Younger Solvers and Constructors Building Online Crossword Communities!

It’s a dynamic, fluid time for crosswords. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a sea change.

Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are featured more often, although we still have a LONG way to go on all of those fronts where representation is concerned, both for constructors and editorial staff.

Younger voices are rising up the ranks, and helping to influence the direction of crossword language through projects like the Expanded Crossword Name Database. Online resources like more inclusive word lists, free or discounted editing software (often constructed by younger solvers!), and words of guidance from online crossword collaboration groups are more available than ever.

Recently, these topics were tackled in The New York Times itself in an article about younger crossword enthusiasts penned by freelance writer and reporter Mansee Khurana.

mansee

Her article is a terrific snapshot of the modern crossword world.

It discusses the divide between older solvers and younger, and how the content of crosswords doesn’t always serve both sides. It tackles the concept of “evergreen puzzles” — crosswords edited for timeless reprint value, eschewing up-to-date and provocative references that would appeal to younger solvers and underrepresented groups for the sake of republication later.

The article mentions the many virtual and online spaces that are now comfortable haunts for younger crossword fans. Facebook forums, Discord chats, Zoom solving parties, Crossword Twitter, r/crossword on Reddit, and even Tiktok accounts dedicated to crosswords got some time in the sun, and it’s really cool to see how these new spaces have emerged and grown more influential.

[A solve-along video from YouTube, Twitch, and Crossword Tiktok user
Coffee and Crosswords. Actual solving starts around 10 minutes in.]

Several names familiar to crossword solvers were cited as well. Constructors like Sid Sivakumar (mentioned just yesterday in our Lollapuzzoola wrap-up), Nate Cardin, and Malaika Handa were all quoted in the piece, reflecting many of the same concerns we’ve heard from new and upcoming solvers in some of our recent 5 Questions interviews.

I actually remember the author’s post reaching out to the contributors and readers of r/crossword a few months ago, and I was glad to see the subreddit getting some mainstream attention. Yes, like any internet forum, it can be combative and argumentative at times, but that’s a rarity.

Most of the time, it’s a supportive community for crossword fans and aspiring constructors, a place where they share questions, bravely offer up their first attempts for input and criticism, and discuss all things puzzly. It’s genuinely inspiring to see new solvers on a near-weekly basis reaching out and being embraced by fellow solvers and cruciverbalists-in-progress.

I highly recommend you take the time out to read Mansee’s piece. She captures a true sense of not just where crosswords are now, but where they’re headed. And if these young people have anything to say about it, it’s headed somewhere very bright indeed.


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Across Lite and the New York Times: A Crossword Kerfuffle

How do you solve crosswords, fellow puzzler? Are you a pencil-and-paper solver, an app solver, an online solver?

There are lots of options for solvers, depending on which outlet you’re talking about.

Unfortunately for some fans of the New York Times crossword, there will soon be fewer ways to access the flagship crossword.

It was announced recently that the NYT will no longer be supporting Across Lite, a third-party file format that some solvers use to import the puzzle into their solving app of choice.

I’m not sure how many solvers use Across Lite — there are millions of daily solvers of the Times crossword — but the online reaction has been fairly negative. Both Crossword Twitter and r/crossword feature numerous posts from disillusioned solvers, including Dan Feyer, multiple-time ACPT winner, who considers this little more than a cash grab by the NYT. (He has gone on to explain his point in greater detail in further tweets.)

I have no doubt that the staff at the Times anticipated some kind of blowback. I mean, we’re puzzle people. Puzzlers, despite an incredible capacity to learn and adapt and suss out all sorts of puzzly solutions, can be set in our ways. We like what we like.

While sitting in with my friends at the Penny Dell Puzzles table at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament one year, I offered a woman a free pencil. She went on a three-and-a-half-minute diatribe about the inferiority of the pencil and what she views as appropriate qualities for a solving pencil. After she was done, I waited a few seconds and then said, “Miss, you don’t HAVE to take the pencil.”

Like I said, puzzlers like what they like.

Of course, I can see both sides of the argument. The Times is under no obligation to support non-NYT methods of using the puzzle. I mean, knowing how hard our programmers here at PuzzleNation work to make sure our puzzles are accessible across many platforms, I suspect the NYT has the same issues with their own puzzle distribution, let alone worrying about non-brand formats.

But then again, there are reasons third-party platforms exist. Several solvers with visual impairment issues claim that the official app lacks the functionality they need, and they prefer to solve through third-party apps.

That’s a gap that needs to be closed, and if the NYT won’t, someone else will. I know other apps are already being suggested or developed in the wake of this decision.

One big reason is comfort: solvers are hoping to avoid losing the solving style they prefer.

Others begrudge the NYT for being so proprietary and locking away their expansive library of puzzles behind services that they find unwieldly or unreliable.

I’m intrigued to see what happens in the weeks and months to come. Do other apps rise to prominence and fill the gap formerly served through Across Lite, or will the Times respond to the criticism by stepping back or updating their own platforms?

Either way, I’m sure crossword fans will have plenty to say about it.


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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!

nyt xwd

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.

la times

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.

crossword pen

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

hooray-for-no-progress

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.)

abracadaver11

[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.

correction 1

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

Elmo-Washington

[Image courtesy of muppet.fandom.com.]

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

correction 2

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.

WildAnimalProtectionAct

[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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Two Crossword Anniversaries This Week!

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Crossword history isn’t exactly a field of study that dates back to ancient times — I mean, we only celebrated the centennial of the crossword back in 2013 — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge amount of historical crossword material out there to be commemorated.

In fact, this week marks two fairly meaningful crossword anniversaries, one to be celebrated today, the other tomorrow.

The first crossword anniversary to observe is the 150th birthday of Arthur Wynne.

[Image courtesy of express.co.uk.]

In 1913, Arthur Wynne created the first modern crossword puzzle — which he called a Word-Cross puzzle — and over a hundred years later, we are still enjoying the ever-increasing variety of puzzles and clues spawned by that “fun”-filled grid.

Wynne was born on June 22, 1871 in Liverpool, England, but moved to the states in the early 1890s, spending time in Pittsburgh and New York City before creating his Word-Cross puzzle for the New York Sunday World.

Of course, the crossword as we know it — with its square grid and the black-and-white square patterning — are due not to Mr. Wynne, but to his former associate, future first New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar.

But, speaking of figures who helped elevate crosswords to greater prominence, that brings us to our second anniversary.

Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of the release of the influential crossword documentary Wordplay.

Wordplaymp

Wordplay introduced several famous names in crossword tournament circles, like Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Tyler Hinman, Jon Delfin, and Al Sanders, as well as highlighting many celebrity crossword solvers like Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, and more. The documentary also chronicled the 2005 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, bringing national attention to the tournament (and inspiring a Simpsons episode about crosswords).

Wordplay sparked a 40% increase in attendance the year after it aired, and the growing interest in the yearly event caused the tournament to actually change locations to a larger venue in New York City for 7 years!

(It has since returned to the Stamford Marriott, its traditional setting, despite actually topping the biggest NYC attendance in 2019, and again virtually in 2021.)

But the impact Wordplay had on the tournament itself, and interest in crosswords in general, cannot be overstated.

And this week, we celebrate both crossword anniversaries, one marking the genesis of crosswords, and the other marking how far crosswords had come, and how much farther they could go in the future.

It’s a pretty cool confluence of dates, to be sure.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Malaika Handa!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the sixth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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

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

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

Malaika was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Malaika Handa

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?

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

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

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

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


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

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