Counting Words

Counting Words

Sometimes a puzzle needs to cut down


[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

One of the things that crossword constructors often ponder is what’s called “word count”—the total number of words, across or down, that appear in a given grid. Because crossword grids tend to be of a uniform size (most commonly 15×15 squares), a grid’s word count is a simple and consistent metric for how densely packed it is: the lower the word count, the more difficult a construction feat the setter has pulled off. Hang around the right chatrooms or streetcorners and you’ll sometimes hear crossworders use the phrase “low word count grid” in tones of quiet admiration.

Like so many aspects of a craft, this is one of those things that only practitioners think about consciously, but that can affect the experience of the consumer (in this case, the solver). Solvers aren’t likely to tally up the number of entries in a grid, but they do notice the effects of a low word count, including longer entries (average word length varies inversely with the word count) and a grid with fewer isolated sections.

In our puzzles for The Nation, we think less about word count than most constructors of standard crosswords, because our grid patterns are fairly standardized. A 15×15 grid with black squares has eight rows and eight columns, nearly every one of which contains two words; typically we’ll try to include one symmetrical pair of long entries (between eleven and fifteen letters) that fill a row or column by themselves. The result is a word count of either thirty or thirty-two, and an average word length of seven or greater. We’ve rarely diverged from that.

So it was not without a little trepidation that we embarked on Puzzle #3251. The motivating idea there was to have each clue begin with a different letter, in order. The catch was that this meant an ultra-low word count of twenty-six. Our initial thought was that we might have to reduce the grid to 13×13, but first we gave it a shot on a full-sized grid—and the results turned out to be challenging but doable.

Still, there’s no question that that puzzle had an unusual grid pattern in comparison to anything else we’ve published here. It included four fifteen-letter entries spanning the grid, as well as a pair of thirteens. The other constraints were the inclusion of ACROSTIC at the bottom of the grid, to reveal the theme, and making sure that the third-to-last entry could be clued beginning with an X (we went with CYRUS, the grandfather of Xerxes).

In other words, before it was a puzzle for you, it was a puzzle for us!

Did the low word count in this puzzle register during solving? Please share your thoughts below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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