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The Finishing Steps | The Nation

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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Click here for Kosman and Picciotto’s tips on how to work their puzzles116.49 KB

The Finishing Steps

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.]

One might suppose that a puzzle is complete when every box contains a letter, and very often that is so. Yet two solvers—one in personal conversation and another in a letter to The Nation—recently mentioned a fondness for the final stage in solving a cryptic crossword. This comes when the grid is completely filled, and you go back over it in an attempt to fully understand how each clue works.

At first glance, and certainly to non-solvers, this sort of post-solving phase might seem nonsensical. How is it possible, after all, to fill in a puzzle grid without having cracked all of the clues? But the solution to the paradox is inherent in the nature of cryptic clueing.

A cryptic clue, remember, has two mutually reinforcing parts, the definition and the wordplay—and the grid, with its crossing letters, adds a third source of information (and confirmation). So it’s not at all uncommon for a solver to derive an answer from the combination of a clue’s definition and the letters in the grid, without understanding exactly how the wordplay supports the answer. Occasionally there is also the reverse situation, in which an obscure answer is supported by transparent wordplay, but that is easily resolved with a quick trip to the dictionary or the Internet.

Usually, that perplexity lasts only a moment. But sometimes, especially in the case of deceptive or complex multi-part clues, it can last a lot longer. In the National Puzzlers’ League, this phenomenon has acquired the slangy acronym IGIBIDGI (sometimes pronounced “idgy-bidgy”), which stands for “I got it but I don’t get it”—in other words, “I know this must be the solution, but I can’t figure out why.”

Interestingly, solvers seem to have divergent reactions to the mysteries that can linger after the first steps of the solving process are complete. Some regard it as an esthetic shortcoming on the constructors’ part, believing that solving a puzzle and understanding that solution should be a single unified process. (In fact, we heard from one solver who felt that including an explanation of the wordplay alongside the answer was an admission on our part that our puzzle was substandard; we respectfully disagree.)For other solvers, putting the final touches on a completed puzzle is a special pleasure, like the dessert after a good meal.

There’s no right or wrong on this one, of course—it’s a matter of taste. What are your feelings about the post-solving wrap-up? Please share them here, along with quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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