After Deb Amlen had kids, she needed a creative outlet, so she started designing crossword puzzles. Eventually, her puzzles found their way to several major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Now, Amlen has also dipped her toe into journalism and commentary writing. She heads up the Wordplay blog about crossword puzzles for the Times as well as Buzzology, a column about online trends for Yahoo! Tech.
Amlen still does puzzle construction too. She talked to our producers the challenges of coming up with a theme for crosswords. (Easier puzzles – which appear on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays – have themes. Tougher puzzles that appear later in the week do not.)
“Most writers like myself love the chance to show off and make the clues as tricky as possible, but I’ve always been an early week constructor because I love me a good theme,” said Amlen.
There is a lot of give and take with editors over the construction of a crossword puzzle. For example, crossword editors will often ask constructors to revisit a clue if they feel it is too difficult for an earlier-in-the-week puzzle. They may also ask a designer to “rip out” an entire part of the puzzle grid if they feel it doesn’t “sparkle” enough, said Amlen.
Amlen had nothing but praise for the current Times puzzle editor, Will Shortz, who she said brought a lot of much-needed pop culture into the newspaper’s contemporary puzzles.
Amlen’s Times blog about the crossword appears almost every day. Each post focuses on the newspaper’s daily puzzle, but it also includes snippets about Amlen’s life. Amlen says some other blogs about the daily crossword are far more technical and serious. She likes to keep the tone of her blog a little lighthearted.
“There’s a reason why we are in the entertainment section,” she said. “It’s something that I think people should enjoy and share and have fun with.”
As in other areas of pop culture, the crossword community has different factions. While the Times puzzle is considered the “gold standard” for crosswords, Amlen said the indie puzzle scene – like the indie music scene but nerdier – is also growing. If you are looking for an edgier puzzle, she suggests the American Values Club Crossword, which used to be affiliated with The Onion but is now published independently.
Amlen’s Yahoo! writing gig, where she explains why things that go viral on the Internet, is fairly new. Her column, Buzzology, is the place to go if you don’t entirely under what a “selfie” is or want to know why everyone is suddenly posting pictures of their dinner on Facebook.
Recently, Amlen took up the topic of Prancercise for Yahoo! Tech. If you don’t know what Prancercise is, I suggest you watch the video for background and then read Amlen’s column.