Will Shortz has spotlighted a number of teenage constructors in the recent past, but they’ve all been boys. Until now, that is: Zoe Wheeler, age 19, is publishing her first crossword in the New York Times on January 19. Zoe’s a college sophomore transferring to Brown University (home of an enthusiastic crosswords club) this month.
Zoe answered a few questions for us. Don’t read the interview before solving the puzzle, lest ye be spoiled.
AR: Who are your favorite constructors?
ZW: I’m going to be sadly unoriginal and say Elizabeth C. Gorski and Brendan Emmett Quigley. I love how many of Elizabeth’s themes are manifested physically within the creative design of the grid, and I love Brendan’s puzzles because of his fantastic word choices, and even more fantastic cluing for them (digital detritus, anyone?).
AR: What day of the week is your favorite day of the New York Times crossword to solve?
ZW: I enjoy Sundays the most because they have a ton of theme answers and, since the Sunday puzzles are constructed at about a Thursday level of difficulty, the themes usually revolve around puns, word plays, and the addition or deletion of letters, which make the theme phrases fun and funny. Also, Sunday puzzles are just bigger, so the experience of solving lasts longer. :)
AR: Why do you think so few young women evince an interest in creating crosswords? In older age groups, the male/female split is roughly 70/30, but it’s been closer to 95/5 for constructors 25 and younger.
ZW: Jim Horne asked me about the gender gap for the NY Times blog; what I said is copied below. I’m not sure why more young men than young women would be drawn to crossword puzzle constructing, except maybe there’s more of a teen guy fascination with games and puzzles in general.
I think crossword puzzle construction might seem to depend on word skills, but it really depends on math and spatial problem-solving skills. Crossword puzzle solving involves more than just knowing rote facts or having a large vocabulary; you have to take a set of requirements (say, a clue or a partially filled-in grid answer) and generate a list of possible solutions. When people “guess” on an answer, they’re performing those actions. With crossword puzzle constructing, it’s solely about generating possible answers (especially for Friday and Saturday constructions), so it’s even more geared toward mathematical proficiency; the various ways that words can combine and interlock. I think men have traditionally been more drawn to mathematically based, problem-solving activities and fields than women, though that’s changing.
AR: Tell me about the development of this puzzle.
ZW: Before I had even started this puzzle, I had spent a large part of my fall semester at college sending subpar puzzles to the New York Times. (Of course, at the time I didn’t think they were subpar at all… I thought they were all pretty brilliant, to say the least!) One of the rejection e-mails I received on a group of puzzles came hand in hand with a really nice e-mail from Paula Gamache, who works with Will Shortz, saying that she thought my puzzles had potential and offering to mentor me on my constructing skills. Paula mentioned that the established women constructors were startled by the lack of young female constructors, and that she (along with you!) were looking to change that. It’s safe to say that Paula’s help was invaluable in the creation of this crossword.
My original idea was to hide secret societies in longer theme entries, one of which was The Order of the Elks (shortened to ELKS for the purpose of my crossword). The problem was that most secret societies are quite long and thus don’t lend themselves to this type of theme. Paula and I then discussed ELK as a kind of game, and I worked on a theme that would focus on hidden game animals, and made a grid for it. Ironically, Paula’s main critique of my first grid was to suggest that I replace the ELK entry that started the whole puzzle (WETBLANKET) with QUESADILLA, which houses QUAIL, for a longer hidden game animal.
When I finished the new grid, Paula made revision suggestions to improve its elegance. Not only was this specific puzzle perfected through her mentorship, but I learned so much about crossword construction in general. I know my future puzzles will benefit immeasurably!
AR: Do you have a least favorite crossword answer that you hope to avoid using in your own puzzles?
ZW: Not really, because I’d rather have a few great words connected by one bad one than a bunch of mediocre picks. Besides, the most boring answers can at least be clued in creative or interesting ways (though I won’t hold my breath for ERAT…). I do try not to have my 1-Acrosses be either abbreviations or crosswordese superstars, like ERA or NEE.
To address the dearth in young female crossword constructors, Paula and I have assembled a group of women who are ready and willing to mentor other young women, in much the way Paula coached Zoe on this puzzle.
If you are a young woman—in, say, the high school to college age range—and you’d like to try your hand at making crossword puzzles, send me an e-mail (click my name atop the sidebar to find my address) and we’ll try to pair you with a mentor. If you know a bright young woman who’s been bitten by the crossword bug, ask her if she’s interested in making puzzles and send her my way.
There are other terrific resources available to any beginning constructors, of course:
- Kevin McCann’s Cruciverb website, particularly the basic rules of crossword construction, the must-read Sage Advice articles, and the lowdown on the available crossword construction software apps.
- Patrick Berry’s how-to guide to construction, Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies. The title’s a misnomer: it’s a hands-on how-to book for new constructors, written by one of the acclaimed masters of crossword construction. (As a bonus, Patrick illustrates the process with 70 of his own puzzles, so you get a fun crossword collection and a how-to book in one volume for a mere $9.99.)