Acrostic Achievement

How a pair of undergrad crossword puzzle constructors won publication in the New York Times

Sophomores Duncan Kimmel and Clara Williamson had high hopes when they mailed their crossword puzzle to the New York Times this summer. Their first two tries during freshman year had been rejected, but they felt they’d hit their stride with a puzzle built on a theme of hit television shows.

And the puzzle had had an auspicious birth, with the first clue, “House of Cards,” leading quickly to the answer HALLMARK STORE.   

“Usually what happens is that we don’t think of the clues at the same time as the answers,” says Kimmel. “But with ‘House of Cards’/HALLMARK STORE, we thought, Yes, that’s a great idea. Let’s do more like that.”

The result, an homage to summertime Netflix binging, included “Game of Thrones” for MUSICAL CHAIRS, “Walking Dead” for PALLBEARERS and “Mad Men” for PSYCHOPATHS.

The duo were sitting in a physics lecture earlier this fall when the email they’d been waiting for popped up on Kimmel’s laptop. “I had to read it—how could I not?” he asks. “It was so cool to see: ‘We’re very interested in your puzzle.’” 

The puzzle was published on Nov. 25 in the Times. As Kimmel and Williamson were still just 19, they joined the New York Times’ “teen contributors” list of only 34 people. (And it turns out they are not the only Jumbos: Ben Pall, E17, had a crossword puzzle published in the Times for each year he was in high school; at the time of his debut, November 23, 2009, he was the youngest New York Times puzzle constructor, at 14 years, 2 months.)

A Partnership is Born

Kimmel took up crossword puzzles almost by chance. Bored on his long commute up the length of Manhattan from his home in Battery Park to Hunter College High School on East 94th Street, he started doing the puzzles published in the free AM New York newspaper. “I really liked it, and then I made the transition to the New York Times, and I realized: ‘I can do this!’”

By age 16, he was restless for a new wordplay challenge, and decided to try writing a puzzle himself. He submitted it to the Times. It was rejected, but he parlayed that “sorry” into an optimistic admissions essay for Tufts.

“I wrote how cool it was that Will Shortz sent me an email, and that I actually had written my own crossword puzzle,” he says. “Technically the puzzle was a failure, but I said that getting published was in my achievable future.”

For her part, Williamson was doing crosswords on her own before college, inspired by her father, a devotee who neatly filled in the tiny squares in pen. As a girl she watched him solve Boston Globe puzzles during the week and the New York Times ones on Sundays. 

“He would give me the easy ones to try and figure out, and usually I had no idea,” she says. “Then he’d say, ‘Well, think about it this way,’ and I’d get it.”

Williamson and Kimmel met at freshman orientation, and became fast friends after discovering a mutual love of wordplay. Soon they were bouncing ideas off each other on two crossword puzzles, which they submitted to the Times before their freshman year ended. Their smartphones provided a fast and easy way to share spontaneous ideas as they built the puzzles. “We would text ideas back and forth until we agreed one was a good idea,” says Kimmel.

“We riff off each other a lot,” says Williamson. “Weird things come to us all the time. And I don’t mind saying, ‘That’s good, but it could be better.’”

Does writing puzzles require any particular skill? “An unfortunate amount of useless knowledge,” Kimmel quips.

But knowledge, Williamson quickly adds, that’s easily retrieved. “The other day, one clue in the Times was ‘Charlemagne’s domain.’ And I was like: Oh! HRE! It was a throwback to world history in 9th grade and the Holy Roman Empire.”

For their New York Times debut, the pair earned $300—not to mention the admiration of friends and family. They also were well received by people with exacting puzzle standards. New York Times crossword blogger Deb Amlen said she’d enjoyed the puzzle’s theme and cited clever non-theme clues, too, like “Lip-puckering” for SOUR, “Stuffy site?” for SINUS and “Something famously impossible to define” for ART.

Kimmel and Williamson say they did have some issues that had to be worked out with Shortz before publication. “He didn’t like the abbreviation ‘smh,’ which is text lingo for ‘shaking my head,’” says Kimmel. “Pretty much anyone from our generation would know what that means, but it was a problem because most people who do the puzzle are older and Shortz thought they wouldn’t know it.”

Another edit tweaked a nod to Tufts. Originally, the duo wrote the clue “A Tufts motto, Pax et ___,” with LUX (or light) being the answer. Shortz changed it to “Latin word shared by the mottos of Tufts and Yale.”

The Jumbos took the edit in diplomatic stride. “I suppose it was a little esoteric just being about Tufts,” says Kimmel.

He and Williamson look forward to following up their prestigious crossword debut with more first-rate puzzles. They may also consider submitting some of them to Buzzfeed. “That tends to skew to a younger audience,” says Kimmel. “So if we want to put ‘smh’ in a crossword, we probably can.”

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