Your Spelling Bee Questions, Answered

Posted on

Sam Ezersky on how he crafts the Bee and how to be a better solver.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

Sam Ezersky has been the editor of the digital Spelling Bee since its launch in 2018. In today’s newsletter, he answers questions, including from readers.
Could you describe your Bee creation process? — Mary Stella, Florida Keys, Fla.
I always start with the pangram (a word that contains all the letters in the puzzle) because that is the linchpin.
There are a lot of esoteric words I wouldn’t want to base a puzzle around — like “ultravacua,” “clyping,” “choragi” — which is why the Spelling Bee needs a human touch. I want to offer fun pangrams, some variety throughout the week, some puzzles that are easier than others. I like to save the hardest or longest puzzles for the weekend, but that doesn’t mean every Saturday or Sunday is going to be crazy hard. I like keeping you all on your toes.
How do you gauge a puzzle’s difficulty?
One metric is how long the answer list is. If the puzzle contains many frequently used letters — E, L, T — it might yield at least 100 words, regardless of the center letter. I never offer puzzles with that many words. My golden zone is between 30 and 45 words.
Another is the center letter itself. If a puzzle has a J in the center, that’s not going to be easy. One of my favorites had a Z in the center. It was diabolical but fun:
There were two pangrams — “razoring” and “organizing” — and a bunch of great words like “razzing” and “zigzag.” Who doesn’t love “zigzag”?
I’ve ruled out puzzles because other words in the answer list were really tough. A good example is “ebullience.” It’s a tough pangram, and the answer list had “incubi,” “nubbin,” “bluebell,” “leucine” and “nucleic.” It would have be a painstaking road to Genius.
Do you ever change puzzles based on current events? — Meg Goble, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I held off for a long time on “infection.” It’s part of a pangram set that includes “confetti,” “confection” and “coefficient,” so it’s nice from a word-brain perspective. But I know that many enjoy this game as a diversion from the world — and the news cycle — around us. We finally used it two years into the pandemic, on April 27 of this year, with F in the center.
Occasionally I spell a legitimate word, but the Bee rejects it. What deems a word unacceptable? — Morgan, Durham, N.C.
Two dictionaries I use are the built-in Apple dictionary, which is based on New Oxford American, and Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. I like using Google’s News tab, so if there is a technical word, I’ll see if it’s being used in articles without much explanation.
Ultimately, the decisions can seem arbitrary because every solver has a different background and vocabulary. If an answer list had every possible word, it would be harder to make progress toward Genius and beyond. I can understand the frustration, but my mission is not to be a dictionary. I want to do my best to reflect the Bee’s broad audience and the language we speak.
Dear ’am, Why don’t you ever include the letter S in ’pelling Bee? There are ’o many good word that have been left by the ’ide of the road! — Flip Johnson, Brookline, Mass.
I love the letter S — it’s my favorite besides Z. But if every other word is a plural, it can make for tedious solving. That said, I’ve avoided “-ed” and “-ing” for the longest time, and now there are some puzzles where most words end in “-ing.” I feel a little different about S, but never say never.
How the heck do I get better at this game? — Zahava P., Austin, Texas
It’s a game of pattern rather than memory. If you type your letters in a different arrangement, you can connect bridges that you weren’t seeing before. Use the shuffle button or even Scrabble tiles.
That said, memory can be helpful. Remember your vowel-rich words like “onion,” “onto,” “idea” and “algae.” These are going to show up in plenty of Bees, but they’re tough to see.
My last bit of advice is to come back to it. Give your brain a break, and you’ll see something you didn’t see before.
The Bee has a large, devoted audience. How important is it for you to connect with them? — Pat Dailey, Chicago, Ill.
Without an audience playing these puzzles, what’s the point?
I love the way this community has organically formed. It started with a few people posting their Bee screenshots. Then I tweeted out the #HiveMind hashtag. Now we have a forum that has more comments than I could have ever imagined. It’s staggering to see how many people care about this game and seek it to find joy in their days. Hearing feedback from the community fuels me to do my best.
So many people start their mornings with the Bee. What do you start your morning with?
Wordle. It’s the first thing I do when I open my eyes.
Sam also helps edit the Crossword and other games, and has been contributing puzzles to The Times since he was 17. Before The Times, he studied mechanical engineering and economics at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @thegridkid.
Related: Here’s today’s Spelling Bee.
The Latest
Since the Jan. 6 attack, right-wing threats and acts of political violence have become a reality of American life.
A lawyer for Donald Trump told investigators in June that all classified material at his Mar-a-Lago residence had been returned. But last week’s search turned up more.
A defamation case against Fox News is a rarity because it involves dozens of accusations of false claims about the 2020 election, not just a single statement.
Some Asian American voters feel overlooked by national political leaders despite the constituency’s increasing electoral clout.
Other Big Stories
Climate change could someday hasten a California megastorm that would be worse than any in memory.
A 24-year-old New Jersey man was charged with attempted murder in the stabbing of the author Salman Rushdie.
An 8-year-old Ukrainian boy who fled the war is starting a new life through chess.
Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party to turn it against the F.B.I., Maureen Dowd argues.
U.S. public health officials are consistently behind on Covid, and are making similar mistakes with monkeypox, Ross Douthat writes.
Go ahead, work on your vacation. But vacation a bit at work, too, Laura Vanderkam writes.
Jane Coaston wants you to get better at admitting when you’re wrong.
Just as Generation X got a shot at running the office, being a boss grew less alluring, Pamela Paul argues.
The Sunday question: Prices barely budged last month. Has inflation peaked?
With gas prices falling and supply chain issues abating, the New Yorker writer John Cassidy thinks so — barring an escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war or a deadlier Covid variant. But food and housing costs are still rising, Henry Olsen notes in The Washington Post, and high prices overall mean the Federal Reserve must remain hawkish on inflation.
“Bodies Bodies Bodies”: A new slasher film shows what happens when Gen Z loses Wi-Fi.
Fighting stigma: Men and women with monkeypox are sharing their stories.
Maritime apps: How to improve that seaside vacation.
Sunday routine: A jazz musician composes for hours.
Advice from Wirecutter: Barbecue tools and accessories for better grilling.
A Times classic: Maybe your sleep problem isn’t a problem.
The bookstore, reimagined: A corporate lobbyist thinks that selling books can be seen as philanthropy.
By the Book: Beth Macy’s parents never bought books. They borrowed them.
Our editors’ picks: A jaw-droppingly candid memoir about Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, and 10 other titles.
Times best sellers: Gillian McAllister’s “Wrong Place Wrong Time” is one of five new hardcover fiction best sellers. See our lists.
The Book Review podcast: Mark Braude discusses his new biography, “Kiki Man Ray.”
On the cover: The Taliban’s dangerous collision course with the West.
Recommendation: To stay cool with style, use an Ankara hand fan.
Diagnosis: Her lungs mysteriously shut down. How?
Eat: Yotam Ottolenghi has made thousands of meringues. Here’s his favorite.
Read the full issue.
What to Watch For
Wyoming and Alaska will hold primary elections on Tuesday. In Wyoming, Representative Liz Cheney is expected to lose her seat to a Trump-endorsed opponent.
President Biden is planning to sign the Democrats’ climate and tax bill into law this week.
R. Kelly will face another trial beginning tomorrow, with the possibility of extending his 30-year sentence.
The W.N.B.A. playoffs begin on Wednesday.
Canada’s ban on handgun imports will take effect on Friday.
What to Cook This Week
Emily Weinstein is completing her own trilogy: first tomatoes, then corn, and now, of course, zucchini. For weeknight dinners, she suggests summer squash scampi, sheet-pan chicken with zucchini and basil or zucchini pancakes.
Here’s a clue from the Sunday crossword:
58 Across: “If we don’t end ___, ___ will end us”: H.G. Wells
Take the news quiz to see how well you followed the week’s headlines.
Here’s today’s Spelling Bee. Here’s today’s Wordle. After, use our bot to get better.
Thanks for spending part of your weekend with The Times.
Matthew Cullen, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Tom Wright-Piersanti contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at
Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.