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From YSER to ERA: Sophia Maymudes ’20 discusses the art of crossword construction

The best part about being a crossword puzzle constructor is that I’m prepared every time I have to share  a fun fact about myself on the first day of a new class. It makes me seem appropriately quirky, right? However, the world of crossword construction isn’t as exclusive and scary as you might imagine—take it from someone who, two years ago, thought that only my parents would ever be interested in my puzzles.

In middle school, I started solving early-week puzzles New York Times puzzles with my mom. She’s since told me that she would let me figure out the easy clues so I could feel like I was contributing too—thanks, mom! The first puzzles I ever wrote were for my high school newspaper, and once I came to college, I published a few in the Carletonian Bald Spot. My parents were the ones who initially pushed me to submit my puzzles to the New York Times. I think they were mostly fed up with how much I’d complain if a puzzle was not to my liking—“this puzzle has the word YSER in it? Even I could have written a better puzzle than that!”So eventually, I gave it a shot. 

I won’t go too far into the technical details of crossword construction, but I’ll give you a broad overview of how a puzzle comes together. The first step (and the hardest, in my opinion) of writing a crossword is to think up a theme. The theme is what keeps a puzzle from just being trivia (a common misconception about puzzles!) and can include literally anything, although most involve some sort of wordplay. The most recent puzzle I published in the New York Times had the theme of adding the letters “RE” to common phrases to make new ones, which we then wrote clues for. For example, “Hate getting ready to move?” was the clue for RESENT PACKING, and “Places to swim during school?” was RECESS POOLS (The puzzle’s title? RESOLVED).

Next, I’ll place the theme answers into the grid, and then figure out where the rest of the black squares should go. The black squares in a puzzle are symmetric – if you flip a crossword upside-down, the grid should look the same as it would right-side up. Then, I’ll fill in the rest of the grid with other words, trying hard to make each entry as clean and sparkly as possible. This part is where software comes in handy—I use a program called Crossfire to construct, which allows me to click on a particular space in my grid and see all possible words that could fit there. It’s still a lot of work for me, though, because I have to work through hundreds of possibilities to find the best possible fill, a judgement which is in many ways quite arbitrary. I have to draw upon my experience as a solver to think about what words will bring the most enjoyment. 

The final piece of construction is writing the clues, and this is also the piece where I feel I have the most to grow. As much as I love wordplay and make puns in my regular life, it can be tricky to find the perfect balance between clues that are funny and clever, but still get the point across. I’m still in the process of finding my cluing voice, but I’m having a lot of fun trying! 

My first puzzle was accepted to the New York Times in the summer of 2018, about three months after I’d initially submitted it. When it finally ran in December 2018, I was studying abroad in Budapest and had to trek to four different newsstands to find a copy! However, the fact that I was still able to solve my puzzle thousands of miles from the US speaks to the universality of crossword puzzles, a range that continues to surprise me. My second puzzle included a blurb written by Will Shortz that mentioned that I was a Carleton student. This led to many alums I’d never met sending me congratulatory Facebook messages. I read several crossword blogs, and it’s really weird to go online and read literally hundreds of comments about something you’ve written. Some are critical (I still remember a comment I got about my first puzzle, in which the revealer was KITTY CORNER—one commenter wrote “I hate cats and all cat related puzzles”), but the vast majority are complimentary. That’s what I like best about constructing—I love bringing a little joy into people’s lives by giving them a fun puzzle to solve. 

You might think of crossword construction as a solitary hobby. For me, it’s anything but. I love co-constructing with other people—it’s really nice when you’re feeling stuck on a particular corner or clue to be able to email the grid to someone else and say “it’s your problem now!” Over half of the puzzles I’ve published through major outlets have been collaborations, including two with other Carleton students. So if you’re interested in getting into crossword construction, feel free to reach out to me—I’d love to work with you! (Particularly if you have an interesting clue for ERA. I’m totally out of those by now).

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