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May 04, 2017 10:17 AM


The 13 letters in The Rock‘s real name are the perfect fit for the PEOPLE Puzzler, the magazine’s weekly 13×13 pop-centric crossword puzzle that’s notoriously fun to solve (yes, we’re biased).

Patrick Merrell — who’s been writing crossword puzzles for publications including the New York Times since 2001 — is one of three people who creates the Puzzler, theming each week’s around an assigned celebrity and branching out from there.

“The idea is to make it as accessible as possible, to write easy clues so people have fun with it and don’t feel tricked, but helped,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s not to be something where you’re banging your head against the wall trying to solve it — you want to make people feel good about completing it.”

Have you found yourself stuck before when reading a clue or two? In honor of the launch of Zynga’s Crosswords with Friends, Merrell spilled some secrets about the way the PEOPLE Puzzler works.

‘Alec’ is a common answer.
“There are a lot of words that get repeated from time to time, like Alec,” Merrell says, citing the common letters included in Guinness and Baldwin‘s first names.

Some non-celebrity words? Oar, ore and Oreo. “You try to avoid getting words like that in there too often, but it’s impossible for them not to come up from time to time,” he adds of needing the vowels. “The fun of it is to try and come up with a different angle for the clue so the solver isn’t seeing the same clue over and over.”

PEOPLE Puzzlers are never going to be too ‘trendy.’
Merrell and his fellow Puzzler writers understand that PEOPLE’s readership spans several age groups, so they try to keep answers about niche actors and works off of the grid.

“If you want to use a dog in a puzzle, Toto is good, because that’s one that a person of any age will be familiar with,” he explains. “Whereas something like Asta, a dog from the Thin Man movies of the 1930s that used to be used in puzzles a lot, is something I wouldn’t necessarily want to include because it cuts off the audience — someone in their 20s probably hasn’t heard of Asta as someone in their 60s or 70s has.”

On the other end of that spectrum are rappers. “There are a lot of interesting rapper names these days,” Merrell says. “But again, that’s something the older audience might be cut out from if there’s someone they’ve never heard of in the puzzle.” The two he uses most? Ice T and Eminem (take note!).

Clues can have double meanings …
Case in point: “The state bird of Hawaii is the Nene,” Merrell says. “It appears in puzzles now and then and has its own claim to fame, but I one time clued it to Nene Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

… and clues for the PEOPLE Puzzler are almost always pop-culture based.
“With a word like ‘Asia,’ you’d normally clue it as something like, ‘The continent east of Europe’ or something straightforward like that,” Merrell explains. “But for PEOPLE, the clue would be like, ‘Kung Fu Panda continent,’ or something that makes a connection to Hollywood.”

There are some topics crossword writers won’t touch.
“You want people to have fun with the puzzle, so if there is something or someone that is controversial or that might annoy some solvers, you’ll avoid that,” he shares. “You want solving to be a pleasant experience.”

Certain celebrity names are easier to work with than others.
Aside from the aforementioned Dwayne Johnson, Merrell likes eight-letter names like Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks.

“With those shorter names, you can keep the whole name together and it fits comfortably at the top of the grid, then you find someone else that’s eight letters long for the bottom,” he explains, adding that he always starts with the celeb he’s been assigned then drops in black boxes and “the fill,” a.k.a. the words not related to that week’s star, from there. “But sometimes you run into names that aren’t so cooperative.”

Laurie Hernandez, for example, was a challenge since her first name is six letters and her last nine. “You can’t put those together on PEOPLE’s 13 by 13 grid, so you have to separate her name — and finding a place for Laurie and Hernandez, in particular, was difficult. Not all names are equal!”

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a wordsmith to be a pro crossword puzzle solver.
This goes for any puzzle, from PEOPLE to the Times, Merrell says.

“There’s no predicting,” he shares, “but a decent percentage of people that are really good at it are involved in music, computers and math. It’s like coding and decoding, and recognizing letter patterns — seeing a few letters and running through your mind the possibilities of words that could fit there. It’s more than being an expert at language.”

You can solve the Puzzler in each week’s issue of PEOPLE, and now, in Crosswords with Friends, which launches May 4 within Zynga’s Words with Friends.

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