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Get Down with Crosswords

What makes a puzzle great?

Crossword puzzles are in my blood. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my father’s lap while he did the Sunday New York Times puzzle. I remember the first time I finished a Times puzzle on my own the way you remember your first kiss, getting your driver’s license, or reaching any other important teenage milestone. I suppose it was inevitable that crossword puzzles would become my life’s work. As Doc Word, I create a variety of crossword puzzles, kids’ puzzles, jumbles, word searches, and Sudoku for clients ranging from the Discovery Channel to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

If you enjoy crossword puzzles as much as I do, you’ve probably noticed that some are more satisfying to solve than others. But why? What makes an excellent puzzle?

Sometimes enjoyment of a puzzle is based on a preference for the style of a certain editor. The New York Times’ Will Shortz has held the most sought-after job in puzzledom since 1993. He has won many fans, myself among them, with his inclusion of more popular-culture references and colloquial phrases, as well as his use of nontraditional grid entries. For example, his answers sometimes contain a whole word in a single box (clue: wiener; answer: hotdog ), or incorporate symbols (clue: Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning film; answer: braveheart ). Traditionalists, on the other hand, tend to mourn the loss of Shortz’s predecessors Will Weng and Eugene Maleska. Such old-school enthusiasts consider Shortz’s changes gimmicky.

The New York Times crossword specifications call for “a well-balanced test of vocabulary and knowledge, ranging from classical subjects like literature, art, classical music, mythology, history, geography, etc., to modern subjects like movies, TV, popular music, sports, and names in the news.” For me, an excellent puzzle is a combination of an interesting theme, intriguing construction, and challenging clues.

Themes provide the framework for a good a puzzle, so they need to be original, provocative, and consistently applied. The puzzle should contain several themed clues—a minimum of six for a 15x15 puzzle and 15 or more for larger puzzles. The February 20, 2007, Times puzzle honored Sidney Poitier’s 80th birthday, offering 10 themed clues, including the actor’s prominent films and his work with UNESCO.

Bad themes tend to require specialized knowledge, such as the IRS tax code, or make far-fetched connections—like round shapes, featuring themed answers like “Lucille Ball” and “Ellis Oval.” Overused themes—flowers, colors, animals, presidents—and combination names (“Elton John Kerry”) also limit a puzzle’s appeal.

The key to adroit puzzle construction is the way Across words flow with Down words. They should interlock without resorting to contrivances like abbreviations and idiomatic language. Obscure words unlikely to be seen outside of crossword puzzles should also be avoided (“fetor,” “buchu,” and “icao” are personal faves). Other killers include uncommon forms of common words (“rehelped” or “includers”), and foreign words that are not part of the American vernacular. Laissez faire works, but parapluie does not. A well-built puzzle also contains words and phrases with unusual letters and letter patterns (“Karaoke,” “ZZTop,” “Djimon Hounsou”).

Good clues are accurate, colorful, imaginative, and eclectic—not just straight definitions. For example, potential clues for the word “house” include residence, Fox TV show, aristocratic family line (House of Lancaster), or theater (“a full house”).

Excellent puzzles can be found in publications beyond the New York Times—the New York Sun and Games Magazine, to name two. They’re worth seeking out: you can’t beat that feeling of accomplishment as the grid fills and the theme unfolds. If only other parts of life fitted together that neatly.

This issue’s Connoisseur, the artful enigmatologist ANDY HARRISON, A83, creates puzzles to order under the pseudonym Doc Word (www.docword.com).

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