Your spelling questions Bee, 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.
Can you describe your Bee creation process? – Mary Stella, Florida Keys, Fla.
I always start with the pangram (a word containing all the letters in the puzzle) because that’s the peg.
There are so many esoteric words that I don’t want to base a puzzle around – like “ultravacua”, “clyping”, “choragi” – which is why the Spelling Bee needs human touch. I wanted to offer fun pangrams, some variety of games throughout the week, some puzzles easier than others. I like to save the hardest or longest quizzes for the weekend, but that doesn’t mean every Saturday or Sunday is going to be crazy hard. I like to keep you all your toes.
How do you rate the difficulty of a puzzle?
One metric is how long the answer list is. If the puzzle has many frequently used letters – E, L, T – it can yield at least 100 words, whatever the letter in the middle. I never give quizzes with that many words. My golden zone is between 30 and 45 words.
Another letter is the center itself. If a puzzle has a J in the center, it won’t be easy. One of my favorites has a Z in the center. It’s quirky but fun:
There are two pangrams – “razoring” and “organization” – and a bunch of great words like “razzing” and “zigzag.” Who doesn’t like “zigzag”?
I have excluded quizzes because the other words on the answer list are really hard. A good example is “ebullience”. It’s a tricky pangram and the answer list has “incubator,” “nubbin,” “bluebell,” “leucine,” and “nucleic.” It will be a tough road to becoming a Genius.
Do you ever change quizzes based on current events? – Meg Goble, Brooklyn, NY
I’ve been holding off on “infections” for a long time. It’s part of a pangram that includes “confetti”, “candy” and “multiplier”, so it’s nice from a brain perspective. But I know that many people enjoy this game as a diversion from the world – and news cycle – around us. We finally used it two years after the pandemic, on April 27 of this year, with the F in the center.
Sometimes I spell a word legally, but Ong refuses it. What is considered an unacceptable word? – Morgan, Durham, NC
The two dictionaries I use are Apple’s built-in dictionary, based on New Oxford American, and Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. I like to use the Google News tab, so if there’s a technical word, I’ll see if it’s used in articles without much explanation.
Ultimately, decisions can seem arbitrary because each solver has a different background and vocabulary. If an answer list has all possible words, it will be difficult to make progress towards Genius and beyond. I can understand the frustration, but my mission is not a dictionary. I want to do my best to reflect Bee’s broad audience and the language we speak.
Dear ‘am, Why don’t you ever add an S to ‘pelling Bee’? There are many good words that have been left by the ideal of the road! – Flip Johnson, Brookline, Mass.
I like the letter S – it’s my favorite letter besides Z. But if every other word is plural, it can make solving tedious. That said, I’ve been avoiding “-ed” and “-ing” for the longest time, and now have some quizzes where most of the words end in “-ing”. I feel a little differently about S, but never say never.
How do I get better at this game? – Zahava P., Austin, Texas
It’s more of a game of pattern than memory. If you enter your letters in a different arrangement, you can connect bridges you’ve never seen before. Use the shuffle button or even Scrabble tiles.
That said, memory can be helpful. Remember your vowel-rich words like “onion”, “up”, “idea” and “algae”. These will appear in a lot of Bees, but they are hard to see.
My final piece of advice is to go back to it. Give your brain a break, and you’ll see things you’ve never seen before.
The Bee has a large devoted audience. What matters is how you connect with them. – Pat Dailey, Chicago, Ill.
If there’s no audience playing these quizzes, what’s the point?
I love how this community is naturally formed. It started with a few people posting screenshots of their Bee. Then I tweeted out the hashtag #HiveMind. We now have a forum with more comments than I could have imagined. It is amazing to see how many people are interested in this game and looking for it to have fun in their days. Hearing feedback from the community motivates me to do my best.
So many people start their mornings with the Bee. What do you start your morning with?
Speech. That’s the first thing I do when I open my eyes.
Sam also helps with editing Crossword and other games, and has contributed quizzes to The Times since he was 17 years old. Before The Times, he studied mechanical engineering and economics at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @thegridkid.
Related: This is today’s Spelling Bee.
Sunday Question: Prices barely rose last month. Has inflation peaked?
With gas prices falling and supply chain problems easing, New Yorker writer John Cassidy thinks so – preventing an escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war or a more deadly Covid variant. But food and housing costs are still rising, Henry Olsen noted in The Washington Post, and high prices generally mean the Federal Reserve must continue to be hawkish about inflation.
According to the Book: Beth Macy’s parents never bought books. They borrowed them.
Our editors’ picks: A delightfully frank memoir about Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, and 10 other titles.