THE CHALLENGE OF THE DIAGRAMLESS
In the current issue of NMC we have published a diagramless crossword with a musical theme. It is a form of puzzle that once required solvers to arm themselves with blank grid-diagrams if they wished to tackle a NY Times one. (My cousin Harriet, a very smart and successful lawyer-realtor, was a devotee and didn't mind the extra "paperwork.") Will Shortz put a stop to the practice of simply listing the clues and implying you're on your own and instead placed the grid on the page so you could focus on the one physical object. Those he regularly publishes require a higher level of skill than those of old, though Eugene Maleska, during his tenure, published "D-puzzles" that yielded clever shapes and designs. (A simple example was one in the form of the letter Z - letter shapes are commonly used - which was filled with Z-words, and which comes to mind because it was an entry submitted by Yours Truly. But, believe me, there were designs a lot cleverer than mine.)
If you happen to be among those who decided to log onto our web site just to read these points, we cannot promise to make you a diagramless expert. But we can provide a few tips. Number one tip: get hold of a pencil with a good eraser. Within the space of, say, a 17x17 grid (the most common size) there is a crossword puzzle with answers to be found through a combination of knowledge and logic. It takes a bit of trial and error, but there are rules to follow. Where does one start? That's normally supplied to you. And you have a clue list as in our example here.
Let's assume in this example that you have been told number 1 begins in the 6th square (see below) of the top line. What number identifies the next ACROSS word? Look at the clue list. It is 5. So that means there must be 4 DOWN words with 1 ACROSS. If you can guess SPOONERISM, MARRIED, ENGEL and ETA, then you are well on your way. For then you can see that the first across word SMEE will be paralleled by PANT, a good word except that it does not fit any of the clues.
Well, let's look further. Note that there is a 5 ACROSS and a 5 DOWN. There are down words also for 6, 7, 8, and 9. Looks like another block of words - yes? But where should we set them up - to the right on the same line or, maybe, to the left on the second line. One decision is clear. If you put them to the far left they would juxtapose the first block of words and that cannot be done. (There must always be a separation of blank squares between answers with different clues.) So across word #5 must belong in Row 1. But still we ask where? Like chess, one needs to look ahead. There are two down words, numbers 11 and 12 that do not have matching ACROSS numbers. Those must surely be used to extend words in the first block and so we will put those on the second row to extend the word PANT. If you can solve those right away you will then see that the word PANTRY fits the clue to 10 ACROSS. So the R and the Y in PANTRY get numbered 11 and 12 DOWN.
So then the number to the right of 12 has to be 13, an ACROSS word only. Unused material? Looks like the 5-letter word WASTE. That should certainly make it clear that 5 across is TRAIN and so the group of down words becomes TWA, RAT, ASIN, ITON and NENE (a crossword standard which comes up again and again).
Now look at the word forming in the third row just below SMEE and PANTRY. It is ORGANI followed by ATION. What else could it be but the makings of the word ORGANIZATION. So that hooks up with the block on the right and you now have 2 blocks of words in their correct positions; the word ORGANIZATION has served as the connector. You can also finish the short connecting cluster, made up of 11, 12 and 15 DOWN. The words appear to be RNS, YIP and ZAP, and 3 more across words also form - ORE, SPA, NNE and ANIL. That's enough for now regarding that part of this demo, which I trust you followed easily enough.
At this point you might wish to change course and test the crossword's symmetry. That would mean working upward from the more or less lower left of the grid. Well, if you know that this D-puzzle has standard crossword symmetry, then you should be able to figure out that the bottom of the grid will also be made up of 2 ACROSS words, one 5 letters long and the other 4 letters, their length and positions just the reverse of Row 1. The last 2 across words will begin in the first and ninth squares of the bottom row, and so forth. At the bottom it is a lot easier to determine where the across words are than the down words. So work with those until you are sure you have matching down words and you can figure out just where they fall.
There is yet another part of the grid that one can invade, based on a useful rule of symmetry in solving diagramless puzzles. Count the number of across words and see if there is an odd number. If you count, say, 41 such words, then that will mean that the 21st across word (not 21 across!) will fall exactly in the center of the grid. If you can solve that word immediately you will have a foothold on the center of the puzzle and maybe discover other down words crossing paths with it. If you have an even number of across words it means that the central square in the grid will be blank, and perhaps that bit of information will also prove useful.
Of course, the example given here is a very simple one and not at all typical of the kind one will find in the Times or some of the more sophisticated mags like Games. But we hope it's a start. If you become really good at it, you might even discover you have a propensity for original constructions. I once worked in an office with a fellow who caught the D-puz bug and I encouraged him to submit his own to the Times; they were accepted. He was, in fact, proud of the fact that he had not a single three-letter word in one of his diagramless designs. If you are clever and patient, there is payment in these puzzle constructions, as the market for them, as we said before, is really quite large.