Who Do You Want to See in Crosswords? Make Yourself Heard!

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Crosswords have long been considered the domain of older white men. It’s a stigma on the entire industry, one that has sadly been encouraged by years and years of non-inclusive thinking.

Thankfully, the wheels of change are in motion. We still have a long way to go, but the push for greater representation has never been more aggressive or possessed more momentum than it does right now.

Outlets like Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and The Inkubator are all encouraging female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors. Editors like Erik Agard and David Steinberg are actively recruiting new voices, while constructors like Rebecca Falcon continue to advocate for greater exposure.

But representation isn’t just needed behind the scenes. It’s needed within crosswords themselves. The cluing and the grid entries should also reflect our incredibly diverse, colorful, ever-evolving, spectrum-spanning society.

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We wrote about this in November when The Pudding published the results of a statistical analysis of commonly referenced people in crossword answers.

Well, now there’s a way for you to not only push for greater inclusion, but to actually make suggestions: The Expanded Crossword Name Database.

A Google Form has been created where you can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords. They can be contemporary people or historical figures.

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This is one of the coolest things about the Internet. We can crowd-source our ideas and get feedback instantly.

I reached out to Erica Wojcik, who is spearheading the ECND, and she said that there have been over one hundred new submissions in the last week alone!

Click here to check out the form AND to submit your suggestions. You should only submit one name at a time, but you can submit as many times as you like!

I can’t wait to see what sorts of submissions are sent to the ECND. What a marvelous way for everyone to expand their vocabularies and work for greater inclusion in crosswords.

Who would you like to see appear as crossword answers, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to submit them to the ECND! We, and they, would love to hear from you.


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It’s Well Past Time to Speak Up.

Hey folks, I know you come to this blog for puzzles and games content, so I’m going to kick off with that. But please keep reading, because there are bigger things to discuss. Thanks.


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[A couple of protesters dance their way through the streets of downtown Dover on June 4. Image courtesy of Andre Lamar, Dover Post.]

There is a lot of discussion in the United States right now about discrimination and systemic prejudice. The puzzles and games industry is not immune to this sort of criticism.

Thankfully, just as puzzle and game companies have not been immune to accusations of discrimination, they’re also not outside the scope of grassroots efforts to reform them.

Wizards of the Coast is being confronted about racist imagery and ideas in the Magic: The Gathering card game and their offices. Systemic racism and sexism in the offices of Cards Against Humanity is being called out. People of color took a stand against GAMA’s silence regarding Black Lives Matter, triggering a mass walkout of presenters and panelists, as well as Origins Online being cancelled in the wake of the scandal.

People are speaking up, and that is a very good thing.

There are so many ways to show your support, so many charities and good causes you can donate to.

If you need a puzzly incentive to do so, our friends at Lone Shark Games are offering a downloadable bundle of Marching Bands puzzles in support of Campaign Zero, which works to end police brutality in America.

The folks at DM’s Guild and DriveThruRPG have also put together game bundles in support of Black Lives Matter, the National Police Accountability Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all while spotlighting the work of black creators.

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The real message is… no matter what you do or how you live your life, you simply cannot turn a blind eye to all this.

This blog post started out with the simple idea of sharing these worthwhile causes and talking about the puzzle/game groups that have spoken up.

But to do that without acknowledging the realities of WHY they’re speaking up is irresponsible and cowardly.

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[LGBTQ community members join Black Lives Matter protesters holding signs and chanting slogans on an intersection in West Hollywood, California on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Image courtesy of AP Photo/Richard Vogel.]

It’s a tumultuous time in world history, particularly in the United States.

As the COVID-19 crisis still looms large over the entire planet, hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of people have taken to the streets in support of people of color and in protest against police brutality, corruption, and systemic racism.

The spark started by the death of George Floyd caught fire, and has ignited powder keg after powder keg, each one filled with years’ worth of names of previous victims, ranging from Philando Castile to Breonna Taylor to Tony McDade. Energized pushes for accountability and reform are gaining traction, and new support systems are emerging to combat the entrenched prejudices in law enforcement and government. All of it centers around three words, a simple truth that hasn’t been treated as either simple or true: Black Lives Matter.

These discussions and protests have also sparked further outrage regarding the treatment of women by police, whether it’s outright violence against women or perceived systemic unwillingness or disinterest to investigate charges of sexual assault. Women’s reproductive autonomy and freedom to make informed choices have been under assault for years, but since the current president took office, those indignities have magnified.

At the same time, the battle for equal rights and representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals rages on. June is Pride Month, and as rainbow flags begin to permeate corporate advertising, the LGBTQ population in general (and nonbinary and trans people in particular) continue to face open harassment and dismissal. Influential public figures like J.K. Rowling challenge the very validity of their existence, marginalizing individuals simply for being brave enough to be themselves.

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[From the Seattle protests on Capital Hill. Image courtesy of Capital Hill Seattle Blog.]

I have endeavored to keep this blog apolitical, ignoring as best I can the news stories of the day to focus on puzzles and games. It’s meant to be an escape for the most part, though I have in the past commented on cultural insensitivity in crosswords, pushed for greater diversity among constructors, and tried to be an ally by spreading the word about projects like Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and The Inkubator.

But silence is consent, a glaring example of the privilege to “stay out of it,” a privilege many people don’t have the luxury of.

And I don’t consent to this.

I could make some insipid metaphor about how crosswords don’t work without both black and white squares, or that the joy of solving puzzles is for everyone.

But I’d rather just say it like this: Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. LGBTQIA+ people matter.

Whether they’re family, friends, coworkers, or strangers, they matter. They have a right to be themselves, to be heard, to be treated as equals, to walk without fear, to enjoy the same privileges and creature comforts everyone else does.

People are out there right now, donating their time, money, and energy to fix problems that have been ignored for way too long. Some of them are putting their lives in danger by doing so.

There are many ways to help. But the very first place to start is to declare yourself an ally. Speak up, loudly and often.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.


But I want to do more than just declare my support. I want to educate myself. I want to help educate others. I want to reach out in a puzzly way that helps build this community.

So today I’m posting the first in an ongoing series of puzzles on important social topics. I do this in the hopes that people will not only enjoy the puzzles, but learn from them and engage with subjects they may be unfamiliar with.

June 19th is fast approaching, and it marks an important milestone in Black history. It marks the date in 1865 that enslaved men and women in Texas were finally informed that they were free.

Yes, more than two years after Lincoln first issued his executive order, Major General Gordon Granger and a group of Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, to finally share this important news.

You can read more about June 19th here, and hopefully the puzzle below serves as some small incentive to keep learning.

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[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

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The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

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It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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Acts of Puzzly Charity: Fight Fires With Games!

Puzzlers have many admirable qualities, and one particular trait that’s common amongst constructors and puzzle fans alike is generosity.

In the past, constructors and game companies have teamed up for wonderful charitable efforts on behalf of women’s rights / women’s health, the LGBTQIA+ community, education and STEM programs, mental health, and other worthwhile causes.

Puzzlers donated time and creative energies to puzzle packets like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as puzzles, games, and other products for raffles, Humble Bundles, and other projects.

And now, once again, puzzlers are stepping up to help others. In this case, it’s the victims of the wildfires in Australia.

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DriveThruRPG, a website loaded with resources, adventures, and other materials for roleplaying games, is partnering with dozens of game publishers, content creators, writers, artists, and designers for Fight Fires With Games!

Fight Fires With Games offers eight different charity bundles packed with deeply discounted RPG content, with all of the proceeds going to Red Cross of Australia and World Wildlife Fund Australia to aid in brushfire relief.

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The bundles range in price from $9.99 to $29.99, and often include hundreds of dollars in discounted content. So, if you’re an RPG enthusiast, it’s a win-win all around!

Every little bit helps, and it always warms my heart to see puzzlers step up again and again to support others in times of need.


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How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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