Letter-Perfect Sue Gleason, Double-Crostic Designer

As published in The Montclair Times, Thursday, February 15, 2001.

From the series "I Love What I Do" by Elizabeth Ludas.

The clues attesting to her love of words and puzzles are everywhere in Sue Gleason's Montclair living room. There's a Scrabble game, an unabridged Merriam-Webster Second International Dictionary that has clearly seen some heavy use, and two little trophies testifying to her participation in Montclair's all-adult Spelling Bee. This is the workshop where Gleason devises double-crostic puzzles, and where she wrote a computer program to design and solve the tricky buggers.

A graduate of Barnard College with a degree in mathematics and economics, Gleason has loved double-crostic puzzles since her brother taught her how to do them as a teenager. Crosswords? Cryptics? Gleason can take or leave them; double-crostics are the only kind of puzzle she loves.

Double-crostics were invented by Elizabeth Kingsley and first published in the Saturday Review in 1934. Each puzzle consists of rows of squares that, when filled in with letters, form a quotation. To the right of the letter grid is a list of clues, the answers to which are generally one or two words. The first letters of these answers form the author's name and title of the work. The letters in the answers are transferred to the squares in the grid.

While describing the puzzle in a comprehensible way is difficult, working the puzzles is fun, and for Gleason, "making them up is as much fun as doing them."

Before retiring from full-time work to raise her daughters, Laura and Georgia, both currently Brandeis students, Gleason was a computer programmer. Over the years, she has been a consultant and freelance programmer; she also does mathematics tutoring, and coaching for the math and verbal SAT.

"It was difficult to keep up with the software," she said of her freelance programming work, but her husband, Pat, also a programmer, helped. When he learned Java, he taught her, thus paving the way for her latest creative and economic endeavor. Java is what she used to write her double-crostics program, and, she added, "It made it a natural to put on the Internet."

The double-crostics program was originally written for her own convenience, so that when a puzzle was difficult she wouldn't have to use paper; on the screen, a solver can try as many guesses as she likes without erasing a hole through the paper. In 1997, she got her first Web site, part of a larger hobby Web site. A few people found their way there, but it was hard to get the site listed with any search engines.

"At some point, I stopped because there was no revenue potential," Gleason said, "but a friend said, 'Sue, how are you going to feel if someone else does it first?' So I bought the name, www.doublecrostic.com." Her mailing list now has more than 100 names, and her site receives about 1,000 hits a day. Visitors to the site may try out the puzzles that are available to anyone, or, for a fee, become members, and have access to the entire puzzle archive.

For die-hard double-crostic fans, the pickings have become pretty slim over the years. The Saturday Review and Harper's used to run them regularly, but no longer do, and now the only one regularly published is in the Sunday New York Times, every other week. Gleason times the release of her biweekly puzzles to alternate with the Sunday Times.'

To construct a double-crostic, Gleason begins with a quote, between 150 and 400 letters in length, or about 25 to 60 words.

"Then I decide on an acrostic - the initials of the answer words. Typically, the first letters of the answer words spell out the name of the author of the quote, and the title of the work from which it is drawn. Then you want your average length of clue to be around 10 letters. Some answers will be phrases or two words, so you can have longer or shorter answers. Answers with seven or eight characters will be easier to construct and solve.

"The set of answers is an anagram of the quote," she continued. "You pick the long words first, and then use up the remaining pool of letters.

"If the quote isn't interesting, the puzzle isn't worth doing," said Gleason.

The hobbies and passions we pursue to take us out of our own lives seem perhaps a bit peculiar to those who don't share them; the model-train enthusiasts look askance at the needlepointers, who wonder why people bowl, and the bowlers aren't too sure about the cryptic-puzzlers. But each pursuit brings its own satisfactions, and small as they are, they are the shining little joys that make life fun.

For Gleason, one of those moments was the day her brother, her erstwhile teacher, said that her puzzles had become too difficult for him. And she is pleased that Georgia shares her enthusiasm for double-crostics; she has tested her mother's software and co-authored some of her puzzles. (Laura doesn't like double-crostics, but she shares the family's love of Scrabble.)

Best of all may be the satisfaction of making a new convert to puzzledom. Last year Georgia brought home a fellow student, Victoria Wong, who could not get home to Hawaii for Thanksgiving.

"After returning to college," Gleason said, smiling broadly, "Victoria wrote a thank-you letter in the form of a double-crostic."

Gleason enjoys the way double-crostics have combined so many of her interests.

"It's a great entertainment. It brings together my original profession of programming and my original hobby of double-crostics. It brings me up to date on Java, and on publishing on the Web, and the Internet community is really fun.

"This is the least remunerative thing I do, but I love it."