An interview with Frank Longo, the creator of the NY Times Magazine’s ‘Spelling Bee’ Puzzle
When the lockdown started, my teenage son began a strict exercise regime to get in shape. He weighs his food to the gram, he exercises obsessively, and he spends 13 days planning the “cheat” day that takes place every other week. I’ve joined him in his madness, but my cheat day takes a different form.
Every Saturday, I turn off my work computer and cheat on my regular life. My obsession is the glorious round word puzzle called Spelling Bee, which appears every week in the New York Times Magazine. Spelling Bee is one of the few reliable escapes from the relentless doorbell of Zoom’s waiting room and the sad silence after the Zoom calls. The puzzle looks a bit like a hive, and consists of a central letter surrounded by six others. The goal is to solve for both the word that uses all seven letters (in my house, called “the longie” and a weekly battle to get it first) and a certain number of five-plus letter words, all of which must use the center letter. My personal goal is to get the maximum number of words; reaching the “genius” level is my cheat day goal.
The puzzle’s creator, Frank Longo, is a former piano teacher from Pittsburgh. Perhaps his early training translating musical notes into song gave him the ability to create complex structures from letters. Longo produces the Spelling Bees a month in advance from his secret honeycomb lair in Hoboken. He took a respite from his breakneck work creating puzzles to explain the perfection of Spelling Bee.
Describe how you began solving puzzles. At what point did you start creating them?
I was always a kid with strange habits. For example, when I was growing up, I used to try to copy the dictionary longhand. I would sometimes also copy the TV Guide and make my family use my copy rather than the original. I enjoyed solving crossword puzzles with my mother even if I couldn’t get many of the answers. Throughout my early teens, though, I started to get pretty good at them, and eventually wondered if I could create one of my own.
My first published crossword was a 21×21 in Games magazine in 1993. Once I had some that I thought were good enough, I sent them to Will Shortz at the New York Times. These were rejected for various reasons, but eventually one was accepted, and to date I have had 91 puzzles published in the Times, not counting the Spelling Bee. I started going to the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and meeting other constructors, and basically became a part of that community. For many years I was Will’s official fact-checker for every New York Times crossword, up until about a year ago.
Did you invent the particular shape for the Spelling Bee? Why the distinctive soccer ball shape?
Will Shortz had the idea and asked me to do it. It’s a puzzle variety that’s not new, and Will thought it would be fun for a new daily diversion in the Times. The design is meant to be reminiscent of a central hexagonal cell of a honeycomb (hence the “bee” of “Spelling Bee”), but there’s some artistic license that was taken there. I don’t think there’s any deep meaning other than to look interesting on the puzzle page, since it *could* have been arranged in other ways, so long as there is one letter in the center and six letters surrounding that letter.
Could the Spelling Bee work with a different number of letters?
In principle there’s no reason it couldn’t. Of course, for the diagram you’d then need to get your visual inspiration from a different member of the animal kingdom (“Spelling Squid,” anyone?). One problem is that as you add more letters, a lot more words become possible. If there are too many answers, it stops being a fun puzzle.
How do you select the words for Spelling Bee? Do you just see certain words and know they’d work?
Knowing that every word used has to consist of seven unique letters, I ran a little computer program that finds all such words. Then I basically just eyeball the list, looking for interesting words. It turns out that most words are unusable, because they result in way too many common words, and Will wants to keep the number of answers somewhere between about 13 to 30.
Furthermore, I basically can’t use any word that has an S in it, because we don’t want a bunch of plurals, and also not too many words with suffixes like -ed, -ing, and -er. Having done 280 Spelling Bees so far, I’ve basically run out of interesting long words (such as PRIZEWINNER) that use just seven unique letters (the “bingo” words, as I call them). So I have to use a lot of shorter ones these days (such as HALIBUT). At some point I’m afraid I’m going to run out of words entirely! But apparently the feature is, by some measure, more popular than the Sunday crossword(!), so Will says we will do whatever it takes to keep the feature going, even if it means allowing the plural suffixes and such.
How far in advance do you create the puzzle?
From the time I make a Spelling Bee puzzle to when it’s published is usually about one month. When I submit the puzzle to Will, I always include two lists: one of “common” words, and one of “questionably common” words. Then he and his assistant Joel Fagliano go over each word on the “questionably common” list (ARGONAUT? ROTGUT? OUTTA? GUANO?) and decide if they think it merits inclusion on the official published list. Sometimes they will even remove a word from my “common” list, which I usually vehemently disagree with!
Is there a way to check that the puzzle doesn’t have inappropriate words?
To find my list of words makeable in the puzzle, I use another little computer program that takes the seven letters and outputs all possible words that are in the latest official Scrabble word list. So it’s not just guesswork, and I know I haven’t missed any, and yes, there are sometimes naughty words that show up. If they’re really bad ones, I will just not use the word. But very often there are infelicitous common words that are basically unavoidable because their letters are so common. For example, ENEMA and DILDO happen to come up a lot. In cases like that we just shrug and leave them off the official answer list.
How do you choose the middle letter?
The previously mentioned program that I use allows me to choose what the middle letter is going to be. So I almost always have to try several different letters in the middle slot until I get a set that uses the right number of answers. It’s usually the case that if the middle letter is T or E, it’s going to generate way too many answers, so it usually winds up being a rarer letter like B, K or Y.
Are different languages better suited for puzzles?
I can’t say for sure. But English has borrowed from so many languages, and the result is that it has a rich vocabulary and variant spellings, and that helps a lot. Certainly I would think that a language such as Polish, with its big clusters of consonants, would be tough for crossword puzzles and such, while something like Italian is known to be rich in vowels and would work rather well.
Why do you think some people see the long word immediately, while others see it only after they solve the shorter words?
This is a question about cognition, also not really my area of expertise. If I had to guess, I would say it has something to do with practice and also with associative memory. Using myself as an example, I spend literally hours every day creating or fixing up crosswords. So I have a pretty well-developed “muscle” in my brain that can look at a jumble of letters and tell you what words can be made out of it, and even what other words could *almost* be made if you were allowed to change just one or two letters.
But that ability is a result of an absurd amount of practice. More commonly, I think it’s natural to see associations between smaller words and bigger ones. So, for example you’d see PIC and then you’d think “Oh, how about PICK or EPIC or PICNIC?” You’d start optimistically from PIC and see if you have all the letters to make this longer word.
Are you also exceptionally good with numbers or with patterns?
I’d say I’m unusually good at anagramming, other kinds of word manipulation (the kind one needs to make the interlock work in a crossword puzzle), and certain kinds of trivia. Because of my clueing and fact-checking work, I know a tiny bit about a wide variety of topics. But “good with numbers,” definitely not, if by that you mean math, because that is definitely not my strong suit!
Describe your newest puzzle that uses all the letters in the alphabet.
We call these “A-to-Z Crosswords: Petite Pangram Puzzles.” This was an idea my coauthor Peter Gordon had, to create a new little novelty puzzle every day that people could do as a kind of daily puzzle “snack.” They are small (of size 9 x 11) and of easy-to-medium difficulty. The gimmick is that they use every letter of the alphabet. That fact helps the solver a little bit (you know the Q, X, and Z have to fit in *somewhere*), but also adds to the uniqueness of the puzzles. The challenge for us as creators is to use every letter of the alphabet, but try to keep out weird or obscure words.
Will there ever be a giant Spelling Bee book? Can you do more daily puzzles during these crisis times?
I’ve never really thought about a Spelling Bee book collection, but it’s certainly something I’d consider. I’m fortunate that, in my case, the quarantine hasn’t resulted in any loss of work, but on the contrary, my publishers are telling me people want more crosswords, so they’re in even more demand. So yes, I’m keeping very busy.