out of sight, joking there’s an ETUI in her purse, an OBI missing from her coat, an EPEE in her concealed right hand, or ESTEE perfume in the air.

I for one suspect she’s close to her destination, her ETA just a SEC or two away.

Is she in EUR. somewhere? Perhaps near the RHINE or the RHONE or the AARE? Is she in OSLO?

Can you find any other examples of crosswordese lurking in this photo, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or maybe you have another picture packed with puzzly potential? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor and Wordplay Blogger Deb Amlen

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 we’re excited to welcome Deb Amlen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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[Deb in the center, flanked by her fellow Musketeers.]

Deb is a talented crossword constructor, but these days, it’s more likely you know her for her role as the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword blog and educational/humor column associated with The New York Times crossword puzzle.

One of the most public faces associated with the crossword, Deb entertains and informs across both the blog and its associated Twitter account, as well as hosting a live-solving show on YouTube with fellow constructor Sam Ezersky and celebrity guests!

Deb 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 Deb Amlen

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Word games like “Ghost” were always my favorite things to play when I was a child, but I didn’t really get into puzzles until I was a young adult. I watched my father solve the New York Times crossword when I was really young, but I didn’t start solving on my own until I bought myself a subscription to New York Magazine after college and discovered Maura Jacobson’s puzzles.

I started constructing crosswords when my own kids were young because, as a stay-at-home mom, I desperately needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve Pokémon or Elmo. I read everything I could about puzzle making and learned how to make crosswords from Nancy Salomon. Nancy has mentored hundreds of constructors to publication.

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2. As the flagbearer for crosswords in the public eye, The New York Times crossword is often the most scrutinized when it comes to cultural sensitivity regarding entries and clues, and more than once, that has depicted the Times puzzle in an unflattering light.

As a very public figure for the brand — not to mention the de facto social media gatekeeper — this puts you in the unenviable position of being between the audience and the editorial team. How do you handle these situations, and as an enthusiastic solver yourself, how do you think the Times is doing in this arena?

The crossword does get a lot of flack, doesn’t it? Honestly, some of it is warranted, some of it is not.

There is definitely a need to bring the flagship puzzle into the 21st century in terms of diversity and representation. Like most large companies, however, sometimes change happens slowly at The New York Times.

A lot of work is being done by the company and the puzzle editors behind the scenes, though, to increase diversity on their team and to be more aware of content that is inflammatory, and I think the recent puzzles reflect that. They have a ways to go, but the conversation is active and ongoing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the crossword.

As far as social media goes, people tend to conflate “the Wordplay Twitter account” with “Everything The New York Times Does With Regard to Puzzles and Games.” So, since I run the Wordplay account and the puzzle editors are not really on social media, I tend to be the target of people’s complaints, which is hilarious because I’m just the columnist. Luckily, The Times has allowed me to expense a thick skin, so I’m doing OK. When I’m not, I take a break from social media, which I highly recommend and think everyone should do.

On the other hand, most people are well-wishers and are a lot of fun. They tweet their solving victories to me and I give them a gold medal emoji, which people really respond to. It’s very satisfying to be able to lift people up and encourage them, especially on social media, which can be very negative.

3. For the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, constructors and celebrity guest puzzlers collaborated on numerous puzzles. Which celebrity constructors surprised you the most with their work, and who would you like to see as guest constructors in the future?

I’m not sure I was surprised by this, but I believe that Rachel Maddow’s crossword was one of the most popular, most downloaded puzzles we’ve ever had. Neil Patrick Harris’s puzzle had a very cool trick to it. And I can’t leave out the one I did with Natasha Lyonne, who was just brilliant to work with.

[Author’s note: When asked about her puzzle, Natasha said, “Working with Deb Amlen to create this puzzle has quite literally been a lifetime highlight for me.”]

4. What’s next for Deb Amlen?

Dinner, probably.

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

Enjoy yourself. This is not like sitting down to take the SAT; it’s a game. And games should be fun. Life is too short to sweat the crossword.


A huge thank you to Deb for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and creative endeavors, and be sure to check out her work on the Wordplay blog and her very entertaining live-solving videos on YouTube. We can’t wait to see what she cooks 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!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Amanda Rafkin

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 we’re excited to welcome Amanda Rafkin as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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When she’s not contributing to musical theater with her deft piano performances (or entertaining herself with various showtunes), Amanda constructs crosswords for various outlets including her own puzzle website, Brain Candy, where she posts a new puzzle every day. She also features other constructors, providing a valuable platform for her fellow cruciverbalists!

She has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Universal, The Inkubator, and many other outlets, and recently contributed a puzzle to the 2020 Boswords crosswords tournament (which just so happened to be your lead blogger’s favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament).

Amanda 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 Amanda Rafkin

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I really started loving puzzles at some point in my pre-teen years when I would confiscate my mom’s half-finished puzzles when she would step out of the room. I think she eventually got so fed up with me stealing her puzzles that she bought me my own book of variety puzzles, and since then I’ve been off to the races.

I became interested in constructing a couple of years ago when I got more serious with my crossword solving and felt that crossword construction could fall in that blissful middle-of-the-Venn-diagram area between something I might be good at and something I might love. I guess who’s good at anything is a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to report that I was wildly correct about the love part.

2. In addition to your crossword constructing, you’re also a musician, which seems to be a recurring theme among some constructors (Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet) and tournament solvers (Dan Feyer, John Delfin). Do your musical skills ever influence your puzzling, or do you ever find yourself relying on your puzzly skills while performing or composing?

This is something I’ve heard many times (the relationship between crossword constructing and musicianship) to the point that I, myself, wonder if there’s something to it! If there is, it’s not something I’m aware of at all. For me, the two things are pretty separate experiences in my life.

The one exception to this I guess would be my theater-themed puzzles that I’ve grown so fond of. Every Thursday on my website is “Theatre Thursday”, where I post a midi-sized Broadway-themed puzzle, often accompanied by a bunch of relevant musical theater information that no one asked for. I also have a couple of Broadway-themed midi packs on the horizon. One is completed and will be released sometime in the (probably) not-too-distant future, and the other is a midi pack centering around each of Sondheim’s 19 major works, which I’m working on right now.

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[Sondheim constructed cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine,
so Amanda certainly finds herself in good company!]

3. To call the last few months tumultuous is an understatement, considering public unrest and pushback against infringements on civil rights. In a similar vein, there has been a more strenuous push in crosswords recently (Women’s March, for instance) for greater representation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In your estimation, how are the major outlets faring regarding inclusion?

Well there’s a loaded question! The numbers will tell you that, by and large, they are faring rather poorly. There are of course some exceptions (notably, the USA Today, which publishes far more puzzles by women than men). If you’re looking at the major outlet (The New York Times), this can feel challenging to assess in some ways.

If we’re acknowledging a recent push for inclusion, then we also have to take into consideration the often 18-month delay between the time of construction and the time of publication. As a result, the things that are happening now may not reveal themselves to us until over a year from now. None of this is an excuse for not having implemented a more inclusive system long ago, but I do think that even the major outlets with a shorter queue than The New York Times may not reveal to us any of aforementioned representational shifts until months from now.

I hope this is something that we as constructors and solvers continue to keep our eyes on, so that we can continue to work on opening doors that may have previously felt closed, and offering equal opportunities to anyone and everyone interested in the endeavor of crossword construction.

I think, as a whole, the general industry is still struggling to understand the difference between “I personally don’t know this because of my own life experiences” and “This isn’t gettable/knowable/likeable for solvers”. Inclusion begets inclusion, as exclusion begets exclusion. By leaving certain things/people/customs etc. out of puzzles, we continue this cycle in perpetuity. The more different kinds of people we have making puzzles, the more likely it is that any given solver will be able to do a puzzle and see themselves within it. And, at least for me, that is a goal that I always try to keep in mind when constructing.

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[Solving runs in the family.]

4. What’s next for Amanda Rafkin?

I wish Amanda Rafkin knew the answer to that question as well. Given how things are going, it seems it will be a while before I’ll be doing much in the way of music again. So, for now, I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for most of quarantine: making puzzles, putting them into the world, and hoping that they bring some kind of joy to folks during a time when joy can be a tricky thing to come by. Would it be awesome to be able to make a living solely from making crossword puzzles? HECK YES! So maybe that’s a goal for sometime in the future as well.

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

No matter who you are, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who your friends are, no matter the experiences you’ve had in your life, no matter how woke you think you are, you have blind spots. We all have blind spots. And sometimes, in the wake of these blind spots can come decisions that hurt other people. We are imperfect but lifelong students on this collective journey to betterment.

Be open to feedback, specifically from people who have had different life experiences than you. Feedback is not criticism; it’s the space from which we all grow. So get feedback on your work and actually listen. Resist the urge to be defensive. Collaborate with other people. If they differ from you in some way, even better.

Oh, and if you’ve been tossing around the idea of constructing for a while but haven’t actually taken the leap…jump. The kindest and most supportive people are on the other side waiting to catch you.


A huge thank you to Amanda for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and musical endeavors, and be sure to visit her puzzle website Brain Candy for all sorts of puzzle goodness. We can’t wait to see what she cooks 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!