The Inkubator is open for submissions for themeless puzzles only. Submissions close on June 30, and decisions will be sent in July. Please read the full specs below before submitting.

From June 1 to June 30, women and nonbinary constructors are invited to email submissions to inkubatorcrosswords@gmail.com. You may submit up to three puzzles for a given submission period (collaborations count as one); we anticipate accepting no more than one puzzle per constructor per submission period with possible exceptions for collaborations.

For all constructors:

  • If you have never published with us before, please tell us a little bit about yourself
  • The grid must be symmetrical (rotational, mirror, diagonal) unless there is an obvious “grid art” motivation
  • Word count must be 74 or lower for a 15×15; please use your best judgment for nonstandard sizes
  • Black square percentage must be lower than 19% with possible exceptions for ultra-low word count grids (64 words or lower, for a 15×15)
  • We have no hard maximum on short (3-5 letter) fill nor minimum on long (8+ letter) fill, but we expect grids to be easy for a solver to “flow” through; this may be more difficult to achieve with an abundance of short fill or large chunks of black squares

For constructors who have never published a solo puzzle with the Inkubator before and have had fewer than 5 puzzles accepted at major publications:

  • Please send us a full grid in .puz format with at least 10% of the answers clued in the .puz file, including any seed or marquee answers

For constructors who have published a solo puzzle with the Inkubator already or have 5 or more puzzles accepted at major publications:

  • Please send us a fully clued grid in .puz format
  • Submissions should feature at least one marquee answer related to the Inkubator’s vision (feminist, inclusive, progressive): these could include, but are not limited to, the names or works of notable women and nonbinary folks, phrases or rallying cries related to social justice, and racy terms specific to the experiences of women and people of marginalized genders that don’t pass “the breakfast test”

We encourage you to check out Stella’s tips for themeless puzzles at the bottom of this page.

Updated May 18, 2022.


ABOUT OUR SUBMISSION PROCESS

The Inkubator publishes puzzles from women and nonbinary constructors. Constructors are paid $300 per puzzle (to be divided in the case of collaborations); payments are sent quarterly.  We anticipate open submission periods for three weeks each quarter with decisions rendered one week after submissions close (tentatively March & September 2022 for themed puzzles, and June & December 2022 for themeless puzzles). We may adjust this based on need/backlog.

TIME-SENSITIVE PUZZLES

If you have a time-sensitive puzzle idea (e.g., relating to a holiday or current event, especially one that might not be acknowledged in a mainstream outlet), please email us about it at inkubatorcrosswords@gmail.com regardless of whether we are open or closed for submissions. Please query your idea; do not send a .puz file.

VARIETY PUZZLES

If you have a cryptic, meta, or other type of puzzle, please email inkubatorcrosswords@gmail.com to inquire. These puzzles will be considered as a function of our staffing priorities and schedule.


THE INKUBATOR CROSSWORD GUIDELINES

The Inkubator is aimed at novice to experienced solvers. Difficulty level will vary week to week and will be described as lightly challenging, moderately challenging, or challenging.

Philosophy

The Inkubator has three missions.  

  1. We aim to deliver to paying subscribers professionally constructed puzzles that meet the solver’s high expectations for entertainment and fair challenge.
  2. We want to help women and nonbinary constructors new to the field develop their constructing skills.
  3. We provide a venue for women and nonbinary constructors to exhibit and get paid for high-quality puzzles, especially (but not exclusively) puzzles that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content.  

Themes

Standards for what makes a publishable, tight theme set are described in Patrick Berry’s “Crossword Constructor’s Handbook,” and many other resources are listed here. Constructors submitting finished puzzles to the Inkubator should be familiar with industry standards for well-structured themes and be able to explain the theme narratively. Rookie constructors are encouraged to submit theme ideas for evaluation and feedback prior to grid building.

Themes should be pitched in the body of the email with proposed clues and answers, list style. If you’re a novice who has already made a grid for your theme, do go ahead and attach it to your query, especially if it helps demonstrate a grid effect—just understand that it’s not uncommon for novice constructors to be asked to change, tighten or re-envision their theme in some way, and that advice and coaching about grid-work and cluing will usually come after a theme has been approved.  

Themes may be traditional, feminist, queer, activist, edgy, confrontational, polite, conventional, elegant, silly or sexy, and themes involving rebus squares can be accommodated. Because the Inkubator publishes fewer than 30 puzzles a year, we are not running list/category themes honoring prominent women and achievements, as worthy as these themes are. All themes submitted should have an element of word-play or grid-play.

Grids

Puzzle dimensions are flexible and can be a non-traditional size or shape to accommodate a theme. Grids should adhere to industry-standard crossword symmetry and connectivity, avoiding unchecked squares and two-letter words, unless you’re breaking from the established form for a creative reason that you explain in your submission or query. Themeless submissions of 74 words or fewer (for a 15 X 15) are welcome (see below).

Fill

Avoid crossing proper nouns, and if this is unavoidable, make sure at least one of the names is inferable/easy.  If you have to look up what an abbreviation or word means, avoid using it in the fill. The editors may ask you to rework grids to eliminate these and other infelicities.  (Using a curated, ranked word list really helps.)

Clues

Please take an editorial pass after clue-writing to tighten verbiage, check facts and ensure that clues are grammatically sound.  Imagine solvers of different ages, orientations, and identities reading your clues.  

STELLA’S TIPS FOR THEMELESS PUZZLES

These notes are meant as a guide for those newer to themeless constructing and are not hard-and-fast rules.

Marquee entries

Themed puzzles are built around theme entries; a themeless is built around marquee entries, which are longer (9+ letters) entries that you as the constructor found interesting in some way and decided to seed the puzzle around. We recommend not starting out with more than two — sometimes, even choosing only one long entry to start from can lead to an overall better grid. 

Fill

Although your attention will naturally focus at first on those marquee entries, don’t neglect the quality of the shorter fill. A large part of the solver’s experience is solving these shorter entries, so if your long, interesting entries come at the expense of marginal short fill, your puzzle is less likely to be accepted as is. If a longer non-marquee entry that you really like is leading to problematic surrounding fill where a different entry in the same spot leads to better short fill, think about sacrificing the longer entry. You can always put it in another puzzle!

Clues

The real joy of solving a themeless comes from the clues. There’s no theme to make a solver chuckle, so you need to give them their “aha” moments throughout the puzzle. A common fill word that might get a straightforward clue in a themed puzzle becomes an opportunity for clever misdirection or an opportunity for a solver to learn something new. 

You need not be tricky or educational with every single clue in your themeless — but do strive to do it as often as you can. 

Here’s an example of how the same entry, AUTHOR, can be clued three different ways that give the solver a very different experience:

  • Straightforward: [Writer of novels] This is fine for an easy themed puzzle, but not terribly interesting to the solver.
  • Clever misdirection: [One who communicates via text] This clue, from an excellent Inkubator themeless by Claire Rimkus, initially might have the solver thinking about someone texting on a phone. When the solver gets enough crossings to figure it out, aha! Satisfaction!
  • Learn something new: [Zakiya Dalila Harris or Mia McKenzie] This clue might introduce the solver to contemporary AUTHORs they may not have heard of.

Here are a few pitfalls to be aware of:

  • Vary the clue length: One of the most common areas for improvement I see in themeless submissions is that the Across clues get lots of attention, followed by a long string of Down clues that are one to three words in length. I can tell that’s where the constructor got tired! The solver will have a better experience if you mix it up.
  • Avoid overly relying on vagueness as a mechanism for difficulty. It is relatively easy to write a one-word clue that is difficult because it has a variety of synonyms or can be one of several parts of speech. While this needn’t be totally avoided, the payoff for the solver is often lower than for a more thoughtful misdirection like Claire’s above.
  • Do not confuse the inclusion of answers and clues related to historically underrepresented groups for difficulty. While writing your clues, imagine that many different people will be solving your puzzle with many different knowledge bases. Do not assume that new-to-you facts, especially ones related to historically underrepresented groups, are therefore challenging trivia. It can be fun to learn from crosswords, but the assumption of learning should not be confused with the assumption of a solver base whose knowledge reflects the constructor’s, especially in ways where the constructor is not underrepresented.

We ask that constructors sending us their first themeless submit clues for at least 10% of the entries in the puzzle. Although, as mentioned above, you can have some straightforward clues in your puzzle as a whole, we ask that the clues you include in your submission really show us your potential. Pick entries that allow you to be clever or teach us something we didn’t know!