Puzzling it out

Linguistics student David Tuffs started making crossword puzzles to stave off boredom during COVID-19 restrictions. Now he's had his third puzzle published in the New York Times.

Making crossword puzzles was "a really good way to pass the time” during COVID-19 restrict

Making crossword puzzles was "a really good way to pass the time” during COVID-19 restrictions, said fourth-year linguistics student David Tuffs. Turns out, he's pretty good at it. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

When the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions hit, David Tuffs needed to find a way to stave off boredom while confined to his home. 

So, he made crossword puzzles.

“It was a really good way to pass the time,” said the fourth-year linguistics student at UC Santa Cruz. “If I’m just in the bedroom, I need something to occupy my mind." 

Turns out, he was pretty good at it. The 21-year-old Pacific Grove resident just had his third puzzle published in the New York Times. His puzzles have also been published in the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal. 

Tuffs surprisingly doesn’t have that much experience with word puzzles. He said his first exposure to word puzzles was watching his grandmother do the difficult British cryptic puzzles (his parents are originally from England). He started playing around with crossword puzzles when he started college. 

By 2019, he was making his own, trying to fit words in a 15-by-15 table on Google Slides. In spring of that year, he got a New York Times crossword subscription. 

“Doing the New York Times puzzles showed me how fun and boundary pushing they could be,” he said. 

He is drawn to crossword puzzles because of the wordplay. He especially enjoys finding anagrams—words or phrases that can be formed by rearranging the letters of another one (i.e., “peach” could be rearranged to form “cheap”).

The New York Times has been printing crossword puzzles since 1942. Solving one is seen as a point of pride. The puzzle’s fans say the trick is not so much to have a good vocabulary but to understand what the clues are trying to get you to do. 

“The New York Times has a way of wording things,” Tuffs said. “You have to read into what they’re going for.” 

Monday puzzles are the easiest, with the difficulty increasing each day until Saturday, which has the most difficult puzzles, according to the newspaper. Sunday puzzles are moderate difficulty but are the biggest. 

Tuffs had his first puzzle published in the newspaper in September 2021 and his most recent, titled “Ordering Seconds,” published April 10. The puzzle involved two-word phrases in which the second phrase is an anagram to a different word. For example, “peanut allergy” could be a clue for “peanut gallery.” 

Coming up with the puzzle theme is the most fun part, Tuffs said. Then he uses software to help him fill the puzzle in—a process that takes a few hours. The most challenging part of constructing a puzzle is coming up with the clues for each word. It takes Tuffs days to come up with all the clues for 140 words. 

He said the main thing is he wants to make his puzzles possible for people to solve. 

“You don’t want to make it so only two people at the top of their game can solve it,” Tuffs said.

Puzzles also have to include references from a wide variety of areas. A puzzle shouldn’t include only the names of sports figures or actors, for example, he said. 

Tuffs said he has had several of his puzzles rejected, usually because the editors don’t like the theme. 

An important factor in recent years in getting a puzzle accepted is showcasing different perspectives. While in the past, most crossword puzzles were constructed by old white men, that’s not the case anymore. 

In 2020, more than 600 crossword constructors and solvers signed an open letter to the New York Times complaining that puzzles were too narrowly focused. They raised concerns about puzzles that are “disqualified because they include references that are considered unfamiliar to an imagined straight, white, male, and middle-aged audience.” 

Recently, the New York Times debuted a new fellowship for crossword constructors with the goal of increasing the number of puzzles created by underrepresented groups such as women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ community. Five people from 200 applicants were chosen in the first cohort. 

Tuffs said he works hard to make his puzzles relatable to a diverse audience. Getting his puzzles published has led to him meeting some interesting new people. Not long ago, he connected with another Pacific Grove resident who has had 100 puzzles published in the New York Times. Tuffs would love to meet more locals—especially those from underrepresented groups—interested in crosswords. All they need to do is contact him at dtuffs@ucsc.edu

“One of the most fun things about crosswords is collaborating,” he said. 

Tuffs is completing a combined bachelor’s/master’s program at UC Santa Cruz that allows him to graduate with a bachelor’s degree this year and a master’s degree next. After finishing school, he hopes to get a job in copyediting or proofreading. But he will continue to experiment with crossword puzzles and other word games. 

“Crosswords are my main focus because they allow me to create,” he said. “It’s a good outlet for my creativity.”