- Tracy Bennett had worked as a copy editor for over 20 years and constructed crosswords as a hobby.
- She applied to be an associate puzzle editor at The New York Times in 2020 and got the job.
- In November 2022, the Times announced Bennett would be the editor of Wordle, the viral word game.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Tracy Bennett, a 58-year-old associate puzzle editor of the New York Times and editor of Wordle who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Before I became an associate puzzle editor at The New York Times in 2020, I’d thought puzzles would always just be a hobby for me.
I had a day job as the manager of the copy-editing department at a mathematics journal. I’d been working there for more than 20 years and managed 17 people.
I had a child who was launching into college and was at a job I was ready to retire in. I was happy where I was.
I’d always loved puzzles
Starting in my late teens, I’d solve The New York Times Sunday crossword. But it wasn’t until 2011, when I was in my 40s, that I went to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament as a competitive solver. I finished about halfway up the bottom division out of six divisions.
I competed for the next two years and became a part of a community of people who are heavily into puzzles. I met people who construct puzzles, rather than just solve them, and started to make them myself. The second year that I went back, I found someone to mentor me in puzzle construction.
I would submit them to The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Times. Puzzlers would submit on spec, and the editors would look through all the submissions and pick a small number to publish.
My first crossword was published in The New York Times on Sunday, July 21, 2013. Debbie Hamlin, the writer of the Times daily crossword column, “Wordplay,” noticed my puzzle and contacted me.
She asked if I wanted to take her place writing crosswords with a byline for BUST Magazine. I’ve been writing crosswords for BUST Magazine since 2014. I also got a contract gig with Crosswords with Friends, and I’m still working with them.
Contract gigs meant I had a set number of puzzles that I knew would be published. There’s less outright rejection. Those were where I developed my puzzle-construction chops.
In 2017, Laura Braunstein, a fellow puzzler, approached me about founding a puzzle service for women and nonbinary creators in the puzzle space called “The Inkubator.” Working on that project was my introduction to puzzle editing.
I’d always said I would never leave my copy-editing job unless it was for a full-time position in puzzles
Almost no one gets to spend their day making puzzles – it was a dream. When the associate puzzle-editor position opened up at the Times in 2020, I just whimsically applied.
When I got the job, it was exhilarating and scary. I was in my 50s moving from somewhere where I was the expert to somewhere I’d start at the beginning.
I knew how to edit puzzles prior to joining — making sure clues are grammatically correct, fact-checking, and ensuring there’s enough variety. But with New York Times crosswords, I had to learn about editing for difficulty — as they get increasingly hard throughout the week — and editing for themes.
I work with the rest of the New York Times puzzle team — including Will Shortz, Joel Fagliano, Sam Ezersky, Wyna Lui, and Christina Iverson — reviewing around 200 crossword puzzles a week.
We pick seven to 10 crosswords from these submissions for publication, edit them, and decline the puzzles we don’t take. This role still makes up 90% of my day.
A couple of weeks after the Times acquired Wordle in 2022, they asked me to become the game’s editor
I think they chose me because I had experience as a manager. They felt I could handle the scrutiny that comes with a high-profile byline.
I was thrust into this role that had national visibility. I remember the day my byline was announced, I was working from home in my pajamas when the doorbell rang. It was the local news, who had a van parked in my driveway. I was completely shocked.
I went into it somewhat naively. The scale of Wordle is very different from other Times games. It has tens of millions of players who tweet and post on Reddit about every word choice. People write in with complaints sometimes.
At first, Joel and I were working on Wordle together. We couldn’t edit the game at all for the first few months while our developers integrated it into our system.
For those first months, we just studied people’s responses to the words as they went out, and we looked ahead to what words we wouldn’t want to include once we could manipulate the list.
We inherited the list of words that John Wardle, the game’s creator, had curated. There are enough five-letter words to last until 2027.
The Times integrated the game and we got the tools to start editing the list in September 2022. Joel went on paternity leave shortly after. So I set up the first month and a half of words alone. My byline was added on November 7, 2022, when the words I selected began appearing.
With the current version of Wordle, we can’t add words — we can only remove and reorder the words John Wardle had programmed. We remove words if they’re too obscure or have a derogatory secondary meaning.
I choose the words about six weeks in advance using a random-number generator to select words from the original list. I’ll then research it to check any secondary meanings and judge its fit with the other words that week. I will also do letter runs to see how hard it is, or how much luck I think is involved in guessing the word to avoid clumping together really hard or really easy words.
When I first got started ordering the words, I made them “drive” and “feast” on the day before Thanksgiving and on Thanksgiving.
I have an attraction to beautiful-sounding words and quirky words like “angst” and “glyph.” I have one word coming in February that’s a really hard, luck-based word.
There are some words that are totally reliant on luck. For example, words that end in “-ound” have eight letters that can go into that first slot. And with Wordle, you only have six guesses, so that’s obviously one where you might get lucky or might not. Those kinds of words are important to have in a game.
The team has already been warned that we might get an influx of attention when that particularly hard, luck-based word comes out.
Eventually, I’ll be able to add words to the list. I want to add “bling,” which I predict might make a stir, and words that will create more representation in the game like “latke” which is Yiddish.
Becoming the Wordle editor has been transformative in my personal and professional life
I’ve had someone recognize me in a local store and ask, “Aren’t you the Wordle lady?” My son said he gets boosts of popularity at college when people find out his mom edits Wordle. I’m not an anonymous person anymore, which is daunting.
I used to have a very physical, fear-based response to public speaking and confrontation.
When the Times announced my new role, they asked me to do interviews right away. I was really scared, not of the work or even the visibility, but scared of speaking.
In January, I agreed to appear live on the “Today” show. I had to work with my therapist and do five hours of media training to prepare. The night before, I barely slept.
But when I got into the studio, all the training and work I’d done kicked in. I was able to do the interview with confidence.
The work I did leading up to the interview and the interview itself was transformational. Now, interviews with journalists or presentations feel more natural.
Being the Wordle editor is a thrill, and it’s an honor. And it’s a privilege to be doing work that I love every day.