Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!

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A crossword like you’ve never seen before

When someone sends me a link, claiming they’ve uncovered the most difficult crossword they’ve ever seen, I’m usually skeptical.

I mean, I’ve seen some diabolical crosswords in my day. From puzzle 5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the meta-puzzles lurking in Matt Gaffney‘s Weekly Crossword Contests to the Diagramless and Double Trouble crosswords offered by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, it’s hardly tough to find challenging crosswords these days.

But this puzzle, originally created for the 2013 MIT Mystery Puzzle Hunt and made solvable (and rotatable!) online by Greg Grothaus, might just take the cake:

As you can see, there are clues across three sides of the hexagonal grid: the across clues, the down-to-the-left clues, and the up-to-the-left clues.

But these clues are unlike anything I’ve seen before.

It turns out that these are regexps, or regular expressions, sequences of characters and symbols that represent search commands in computer science.

Now, anyone who has used graphing features in Excel or crossword-solving aids on websites like XWordInfo, Crossword Tracker, or OneLook is probably familiar with simple versions of regexp. For instance, if you search C?S?B?, you’ll probably end up with CASABA as the likely top answer.

Of course, the ones in this puzzle are far more complicated, but the overlapping clues in three directions make this something of a logic puzzle as well, since you’ll be able to disregard certain answers because they won’t fit the other clues (as you do in crosswords with the across and down crossings in the grid).

But if, like me, you don’t know much about reading regexp, well then, you’ve got yourself a grid full of Naticks.

If anyone out there is savvy with regexp, let me know how taxing this puzzle is. Because, for me right now, it’s like doing a crossword in a foreign language.

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I first checked out the post on Gizmodo, they titled it “Can You Solve This Beautifully Nerdy Crossword Puzzle?” and I laughed out loud when the very first comment simply read “Nope.”

Glad to see I’m not alone here.

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But I have all the koalafications!

Good cluing is one of the cornerstones of quality crossword writing. Not only do the clues have to be interesting, clever, and challenging, but they need to be accurate as well. After all, there’s a big difference between playfully misleading and misleadingly wrong.

Thankfully, this is the Golden Age of cluing assistance, and there are numerous cluing archives and websites loaded up with crossword clues galore. Places like Crossword Nexus, Crossword Tracker, Wordplays, and XwordInfo are searchable, not only allowing constructors to look for new clues, but assisting solvers with troublesome clues.

It also makes researching crossword controversies a whole lot easier, like Hugh Stephenson’s koala-centric kerfuffle in The Guardian’s crossword blog.

You see, fellow puzzlers, a setter named Qaos used the following clue in a cryptic crossword:

Bear a left, then a right, then reverse (5)

This clue was intended to point toward the answer KOALA, both with the word “bear” and the directions “a left, then a right” — meaning A L, A OK — “then reverse” — KOALA. But some solvers took issue with Qaos referring to the koala as a bear, despite the common vernacular term “koala bear.”

Now, if we’re going by strict dictionary definition, those solvers are correct. The koala is a marsupial, not a bear. Of course, dictionaries were recently amended to say that “literally” no longer just means “literally” — it can mean “figuratively” as well. So I’m inclined to go beyond the dictionary definition and plumb the depths of crossword clue archives to see where the crossword community as a whole stands on the question of koala vs. koala bear.

The Crossword Solver lists the clue [Australian “bear”], but mostly avoids the controversy with a litany of clues like [Gum leaf eater], [Australian critter], and [Down Under climber].

If you go to Crossword Tracker, you mostly get clues that hedge their bet, like [Australian “bear”], [Marsupial sometimes called a bear], and [Australian bearlike beast], but there are a few hard-nosed clues like [It isn’t really a bear].

Crossword Giant agrees on this front, while Wordplays wavers wildly, citing both [Cute “bear”] and [Cute bear] in its archives.

I’d hoped for a definitive answer when searching XwordInfo, which is dedicated to clues featured in the New York Times Crossword. The Shortz era comes down firmly on the side of “bear”, not bear, but the pre-Shortz era is less rigid, with clues like [Living Teddy bear], [Bear of Down Under], and [Kangaroo bear].

And while I feel that the koala vs. koala bear issue remains unresolved, Mr. Stephenson is firmly in the koala bear camp, jokingly citing the 1983 Paul McCartney / Michael Jackson collaboration “Ode to a Koala Bear” as evidence.

Of course, if we’re going to start citing songs as evidence, that means “pompatus” is a real word, and that opens a whole new can of worms.

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How to Make a Crossword: Cluing Advice

After constructing the grid, cluing is the most daunting task facing a constructor. Constructor Robin Stears readily confessed, “Writing the clues is the most time-consuming process of puzzle construction, especially for common words that appear in many puzzles. Crossword Compiler allows me to keep a database of words and clues, but I try not to use the same clue twice.”

Constructor and puzzle archivist David Steinberg: “When writing clues, it’s important to strike a balance between original clues and clues that exist in databases. For entries that appear frequently and/or have a limited number of cluing possibilities, such as ALAI (traditionally clued as [Jai ___]), I feel it’s best to go with a database clue. In the case of ALAI, almost all clever cluing possibilities, such as [Half-court game?], have been exhausted.

“Original clues for such an entry often end up feeling strained or wordy and/or rely on a less common usage of a word, which solvers generally don’t appreciate as much.”

Constructor Ian Livengood also stressed finding a balance between creativity and accessibility: “Keep you clues relatively short, especially if you’re creating puzzles for outlets with strict line counts. But don’t just use one-line clues for everything, since that will bore solvers. Try to toss in some fun trivia, wordplay, etc. that seems interesting to solvers.

“And, like filling the grid, make sure you clues are appropriate for the intended day of the week. [High line?] for ELEVATED TRAIN works well for a tough puzzle, but would only fluster new solvers in a Monday puzzle. [Above-the-street transportation] is easier and more welcome for beginners.”

Constructor Robin Stears reminds you to utilize the many resources available: “Personally, I use a number of websites to help me write clues: Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, The Free Dictionary, Crossword Tracker, Internet Movie Database, Reddit, and Google. In the old days, I used to spend hours in the reference section of the library, but nowadays, it’s much easier to search the Internet. There’s a wikia for almost everything.”

When it comes to determining the difficulty of a clue, constructor Doug Peterson suggests doing a bit of research: “My best advice is to solve lots and lots of puzzles of varying levels of difficulty. It won’t take long for you to get a feel for what types of clues are found in what types of puzzles. And it’s OK to have a few hard clues on a Monday or a Tuesday. Just make sure their answers don’t cross.”

Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor Rich Norris and assistant Patti Varol touched on how cluing can set a puzzle’s difficulty: “With the right grid, a talented, creative editor can transform an expert-level puzzle into one that any newbie can solve (and that an expert would still enjoy). Every editor has his or her own ‘familiarity test,’ which is the educated guess we make to determine if a clue or an entry will resonate with or be recognized by our solvers.

“It’s subjective, sure, but there are also pretty straightforward guidelines. If an entry is not in most major dictionaries and only gets 10K or so Google hits, well, that’s pretty obscure and probably shouldn’t be used at all. The editor needs to know the solving audience and needs to know how to balance current and older pop culture references -– much of what the Millennials find easy will completely baffle the Boomer solvers, and vice versa.”

They were also kind enough to offer an example of how cluing a given word can affect clue difficulty:

“Take the entry SMITH, for example. Will SMITH and Ozzie SMITH are arguably more famous than Patti SMITH, who is arguably more famous than Matt SMITH. Plain clues — [Actor Will], [Baseballer Ozzie], [Singer Patti], [Actor Matt] – tend to be hard. Ozzie is the exception in this example, because Ozzie is such an unusual name in baseball that even nonfans are likely to word-associate their way to the correct answer.

“What information is added to those semi-naked clues is key. Thus, [“Men In Black“ actor Will] is an easy clue for SMITH because “Men In Black” is a popular movie franchise and having the first name narrows down the potential answers. Compare [“Just Kids” memoirist Patti]. Even with that first name in the clue, it’s a tough clue — more solvers know Patti Smith as a singer than as a writer, and the title of her memoir doesn’t even hint at her singing career. For a nonfan, [Hall of famer shortstop Ozzie] is about the same difficulty as [Baseballer Ozzie], but, alas, it’s likely only a Doctor Who fan will recognize any clue for Matt SMITH.

“There’s Kate SMITH, and Bessie SMITH, and Agent SMITH of the Matrix movies. Each one resonates with a different solver. The easiest kind of clue for SMITH is, of course, the generic kind: [Common alias] or [Popular surname] or [Suffix with lock or gun]. And then there’s the fun, inferable kind: [Surname that comes from an occupational suffix].”