Publish More Women!

That was the message received loud and clear by attendees at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last year if they saw Erik Agard’s t-shirt. The future ACPT champion was amplifying a call that has resonated throughout the puzzle community for years now.

And yet, puzzles are often still regarded as a boys’ club.

Despite the fact that Margaret Farrar got the ball rolling. Despite the fact that Maura Jacobson contributed a puzzle to each of the first 34 ACPT tournaments and created over 1400 puzzles for New York Magazine. Despite a grand tradition of female innovators, tournament champions, and topnotch constructors that continues to this very day.

This topic once again took center stage recently when Will Shortz, gatekeeper for The New York Times crossword, posted his thoughts on the subject online:

Periodically I get asked, “Why aren’t more female constructors published in the New York Times?” And I always think, “Well, we don’t get a lot of submissions from women.” But until now I’ve never counted.

So this afternoon I counted. I looked through 260 recent submissions … and counted 33 by female constructors. That’s a little under 13%.

This figure is in line with the percentage of female constructors we publish. Last year, according to the stats at XwordInfo, 13% of the crosswords published in the Times were by women. So far this year the figure is slightly better — 15%.

Why this number is still so low, I don’t know.

In positive news, the number of new female constructors is significantly higher. In 2016, 31% of the 26 contributors who made their Times debut were female. In 2017, 19% were female. So far this year 27% have been female. XwordInfo lists all the names.

Our goal is to be inclusive. We want the Times crossword to reflect the lives, culture, and vocabulary of the people who do it, and having more female-made puzzles would provide better balance.

Still for us to publish more women constructors, we need to receive more puzzles by women. That’s the bottom line.

Our policy is open submissions. If you’re a woman who’d like to get into crossword constructing, we’d welcome your contributions, and we’ll be happy to work with you to get you published.

Reactions across the puzzle community have been mixed, but a number of people found Will’s response lacking. They asked what actual steps would be taken in order to encourage women and other underrepresented groups. Would there be additional support from the NYT for these sought-after constructors? Or would the status quo remain precisely that?

Those are questions worth asking. After all, the Times has been celebrating its 75th anniversary for the last year and a half with celebrity guest constructors. But how many of those celebrity collaborations have been with female constructors?

Three. That’s a project with huge visibility and mainstream media crossover potential, and the number is three.

And speaking of media crossover, it wasn’t that long ago — less than two years, actually — that the divisive clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM appeared in the NYT. Ruth Gordon wrote a brilliant piece in Slate highlighting how cluing standards at the Times could be exclusionary:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

So, how has the NYT crossword been doing over the last two years?

We can turn again to the insightful Erik Agard for context. While guest-posting on Rex Parker’s puzzle blog, Erik took a moment to celebrate and spread the word about Women of Letters, the marvelous 18-puzzle charity project we also discussed a few weeks ago:

It’s also a lot of women! In fact, there are more woman-constructed crosswords in this collection than there have been published by the New York Times so far this year. Those who fail to see the urgency in closing the gender gaps in crossword constructing and editing often posit that ‘you can’t tell the difference between a crossword written by a woman and one written by a man’ (ergo, whether women are equally represented has little bearing on the end product, so why should we care).

The puzzles in Women of Letters disprove that thesis in a big way, through the dizzying array of less-traveled roads explored by themes, grids, and clues alike. From the juiciest marquee answers in the themelesses to the simplest choice of referencing a legendary actress by her accolades and not just [Bond girl], the collection never ceases to be a breath of fresh, inimitable air. (As the young people say: “Your fave could never.”)

That comment was posted on April 29th, and yes, as of April 29th, the New York Times crossword had published 17 puzzles from female constructors (including male/female collabs). That’s 17 out of 119 puzzles for the year, or 14.3%.

Erik helpfully provided some other statistics for the sake of comparison:

  • Crosswords With Friends: 33/119 = 27.7%
  • The Los Angeles Times: 31/119 = 26.1%
  • American Values Club Crossword: 3/18 = 16.7%
  • Chronicle for Higher Education: 2/16 = 12.5%
  • Wall Street Journal: 9/99 = 9.1%
  • Fireball Crosswords: 0/19 = 0%

It’s also worth pointing out that, as of April 29th, our Daily POP Crosswords app stood at 87/119, or 73.1%.

If you update the listings up through May 15th, Daily Pop Crosswords published 95 puzzles by women over 135 days. March alone featured 21 puzzles by women across 31 days. Heck, in February, only two puzzles the entire month were constructed by men. (Er, man, to be more specific. The same chap constructed both.)

But those aren’t the only numbers worth celebrating. Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles maintain an impressive publication rate for The Crosswords Club subscription service. They publish six puzzles a month, so from January to May, that’s 30 puzzles, and 16 were constructed by women (including three collabs). The January issue was all female constructors.

That’s no surprise, honestly, given the company. At Penny/Dell Puzzles, women constitute the majority of not only puzzle editors, but upper management as well.

So, forgive me if I come off as flippant, but when Will Shortz asks, “Why this number is still so low?”, I have to ask why as well.

Because the constructors are out there, right now, doing tremendous work.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Plus Will Shortz!)

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

In our Puzzles in Pop Culture series, we’ve featured shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans, The West Wing, Hell’s Kitchen, and Parks and Recreation.

But oddly enough, the puzzliest show in the series has proven to be Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s hit sitcom about a New York precinct and its oddball collection of detectives. Not only did they pose a diabolical seesaw brain teaser in one episode, but crosswords were at the heart of another key moment in the show just last year.

And today’s post marks the show’s third appearance. Join us as we delve into “The Puzzle Master,” episode 15 of season 5.


The episode opens with detective Amy Santiago passing the sergeant’s exam and doing a dorky dance. Good start.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.

Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.

Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.

[Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Wiki.]

While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)

Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)

They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”

Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.

While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)

She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.

(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)

While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.

They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”

[Image courtesy of AV Club.]

Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.

Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.

When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.

Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)

Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.

Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.

Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Jake has a epiphany, realizing that the arsonist’s name isn’t what’s being spelled out, it’s the word MARRY. (The word “conjugate” in the letter also pointed to marriage.)

And who wants to marry Stermley?

The woman in line at the bar on crossword night.

Jake and Amy bring the woman in, and it turns out the full message she intended to spell out with her fires was “MARRY ME OR ELSE I WILL KILL YOU, YOURS FOREVER, HELEN GERBELSON.”

That would take SO MANY FIRES. (I imagine she’d have to burn down several buildings more than once, given the sheer repetition of letters and the relatively few options for numbered streets.)

But, in the end, the arsonist has been caught, thanks to the power of puzzles and good police work.

[Image courtesy of Lauren Leti’s Twitter.]

Overall, I thought this was a very fun episode of the show. The anagram gags were the puzzly highlight, though I confess, I thought they’d do more with the Will Shortz cameo.

Here’s hoping there’s a crime at the Brooklyn Nine-Nine equivalent of the ACPT next year!

Also, as someone who has seen ARSON in a thousand grids, it is funny to see someone finally link the word and the act in a puzzly way.


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ACPT 2018 Wrap-Up!

The 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, and other items from All of the Things.

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.

[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)

The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.

Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.

Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.

Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.

So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).

Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.

It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!

Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.

As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

We’ll see you next year!


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A Crossword Mystery Movie?

It’s 2018, and these days, it seems like crosswords are everywhere. They’re in the paper, on the newsstands, and even in your pocket.

And now, they’re making it onto TV with a Hallmark Channel original movie!

Oh yes, check out this snippet from the recent press release:

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has greenlit development for new mystery movie, The Crossword Mystery starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott. The movie is co-created by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, puzzle master for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” editor of Games magazine and founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott are no strangers to Hallmark themselves, having starred in three movies together since 2015: All of My Heart, A Christmas Melody, and All of My Heart: Inn Love.

Now, they’ll reunite for a new puzzly mystery.

Here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect from the film:

A brilliant crossword puzzle editor (Chabert) finds her life turned upside-down when she is pulled into a police investigation after several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. Proving her innocence means leaving the comfort of her sheltered world and working with a tough police detective (Elliott), puzzling through clues together in order to crack the case, as the two are fish out of water in each other’s worlds.

As far as we know, there’s no airdate scheduled yet for the film, but we’ll keep you posted when we know more.

Perhaps Will himself will have more details for us by the time the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament rolls around in March.

Still, what an unexpected bit of news for puzzlers everywhere. 2018, what other surprises are lurking up your sleeve?


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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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Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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