NYT Spelling Bee: Top Hint Writers Talk About The Game

In the early hours of the morning, a small but dedicated group of solvers log on to the Spelling Bee Forum to share hints for anyone who gets stuck on the way to Genius, the game’s official top score. They post shortly after the new Spelling Bee replaces the previous day’s at 3 a.m. Eastern time.

Their hints are short, clever phrases designed to help solvers find all of the words in the puzzle. As more solvers wake up and hit the “Recommend” button on the lists they like, the hint posts rise to the top of the Reader Picks feed. The hint creators have developed their own writing styles, and each has a community of fans.

New York Times Games peeked behind the curtain of the thriving Spelling Bee subculture to understand the independent word lovers who bring so much joy to solvers’ lives. Four volunteers, who post under the screen names Jenn E., Steve G., Kitt Richards and Kline, joined The Times from their homes on Feb. 16 for a virtual round table — or in a nod to the hints that players love, a “nonsquare dining surface,” as Ms. Richards wrote in an email ahead of the event.

The hint writers talked about where they found inspiration, how the Bee affects their sleep and the words they would like to see included in future installments. Jenn E. and Steve G. called in from Los Angeles, Kitt Richards from Cambridge, Mass., and Kline from Chicago.

Do you have a word you would like to see in the Hive? Email us at buzzwords@nytimes.com.

This discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.

STEVE G.: I’m coming up on my anniversary, on April Fools’ Day, almost two years ago. That’s when I started doing it. I was in Ormond Beach, Fla., at the time, during the pandemic. I lived with my daughter, and we’ve always played the Crossword. I have not missed the Crossword. My streak has lasted 1,673 days.

I am a Crossword-first person. I love getting my daughter involved. She’s a 20-something. We would race Monday nights. She could beat me on Mondays easily because she’s a digital native. I think I’m faster at solving than she is, but not faster in typing.

We found the Spelling Bee. I’d always ignored it. Like, OK, what is there to it? We started doing it, and then I started texting her little clues.

Then I saw that hints existed. The challenge for me was to get them out as fast as possible and to have them be as original as I could make them.

I don’t do this as a favor to the Spelling Bee community. It’s a symbiotic relationship where I get to have my little creativity session with the words. And no, I don’t solve the puzzle when I’m doing hints, but I have solved the puzzle.

When I make the hints, it’s like, How can I make Monday-level crosswords? Everybody is getting hints that I’m writing for my daughter. That’s why they’ll sometimes be educational, or have a little morality play.

KLINE: I started a year or two before Steve. I think brevity is better when you’re providing a hint or a clue. My professional life had me being very direct. I don’t mince words.

I have fun playing. I like to solve the puzzles without looking at your clues. But oftentimes I’ll be stuck on one or two, and it’s like, I could see what my friends have said.

KITT RICHARDS: I used to be an avid crossword puzzler. My point of pride was that I would always do the Crossword in pen.

It’s been about a year since I started writing hints. From September until June 2023 I was working 18 to 24 hours a day. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had of deadlines and multiple projects. I often found myself staying up all night, too. At the same time, I was like, I’ve got to do the Bee!

I lost the job because I couldn’t keep up. I don’t want to tell myself that it was the Bee that caused me to lose the job, because I would never admit that, but it could be.

I don’t know if you remember this, Steve. I thought your hints were hilarious and so well done. I would write in the replies, “I can’t get this word! Help!”

STEVE G.: Replies to me? I don’t remember those.

KITT RICHARDS: I would write to you! Other people would weigh in. They were very helpful. Eventually I got better at solving the puzzle. I saw how often words repeat, and so I started getting faster and better at it. Eventually, my competitive streak kicked in and I wanted to start writing clues.

When I first started writing them, people would make comments in the replies, like, “You write clues like Kline did.” They’re succinct, they’re short and that’s the way I think and speak anyway.

STEVE G.: I was getting up at 3 a.m. Now, in Los Angeles, I’m like, How can I make it to midnight? That’s the challenge.

KITT RICHARDS: I would give anything to have it at midnight.

STEVE G.: I’m running on fumes because I still work mostly for the East Coast, so my day begins at 6 a.m.

I’ll maybe hit the hay at 10 p.m. and then wake up at midnight, and then go back to sleep if I can. Sometimes you want to see what the people are saying, you know?

JENN E.: It would be nice to be able to sleep seven or eight hours straight through. I’m falling asleep at 7:30, 8 p.m., and waking up again at midnight. I tried staying up until midnight and I just couldn’t do it.

STEVE G.: I have dictionaries, Wikipedia and a lot of other sources ready to go. I’m a very fast researcher.

I try not to give the word away. If the word were “feline,” I probably wouldn’t want to write “beeline.” I want people to have to work, but not too much. I aspire to show them a nonobvious way to see the word, and for some people, that seems to resonate. To others, it’s annoying. That’s why I think diversity among hint writers is strength.

I do like to have some evocative trivia because again, I’m trying to write it for my daughter. In fact, I’m still trying to get her to take me to some of these trivia places in Los Angeles, because that is also my first love.

KITT RICHARDS: I probably don’t have anywhere near as many resources as Steve. I keep my emojis on my desktop for quick reference because I like to decorate my posts.

My brain thinks in textures and colors. For me, the words have to be somewhat alliterative or have a textural quality to them, so if you said them out loud it would lead you to the word.

JENN E.: All those years of teaching taught me that what I could teach one way I quickly learned didn’t work for everyone else. Everyone’s mind works differently, right?

My sentences have been called cheating many times … sorry! For other people, they need context. They need something to kick that word right out of the back of their brain.

KLINE: Well, for one, that I’m on the face of the earth again. I did have somewhat of a sudden departure last year. Given that I am very short with words, I didn’t feel the need to explain my disappearance, especially since there were other people giving the clues.

JENN E.: Anything I’d want them to know about me I think they already know, because I wrote a lot of personal stories and a lot of my hints come from my experiences and life.

My Midwestern roots are well known in the forum. After I started writing the hints, I did notice that people started popping up in Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio.

KLINE: The characteristics that we share seem to be best described as competitive, insomniac, addictive, self-challenging — yet we want to help others succeed. I love it when people say, “Your hints got me to Genius,” or, “I finally got to Queen Bee. Thank you for your help.” And there’s a certain rush that comes with playing “beat the clock.”

I would like to see more hinters. It would be great to have more people step up and take a shot at it. If they can’t get all 50 words, they can do the front 25 or the back 25.

JENN E.: Wordle, Connections and the Crossword.

KLINE: Connections, the Mini — because I don’t have time to do the Crossword — and Wordle.

STEVE G.: The Crossword. I think Connections is a great game. I hate Wordle. Don’t print that.

KITT RICHARDS: You can say that. Why not? It’s a free press.

STEVE G.: I never liked Wordle.

KITT RICHARDS: I love Wordle and Connections. I loved Tiles. I always do Wordle and Connections as my dessert after creating Spelling Bee clues.

STEVE G.: I’m not going to answer your question. I’m going to give the two words that I want in the Bee tomorrow, which are “caracal” and “birria.”

KITT RICHARDS: What are the words?

STEVE G.: “Caracal,” the cat with the tufted hair.

KITT RICHARDS: What was the other one?

STEVE G.: “Birria.” It’s something you put in tacos. Oh, you’ve got to try it.

JENN E.: It originally was goat, but it’s meat that’s been chopped up and in a sauce. You can have it in tacos and on rice. It tends to be made of beef or pork now, not goat, unless you go to Mexico.

STEVE G.: I don’t know my favorite regular Bee word, so maybe you all can answer and it’ll come to me.

KITT RICHARDS: I can’t think of a single one.

KLINE: I don’t think I have a favorite one.

JENN N.: Well, it wouldn’t be “acacia” or “açaí,” and it wouldn’t be the Hawaiian goose.

KITT RICHARDS: I actually wrote a poem about the nene because I had such an affection for it.

STEVE G.: I do like “rococo.” It’s a good word.

JENN E.: The sharing of people’s days or ideas or experiences. I do love the rush that Kline mentioned, when somebody says, “Because of you, I got to Queen Bee” or “I got to Genius.” The forum is a place where I learn a lot about people. It’s cool to read posts from somebody in South Africa, Sydney and Perth, and Singapore — places I’ve lived, visited and wanted to go.

STEVE G.: I’m afraid that my most memorable moments are various controversies. People try to school me or to set me right. I call myself a free speech absolutist, and I mean it.

Occasionally, in my clues, I’ll reference an Italian or foreign speaker who has an accent, and people will take me to task because they think I’m deriding that accent. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. As a person who loves language and linguistics, I love accents. My Italian grandmother never learned to speak English in 90 years in this country, but I know she really did speak English.

When I feel like I’ve broken through, I feel like there’s hope for humanity. I don’t care about helping people become Queen Bee, but if somebody says, “I spit out my coffee,” that makes me feel like I made somebody happy today. I don’t tend to make a lot of people happy in my profession as an actuary.

KITT RICHARDS: One of the really stellar elements in the forum is the poetry. I always read the poems, especially the ones that float to the top.

I wrote a poem about being up at 3 a.m. That was a lot of fun, and I got some responses from other forum poets. We’ve never met or exchanged any kind of private communication, but I think of them as friends because we communicate on the forum.

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