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Stateside Podcast: The Michigan puzzler behind your daily Wordle

Tracy Bennett sits at her desk at home with her dictionary and notebook,
Matthew LaVere
Courtesy of Tracy Bennett
Tracy Bennett sits at her desk at home with her dictionary and notebook. Her gold sweater represents the right-letter-in-the-wrong-square hue that appears in the game.

On her 14th attempt, Tracy Bennett’s crossword was finally accepted to the New York Times—as a Sunday crossword, the hardest puzzle of the week. It was 2013, and Bennett had been solving the Sunday crossword every week since she was 17 years old.

Now, a decade since that first puzzle was accepted, Bennett is an associate puzzle editor at the Times. In that role, she also serves as editor for Wordle, a game played by tens of millions of people a day. Her full time job is puzzles, and she got there through years of solving, a puzzle mentor, and even timed solving competitions.

Bennett attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2011, where she was surrounded by hundreds of other puzzlers. She started noticing everything from patterns to creative wordplay in certain puzzles.

“I suddenly realized that people make these [puzzles],” Bennett said. “They aren’t just existing in a vacuum.”

Her puzzles have lots of wordplay – the first crossword of hers that was accepted was “full of groaner puns about artists,” Bennett said.

Prior to her job at the New York Times, Bennett worked for 30 years as a copy editor, then as a copy department manager, at Mathematical Reviews in Ann Arbor. Her puzzle work was freelance. She’d submit puzzles to various publications on her own time.

She applied for her current position in 2020. Once Bennett was hired, she transitioned away from copy editing to crossword editing. Most of her time as an associate puzzle editor is spent working through and editing the 150-200 puzzles submitted weekly to the paper and selecting seven to run. The puzzle team also responds to everyone who submits a crossword—sometimes sharing feedback and pointers.

Most of the associate puzzle editors are responsible for editing one of the games in the New York Times games repertoire, and Bennett was assigned Wordle. She didn’t expect much from the announcement—all of the editors have their names on games, but they usually don't receive much attention for it.

“I kind of thought, ‘My little name will be on the little Wordle,’” Bennett said. “Then, after they announced, the next morning, I was just going about my business getting ready for my work day. I looked outside of my window and I saw the Channel Four News van parked outside of my house. My heart just started to thump-thump-thump in my chest.”

Bennett spends about two hours a week editing Wordle. She selects seven words six weeks ahead of their publishing date. Bennett said she aims for a mix of words – adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.

When asked what her favorite 5-letter word was, Bennett answered with “blurb.”

“I just like words that have a sound that’s interesting and kind of funny,” Bennett said.

To hear more about Bennett’s Wordle curating process, her time with crosswords, and even a story about a Wordle-related hostage situation, listen to today’s pod.

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Cate Weiser joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023, and is a second-year at the University of Chicago.
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.