Billy Bratton ’25 one of few with four or more crosswords published in New York Times before age 20

Bratton’s crosswords have appeared in publications from the Carletonian to the Atlantic in addition to the New York Times.

Erica Helgerud '20 11 January 2023 Posted In:
Close up of a blue pencil laying across a blank crossword puzzle.

On Dec. 31, 2022, with a themeless Saturday puzzle, Billy Bratton ’25 became one of only 21 people ever to have at least four crosswords published in the New York Times before turning 20 years old. To make it more impressive, he’s only been constructing puzzles for just under three years.

Headshot of Billy Bratton '25 outside
Billy Bratton ’25

“I got into constructing crosswords in March 2020 when it came time to find a quarantine hobby,” Bratton said. “It seemed like a logical extension of crossword solving, which was a hobby that, as luck would have it, I picked up in January and February of that year.”

According to Bratton, March 2020 was actually the worst possible time to start making crosswords.

“A lot of other people also chose crosswords as their quarantine hobby,” Bratton said. “It made submissions a lot more competitive across the board. It also didn’t help that I spent months making puzzles without software because I was too stubborn to buy it.”

Bratton joins a long list of other crossword-savvy Carls. Last winter term, he participated in a Carleton Connects webinar with two of them: Associate Provost and Professor of Computer Science David Liben-Nowell and Sophia Maymudes ’20, both also published constructors.

The most enjoyable part of constructing for Bratton is two-fold: the grid design, which refers to creating the puzzle’s size and symmetrical block pattern; and the fill, which consists of every answer in the puzzle that isn’t a theme entry (for themed puzzles) or a seed entry (what themeless puzzles are built around).

“Those are the most interesting by far, because they’re a problem of optimization,” Bratton said. “That’s part of the reason why I focus on themeless puzzles. The other part is I am completely deprived of ideas for themes—everyone, please send me theme ideas if you have any!”

Bratton makes sure the puzzles he creates are fresh and interesting as well, so keep an eye out for contemporary slang in his grids.

“It’s oddly fun to keep my wordlist in good shape—I always try to stay hip by including the novel lingo of today’s youngsters,” Bratton said. “Cluing, though, is the worst part for me, as it requires the most creativity.”

Bratton has also published puzzles with The Atlantic, LA Times, AVCX, Fireball Crosswords, the Universal Crossword and others. He recommends his Jan. 16, 2022 puzzle from The Atlantic as a good one to solve. If you’re on campus, he also publishes a puzzle each week in the Carletonian!

“My ultimate goal is ten puzzles in the New York Times before the end of college,” Bratton said. “Time is ticking and it’s probably not going to happen, but that’s where I’m aiming.”

Bratton invites any Carl even remotely interested in crossword construction to reach out to him and ask questions.

“If I’m able to do it,” he said, “it can’t be that hard!”

Erica Helgerud ’20 is the news and social media manager for Carleton College.