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Illinois student's puzzle to appear in The New York Times

1/3/2020 11:07:42 AM Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau

University of Illinois student Adam Aaronson created Saturday’s crossword puzzle in The New York Times to include several interesting and fun words that have never been used in The New York Times crossword puzzle.

Aaronson – a freshman from Deerfield who is studying computer science and plans to minor in linguistics – has only been making crossword puzzles for a year. He has submitted many puzzles to The New York Times, and he received about a dozen rejections before getting an email in December telling him the newspaper had accepted one of his puzzles. It will run Saturday, the day of the week the paper publishes its hardest puzzles.

“Creating a crossword is a puzzle in itself – what combination of words fit together, where to put the black squares. You have to include words that will be interesting to the people who are doing it,” Aaronson said. “There are some tricky words and tricky clues throughout (Saturday’s puzzle). There are some long words you have to piece together and figure out as you’re solving it.”

The puzzle editors told him in an acceptance email that they would publish his crossword puzzle quickly because it is his first puzzle to appear in the paper and because he is young. They praised the 18-year-old’s work and the interesting longer words he used in the puzzle.

"We could tell you had real constructing talent from the get-go,” the editors’ email to Aaronson reads, in part. “Really stellar work; we hope you're just getting started.”

Aaronson started with a particular word he wanted to include in the puzzle and positioned it in the grid first.

“I have an ongoing list of words that I think will be fun and interesting to include in a crossword that have never been in The New York Times crossword before. I often pull from that list and build a grid around it,” he said.

He can search for words in an online database for The New York Times crossword puzzles and see if they’ve appeared before in the paper’s puzzles.

“I’ve been interested in puzzles in general for my whole life – jigsaws, word puzzles, logic puzzles. I would make word searches and mazes for friends,” Aaronson said. As he got older, he began making trivia quizzes on the Sporcle website. “Crosswords were a natural progression of my interest in puzzles and words and trivia.”

The first crossword puzzles he created took him more than two months to complete. He created them manually and used some websites to help in searching for words. He’s become more efficient in making the puzzles, and it took him about a week this summer to create the puzzle that will be published.

“Once you get a spark of inspiration, it gets a lot faster and you can zoom through the creation process,” he said.

The most time-consuming aspect, taking a lot of trial and error, is placing the words in the grids. Creating the clues is straightforward, he said.

Aaronson uses a software program called CrossFire that suggests how to place certain words and indicates if a certain combination of words will be impossible to fill into the puzzle.

“A puzzle should have a lot of fresh, lively vocabulary. The quality of it is determined by how interesting the words are,” he said.

When he received rejections for other puzzles he’s submitted to The New York Times, the rejection emails included feedback and constructive criticism.

“When I first start doing it, it seemed like a super-daunting process. There are so many empty squares you have to fill,” Aaronson said. “But there are a lot of resources online on how to make crosswords, so it’s really accessible. It’s really addicting, too. Once you get started on a grid, you really want to finish it.

“It’s a really fun process, and since I’m interested in logical thinking and also creativity, it’s the perfect intersection of those,” he said. “It’s an awesome hobby.”

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Feature photo caption: 2019 was the year of the puzzle for Adam Aaronson, a freshman in computer science. He began creating crossword puzzles a year ago, and he’ll have one of his puzzles published Jan. 4 in The New York Times. Photo by Fred Zwicky.

See the original Illinois News Bureau story.