Solving The Daily Tar Heel crossword puzzle during class has long been a rite of passage for many Carolina students. Some, such as Meghan Morris ’08, became so enamored with the crossword that they grew to be lifelong enthusiasts — known by the tongue-twisting moniker cruciverbalists. Some even venture into creating their own puzzles.
“I didn’t know anyone else who made crossword puzzles when I got into this,” said Morris, who as a student was on the editorial board for The DTH, where she discovered her puzzling passion. “I thought it’d be fun, and then I got addicted to it.”
Little did she suspect her puzzling pastime would lead to three of her crossword creations reaching the puzzle pinnacle — published by The New York Times. But it wasn’t an easy, or direct, path from casual cruciverbalist to published puzzler.
Morris began creating crosswords in the mid-2010s and eventually decided to submit one to the Times. She said she received a polite rejection email and then hit pause on creating puzzles after the birth of twins in 2017.
When spending more time at home during COVID, Morris started constructing crosswords again. In late 2020, she submitted some puzzles to the Times and received four consecutive rejections before she found the right angle for a themed puzzle that The Gray Lady found fit to print. “All things worth doing require a lot of failure before you get good at it,” she said.
Across the puzzle universe
Morris, an appellate public defender in Denver, said her hobby opened a new puzzling world where she found expert advice and assistance on social media. A Facebook group was particularly helpful. Its aim is to develop more gender and racial diversity among crossword creators.
“I got a few mentors who would give me feedback, and I could bounce things off them,” she said. “It was nice to have that guidance and encouragement.”
Morris also discovered online forums such as Cruciverb, which offers advice on how to construct crossword puzzles, a database of clues and themes, and tips for submitting puzzles to publications, as well as links to other similar subscription-based sites.
Creativity is key. Morris keeps a Google doc, 52 pages and counting, where she lists theme ideas to use as jumping off points to create crosswords. She said the hardest part of crafting puzzles is thinking of clues for her themes.
Morris’ first puzzle published by the Times appeared in The New York Times Games app in September 2021.
After selecting a theme and the related entries, she fills in other words to complete the grid. She uses CrossFire crossword-construction software that recommends fill words that help complete the grid. It also allows the puzzle constructor to make changes to the grid, including word location or moving the black squares. The cruciverbalist then writes his or her own clues for these words.
Morris said the software makes it easier to create puzzles that are accessible to more people. “It’s mind boggling to me how people made crosswords on paper. It was wild that people could do that,” she said.
Still, after Morris completes a grid with the crisscrossing answers, she then goes old school and prints it out to complete the puzzle draft to make sure she’s not using words that are too obscure or overlap too much with other entries in the fill. “I like to get away from the screen and write down the clues,” she said. “I think it’s easier to come up with creative clues on paper. Plus it’s tempting to look up past clues for answers when you’re at the computer. If you’re working on paper, it forces you not to do that and to instead come up with something on your own.”
It was a theme that played with angles — right, obtuse and acute — combined with a unique placement of the words that secured Morris her first published puzzle in the Times in September 2021.
A cute angle fit to print
Morris spelled out the word “angle” in three locations in the puzzle with letters from solutions to other clues that filled in the circled squares, which denote an answer related to the theme. The word “angle” connected to the word “obtuse” in such a way as to create an obtuse angle, more than 90 degrees, in the grid. The same for “right angle” (90 degrees) and “acute angle” (less than 90 degrees).
“It was very creatively presented,” said Sam Ezersky, digital puzzles editor for The New York Times. “We liked how unusual it was; we hadn’t seen it before. We look for stuff that really excites us and will feel fresh to our audience, that’s so interesting and different and interestingly presented with a-ha moments.”
Ezersky said he received a dozen rejections from the Times before his first crossword was accepted when he was 17 years old. He appreciates the satisfaction of getting puzzles published. “What’s really cool about the crossworld, it’s grown over the past several years,” Ezersky said. “We receive 200 puzzles per week from contributors; it’s impressive for anybody to have any accepted.”
Morris enjoys the process of crafting crosswords and has several under consideration with the Times and elsewhere. “I’ve never been an artistic person, and this is the closest thing to that, creating something that’s beautiful in its own way,” she said. “Having something I can create and feeling proud of it, and on the back end interacting with people and hearing about them solving it.”
Morris was particularly proud of her puzzle published last September, because it appeared in the Times’ Sunday paper. “It was an explicit goal that I really wanted to get a Sunday,” she said. “It’s harder to construct. It’s a bigger puzzle. It takes more time, more spaces to fill. It’s more of a challenge.”
Despite the proliferation of puzzles across platforms, Morris still enjoys the tactile experience that harkens back to her days on campus when she filled out The DTH crossword puzzle with a pen. “I loved the ritual of it,” she said. “I had it in class and could hang out with the paper and do the puzzle. That’s still my morning ritual. I do The New York Times puzzle before I get into my day. It feels like a nice way to start the day.”
— Robert Gray ’91
The Daily Tar Heel, which has received national recognition for its coverage of the University and Chapel Hill community, has always been run by student reporters, editors, ad sales reps, columnists and cartoonists.
But there has historically been one omission on the masthead for one of the paper’s most popular features — the crossword puzzle.
Junior Liam Furlong, an English and comparative literature major, has filled that role, creating crosswords for The DTH each week since February 2022. Furlong said he and classmates felt the syndicated puzzle the paper has run for decades was often too esoteric, with references and answers that they couldn’t relate to.
“I thought it would be cool to have a puzzle by a Tar Heel for Tar Heels,” said Furlong, a Morehead-Cain Scholar. “I presented my skill as an ability to relate to the audience of the school paper.”
Furlong has frequently featured themes related to basketball. A favorite of Furlong’s was a layered theme puzzle made during the remarkable 2022 Final Four run by the UNC men’s basketball team. The crossword’s title was “Carolina Basketball Is Shaping Up.”
All of the words in the theme answers were vertical (referring to the “up” in the puzzle’s title) and each of the three theme clue answers included a shape and a basketball player’s name: “There was a black diamond for Leaky Black, the diamond shape as in ‘shaping up,’ a love triangle for Caleb Love, and a ’70s toy called puffer kite. Kite is the shape for Puff Johnson,” Furlong said. “They all are going up, have shapes and names of basketball players, so hence, Carolina basketball is shaping up.”
Furlong enjoys hiding messages in his puzzles. A recent example was his Carolina-centric crossword with the title “Starting Up at UNC” in The DTH’s special edition for this year’s incoming Tar Heels. The theme featured three layers, with the answers “Top of New Day,” “First Period Bell” and “Many Well Wishes” referencing “starting” or new beginnings, the words rising vertically in the puzzle for “up.” Letters from these phrases linked to landmark locations around campus — Top of the Hill Restaurant, the Bell Tower and the Old Well.
Courtney Jones Mitchell ’01, general manager and news adviser for the paper’s nonprofit parent, DTH Media, saw Furlong’s puzzles as a worthy addition to the paper. “I thought it was a great reader service for students to see the crossword made just for them, with a UNC theme from their generation, with clues geared toward them,” said Mitchell, who worked on The DTH when she was an undergraduate. “An added bonus working with Liam: He’s a fun, vibrant person to be around.”
The paper publishes one print edition each week, but Mitchell said the crossword still maintains its revered status. “If it’s something people remember about The DTH, it’s people sat around and did the crossword,” she said. “I had the same experience, sitting in class where everyone had it folded to the puzzle. And today they still do.”
The first test for Furlong’s puzzles was gaining approval from The DTH staff. Mitchell asked staffers to work and edit several of Furlong’s early puzzles to check for errors and make sure they were relevant for Generation Z undergrads — those born from 1997 to 2012.
Furlong wasn’t interested in puzzles when he was growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. He said he started creating crosswords near the end of his senior year at Salesianum School, under the tutelage of his high school AP literature teacher.
After graduation, Furlong began making puzzles for friends and family to solve. He was hooked. “What gives me a rush creating puzzles is thematically how everything locks in and clicks together. It’s like balancing a brownie recipe or making a free throw without hitting the rim,” he said. “It’s almost magical, that kind of precision, and you don’t see it often. People that understand the level of the themes, it’s another way to connect to solvers that’s deeper than just, ‘That’s the answer to three across.’ ”
“I thought it would be cool to have a puzzle by a Tar Heel for Tar Heels,” Furlong said. “I presented my skill as an ability to relate to the audience of the school paper.”
Collegiate crossword creators are unicorns. “It’s both impressive and rare,” said Ron Johnson, communications director for the Associated Collegiate Press and National Scholastic Press Association. “I advised collegiate media for three decades. I recall seeing the occasional puzzle produced by students, but they were not common, and never [consistently created] over three semesters.”
Johnson compared Furlong to The New York Times and NPR puzzle master Will Shortz, who at 16 began regularly contributing crosswords to a puzzle publisher. “The Daily Tar Heel has a rich tradition of serving its readers,” Johnson said. “This is yet another facet of that service.”
Furlong may be creating a lasting legacy. He’s mentoring another student in crossword construction and is contemplating starting a Carolina cruciverbalist club. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to participating in one of the gatherings his crossword puzzles have sparked. On Wednesdays, a group of UNC students meet at the Blue Horn Lounge on East Franklin Street, bringing their copies of The DTH to work Furlong’s puzzles with the bartender. Furlong, who turns 21 Nov. 1, hopes the meet-up continues. “Maybe when I can legally show up there,” he said, “it’ll get a little more pomp and circumstance.”
— Robert Gray ’91