Your Spelling Bee Questions, Answered

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.

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