The Sunday Magazine

What comes first, the clue or the word? This New York Times crossword constructor shares his tricks

Will Nediger of London, Ont., has a PhD in linguistics and is a regular contributor of crosswords to The New York Times. Michael Enright, a passionate addict of the Times' daily puzzle, is in awe when the 29-year-old explains why "a four-letter word for an actor" is always "gere" (as in Richard Gere.)
The Sunday New York Times crossword is the toughest puzzle of the week. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

If you do the crossword puzzles in the New York Times, you've probably noticed that some are tougher to complete than others. The Monday puzzle is the easiest of the week. By the time you get to Sunday, you're wrestling with a brute.

The clues can be so cryptic, so obscure, so difficult, that it can take hours to figure out what word they're pointing to. But perversely, that's part of the fun.

The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright is addicted to puzzles. He does up to four a day: on paper, in ink.

Recently, he was beavering away at the Sunday puzzle when he noticed the game's byline. It had been created by a Canadian. So of course, Enright wanted to meet him.

We found Will Nediger in London, Ont. He has a PhD in linguistics and makes his living constructing crosswords and writing trivia questions.

Will Nediger, 29, says developing new clues is the hardest part of constructing a New York Times crossword puzzle. (Submitted by Will Nediger)

Nediger, 29, has been making puzzles for as long as he can remember.

"I was probably ten years old when I started. I had no idea what I was doing. It was purely graph paper, pencil, and a lot of erasing."

How long does it take to build a puzzle?

"Sometimes everything goes smoothly and it will be done in an hour." But, he says, "if there's a corner that's particularly recalcitrant that I can't figure out, it can take ages."

And why do some words pop up more frequently than others? Why, Enright wanted to know, do "Gere" (as in the actor Richard Gere) or "oreo" or "aria" show up so frequently in puzzles?

These words contain lots of vowels, which is important to a puzzle constructor. And, "three- and four-letter words are the glue that holds everything together," says Nediger.

What's the toughest part of the job? "I would say coming up with fresh clues is the most challenging."


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