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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Puzzled? The new creator of The Day’s crossword explains it all

    Stella Zawistowski (Submitted)

    There are certain controversies that can get some of The Day’s readers worked up: Politics. Sports rivalries. And the new crossword puzzle.

    The woman who had created this syndicated crossword for years retired. A new person came onboard.

    So the puzzles are a little different. They are, it seems, more difficult. Some readers complained. It’s good as it is, others opined.

    We spoke with the person who creates the crossword now, Stella Zawistowski. She makes what’s called “The Daily Commuter” puzzle for Tribune Content Agency, and it runs in hundreds of publications around the country, including The Day. Its title reflects the fact that it’s supposed to be able to be done on a person’s train or bus commute.

    Zawistowski knows about puzzles. She has been competing in crossword contests for a couple of decades and has been a top-10 finisher at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament multiple times. Her fastest time on the New York Times Sunday puzzle is 4 minutes, 31 seconds. She creates puzzles for vulture.com, and she occasionally has them in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. She writes trivia for various clients. She was a one-and-done competitor on “Jeopardy” in 2006.

    In our phone interview, she said it’s uncommon for the same person to make the puzzle for a publication every day, as is the case with her predecessor, Jacqueline E. Mathews, and her in “The Daily Commuter.” Consequently, readers are likely to notice major differences with that change.

    “Where the editor who hired me said, ‘Make an easy puzzle,’ I think I’ve been making all along what I consider to be an easy puzzle. But we’re learning that, like, I’m a Gen X person, I’m in my 40s, and some of the references that I take for granted … are things that people from different generations might not know. We’re definitely adjusting to feedback as we go,” she said.

    While Zawistowski might include references to, say, the movie “Clueless,” readers might remember that Mathews tended to have older allusions — about, say, Hollywood actors like Lana Turner.

    Zawistowski recalled that a puzzle in her first week of “The Daily Commuter” featured Tamagotchi, a handheld digital pet released in 1996. In retrospect, she realized that was like a shot across the bow.

    “I encourage folks to stick with it because those puzzles that are running in February now were made back in December, early January,” Zawistowski said. “So that was before my first puzzle had ever run in the paper. As you get feedback, it’s like, OK, some pop culture from the ‘90s is probably a little more me than the average solver of this puzzle, so we’ve started to adjust and tinker.”

    And, while those alterations are coming, Zawistowski mentioned another option: “If you’re finding some of the references feeling too modern for you, solve the puzzle with your kids; make it a group endeavor. … Maybe you’ll solve the puzzle with your grandchild and learn about, like, Billie Eilish.”

    When she is told that The Day has also received letters from readers who appreciate the new, more challenging puzzle, Zawistowski said, “I don’t take it personally, but it is nice to know there are some people who do enjoy a different cluing angle than they’ve been seeing before.”

    Richard DeChantal from Tribune said that, as with The Day, readers from other newspapers have said they found the puzzle to be more difficult, while some others liked the level of challenge.

    “We’re in the process of taking steps to make the puzzle less difficult,” he said.

    Multi-word answers

    Puzzle solvers might also have noticed that Zawistowski uses more multi-word answers than Matthews did. Based on reaction to that, sometime in March, the clues will start including a note if the answer consists of two words. The clue will be followed by a tag of “: 2 words.” That way, the readers won’t be confused and think it’s a single word made up of a long string of letters.

    “There’s a totally legit way of helping people out. No one should feel like they’re cheating when they start seeing the tags,” she said.

    Zawistowski said that, from many years of doing the New York Times and main Los Angeles Times puzzles, she is used to knowing that multi-word answers might be an option, because those puzzles don’t specify one way or another. But others, like the app Crossword With Friends, do indicate if the answer is a single or multi-word answer.

    A word of advice

    A general tip from Zawistowski: While memorizing lists of words might help in playing Scrabble, for instance, it doesn’t necessarily make crossword solving easier. The best way to improve is simply by doing more crosswords.

    “Don’t be afraid to look something up if you don’t know — you might see the same thing again in another puzzle, and then you won’t need to look it up,” she said.

    Nuts and bolts

    So how does someone devise a crossword puzzle?

    Zawistowki constructs “The Daily Commuter,” which doesn’t have a theme, differently than puzzles that do have a theme. For the latter, she comes up with what the theme is, develops answers and builds the grid around it all.

    For non-themed puzzles like “The Daily Commuter,” she thinks a 9- to 15-letter answer is usually a good place to begin, often placing it in the middle of the grid and building the puzzle around it. A recent one was “high top sneakers.”

    Her editors want her to follow the standard rules of crossword symmetry, meaning the grid will look the same upside down and right side up. She starts by placing the black squares. “There’s some boring math and pattern-recognition stuff in that. There are places you can place the black squares to give yourself a better chance that all of the words, when you fill around it, are easy-to-get words,” she said.

    Various intricacies are involved. When she has the letter J in an answer, for example, she wants to place a black square near it so it can cross with a word that starts with J; there are many more words that begin with a J than have a J in the middle.

    As for the cluing, she does try, say, to make sure she doesn’t have five baseball clues in a single puzzle and nothing about music. If she has a choice between a word she used in the previous day’s puzzle and a word she didn’t use, she’ll go with the latter. That said, she can’t absolutely avoid having the same word two days in a row, but she does try to minimize it.

    “When you’re going with words that are between three- and five-letters long, there are ones that just show up over and over and over again. Like, I know way more than I ever needed to know about Oreo cookies, for example, and Lake Erie — I know a lot more about Lake Erie than any other of the Great Lakes because it’s the one that’s most useful when you’re making a puzzle,” Zawistowski said.

    Solving competitively

    As for Zawistowski’s personal history, she said, “I’ve been solving competitively for 20-plus years. I am currently ranked #5 in the country. So your readers can feel free to be like, ‘Oh, she thinks this (‘The Daily Commuter’) is easy. Of course she thinks (this is easy)!’ Very few puzzles are difficult for me, and I do cherish the ones that are.

    “I started solving in college as a way to avoid working on my senior thesis, like I was supposed to be, so I would solve with a friend. I haven’t solved with anybody in a very long time because now I’m so fast at solving … it would be annoying to me. It would be just like, ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong. Oh, just give me the puzzle!’”

    She’s been with her husband for 20 years but said that, before meeting him, she’d see in a man’s online dating profile that he looked forward to solving the New York Times crossword with a woman.

    “And I’m just like well, ‘We can’t go out. The only way I’m doing that is if we each have our own copy of the puzzle,’” she said with a laugh.

    Zawistowski, who grew up in Philadelphia, has always loved language and wordplay.

    She had thought she would go to medical school after her undergraduate years majoring in chemistry at Princeton University.

    “Then I didn’t get that great of a grade in an organic chemistry, and I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll go to grad school and become an academic.’ But thank goodness I went to a school that forced me to do a thesis as an undergraduate, and I realized, ‘Well, lab work is not really for me either.’”

    Zawistowski lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and works four days a week in medical advertising, in addition to her puzzle and trivia career.

    She used to sing in a choir, though she gave that up post-pandemic because she had too much else going on.

    A lot of top puzzle solvers are musicians, computer programmers and/or people who work in math, she said.

    “I’m not a professional musician, but I have very strong sight-reading skills. So I think the same part of my brain that causes me to be able to recognize patterns on a printed page of music is also the part of my brain that’s working when I solve the crossword very quickly,” she said.

    Stick with it

    Zawistowski said the thing she wants to emphasize with people who do “The Daily Commuter” is this: “Stick with it. And do keep sending your feedback, because my editors do let me know what they’ve been hearing and we try to work around it. Hopefully, we’re going to start moving out some of the things people found difficult. But also embrace the experience of solving with a friend, with a child, with a grandchild, because I really envy people who can solve as a fun activity together. That sounds lovely.”

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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