Wizard of Words
Will Nediger, BA’11, has had 30 of his crosswords in the New York Times
By Keri Ferguson
Will Nediger is a puzzling guy.
Obsessed with solving crosswords at an early age, he created his first puzzle at 10. “I’m sure it was pretty terrible,” Nediger said, recalling the scores of graph paper ruined, as he erased away his penciling early on, honing his craft.
But practice paid off.
At 16, the New York Times – home of the world’s most famous crossword – accepted one of his puzzles. By 18, and in his second year at Western, six of his puzzles had made the cut. Pretty impressive, considering the paper receives 75-100 submissions each week.
Nediger, BA’11 (Linguistics), has always been fascinated by language. “Crosswords, Scrabble, anything word-related,” he said. “All the time, whenever I hear something, I’m shuffling letters around in my head, thinking of ways I could play with that.”
To date, the 29-year-old has made it into the New York Times approximately 30 times, challenging more than 500,000 digital crossword subscribers, as well as those who prefer puzzling it out in print, such as former president and avid NYT crossword-solver Bill Clinton.
“It’s funny to think many thousands of people are doing my crosswords, including some famous ones,” Nediger said. “They don’t know who I am at all, which is fine. Crosswords are weird in that way because they’re so ubiquitous, but people don’t often think about their creation, or, they think (NYT crossword editor) Will Shortz just writes them all.”
Nediger’s work has also been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, GAMES magazine and a number of crossword books, including Penguin Classics Crosswords and 144 Crossword Puzzles That Prove It’s Hip to Be Square.
Praised by solvers and reviewers for his wit and clever surprises, one of Nediger’s early LA Times Sunday puzzles, titled Watch the Birdie, featured ONE under PAR in 10 different places.
But he’s most proud of the independent crosswords he constructs for his blog, bewilderingly, found at blog.bewilderinglypuzzles.com, recently recognized as one of the top 100 puzzle venues to follow in a virtual subculture of thousands.
“You can do things in different sizes online, whereas in standard newspapers, there are two: 15-by-15 squares, the most common, and the Sunday version, 21-by-21. There is just so much more freedom to try out different stuff,” he said.
That includes a puzzle in the shape of the board game, Clue, with different sections of the grid resembling each room. “The names of the people and the words of the weapons were hidden in those rooms. Solvers had to figure out which ones were missing,” he explained.
Constructing the grid is “the fun part” for Nediger, and comes before he writes the clues – a trickier venture, with the words constrained by how they interact with each other, and the challenge to come up with a hint that hasn’t been overused.
“That’s the hardest part, especially if you write as many crosswords as I do,” he explained. “You end up using the same words a lot, because some words – short ones, with lots of vowels – are more useful than others. You don’t want to use the same clue all the time so you have to think of it from a different angle.”
While easy to chalk up the combinations of letters in crosswords to functionality, Nediger is also influenced by both the population of people solving, and constructing, the puzzles.
“One example is the word ‘Eid’, a very important Muslim holiday. It has only appeared in the New York Times twice. The first was in January of this year, despite being a three-letter word with two vowels, precisely the sort of word you would expect to see in crosswords all the time,” he said.
“I do imagine a lot of solvers aren’t familiar with ‘Eid,’ but it is the sort of thing you might want to be familiar with, to be a generally culturally aware person. If ‘WASPS’ are constructing crosswords with a sort of tacit as-sumption the solvers are the same sort of demographic as them, they might not necessarily think to include things like that.”
With pencil, eraser and graph paper long-abandoned, Nediger uses software to create his grids. He also maintains a master word list, to keep every subject from politics to pop culture current, and his content, fresh.
“Issa Rae, the creator of the TV show Insecure, is very popular these days,” he said. “We’ve had ways to clue ‘Rae’ before – we’ve had Carly Rae Jepsen and Norma Rae from decades ago. Issa Rae, we could not have done until the last few years, when she became popular.
“And, there was no one famous with the first name, ‘Issa’ until she came along,” Nediger added. “She’s been a total godsend for crossword constructors. It’s especially nice she’s a woman of colour, and to work in repre-sentation that was not common in the past.”
To ensure more diversity in the field itself, he co-founded The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, with an aim to match aspiring creators in under-represented groups with experienced constructors. “Cross-words are going to be poorer if the group of people who construct them isn’t diverse, just like any sort of creative endeavour.”
While times change, what draws people to crosswords remains the same. The quest that’s made it a popular daily ritual since the puzzle’s debut in 1913.
“It’s the goal-oriented thing,” Nediger said. “Any type of puzzle that has a solution is satisfying.”
For a lot of people, that means getting it done without any outside help, but he asserts “there’s no such thing as cheating at crosswords, because you’re competing against yourself and whatever your goal is. If you want to complete it using Google, that’s totally fine.”
Nediger, who can solve a daily crossword in about seven minutes, knows well the rush of the ‘right’ response. A veteran of academic quiz competitions, his high school Reach for the Top team won both the 2007 provincial and national championships, and his Western Quizbowl team took the second place Division II title at the 2008 National Academic Quiz Tournament (NAQT) in Chicago. While earning his PhD in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, he led his team to capture the 2017 Chicago Open, extending their reign from the previous year.
He’s still very much connected to the Quizbowl community today, contracted by NAQT as a “high-volume writer” of questions for the many weekly tournaments taking place across the United States, Canada and now, Asia. Working from his hometown of London, Ont., the job provides a steady source of income, allowing him to freelance, creating crosswords for mainstream venues, paid subscribers to his blog, and those looking to give a highly personalized gift.
Custom crosswords are some of my favourites because I’m writing for one instead of thousands,” he said. Either way, he’s happy at work, playing with words. “I’m very lucky to get paid to do something I love.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Alumni Gazette