One of my interests in putting up this blog was to hopefully provide a decent place for solvers of all levels to be able to discuss certain issues. This is because I do not find any places on the web that cater to such things. But occasionally, I encounter certain points or conversations that are interesting for comment and exploration, which unfortunately get forgotten in the stream of blog comments. This post is an adaptation of such an instance, where I responded to such a thread, edited for clarity and more thoughts as I have them. Hopefully it will either further the conversation or encourage someone new to all of this by hearing my story.


I read this conversation on “finished” versus “not finished” with great interest (Links provided above for context). Part of the reason is that I got started on crossword puzzles relatively late, as compared to most of the people here as I understand it. Hopefully, a perspective from someone relatively new to this who “grew up” around this stuff will be both helpful and welcome.

In the beginning of the conversation, I echoed Dave, which reflects where I’m at now. But reflecting on where I started about two years ago (one can actually track my general progress, frustration, and answer-seeking on Bill’s LAT blog if they really wanted to), I wouldn’t say I was delusional about what I was able to accomplish. Frustrated, yes, but I could look pretty readily at Bill and others and say that the puzzles were possible.

If I can say anything, the challenge for me throughout has been managing my expectations so I don’t end up completely discouraged from continuing. While this included not “ducking” any of the grids I did, this included trying to test the market everywhere I could find grids, in order to locate grids at my proper level that I had a snowball’s chance to complete, especially for the late week grids. When I started looking at the late week grids, I’d leave them unfilled or with one or two items filled after five minutes.

To describe the history of the puzzles I did, in addition to the LA Times, I started with a very easy grid called “The Daily Commuter” and a Dell “Easy” puzzle book, which I got bored with pretty quickly after two weeks for completing them well. I moved on from there to the Universal/USA Today and Newsday grids, some Sunday specials, the WSJ, and then the NYT when I could get those consistently.

It also included being a little “easier” on my standards than most, but being honest. To that end, DNF for me has always been “Did not finish the grid without a degree of assistance”. This assistance can be Googling answers or using instant “Red letters”, which can be shut off in software. The problem with that I still have is when you check blogs, it’s hard to look at a post from yesterday without catching a glimpse of puzzles you haven’t done for yourself yet – especially seeing the trick of a gimmick grid. Or sometimes, you get a glimpse of the other answers when you check what you’ve done on a puzzle. Hard to avoid being “spoiled” sometimes? As people will remember, I counted from “clues” to “letters”, simply because I was getting better. I recently started timing puzzles that are known quantities because I realized finishing grids wasn’t mostly an issue anymore for me.

As habit, when I would encounter something I couldn’t do, I’d look up as little as I could in order to continue, but would always end up with a completely filled grid. Often times now, I just need one or two in order to finish just about any grid I genuinely don’t finish. I’d use it as an exercise to learn, to see how the clues fit in with the answers, a habit I need to pick up again. Indeed, there is a difference in not being able to do a grid at all versus getting 3/4 of the way through, but if you don’t get to the end of the grid, it’s still a DNF (Did Not Finish – the word “Finish” says something there).

The differing definitions of DNF seem to be a conflict since there are schools within the crossword community that say that using Google is just the same as doing it yourself. For instance, Patti Varol (a noted crossword constructor and Rich Norris’ assistant editor at the LA Times) writes:

Solve all the puzzles. All of them. Even the puzzles that, at first glance, look like the kind you don’t like, solve them. And if you don’t know the answers, look them up. There’s no such thing as cheating at a puzzle — it’s all simply research that makes you better at puzzles.

As I recall, I would say that “Google solved it for me” or something akin to that. Never that I completed the puzzle – merely filling out the grid is different than doing it yourself without assistance.

Then there’s the issue of errors, which are a measure of your ability too. Of course, there’s a difference between filling in letters just to fill them in and real errors. There’s times I’ve simply guessed a letter and got it wrong, and other times I thought I faithfully filled in a grid and found a half-dozen or more errors staring back at me when it came time to check it (it happens!). It’s disingenuous to say you DNF a grid when you earnestly complete it, even when you consider that even the best make errors every once in a while. One thing I’ve been trying for is to get through an entire week of LAT grids error-free, but it really hasn’t happened for this reason or that (Update: It’s happened a few times now).

Anyhow, I think the general moral standards of honesty in this day and age, coupled with technology as it is (good to note that the ACPT is still paper-administered), has clouded a lot in people’s minds in terms of what constitutes real accomplishment. It also doesn’t help when you have numerous editors and constructors “shallowing” such standards. But I think there are objective standards out there that most all can definitely agree upon as to what constitutes “self-accomplishment”. Objective measurement (especially in light of others) is definitely needed to keep one honest, but one has their own measure of “progress”, which definitely shouldn’t be slighted by anyone.


If anyone has any ideas on what to talk about like this, more puzzles to look at, or anything else, feel free to suggest them!

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One thought on “What Does It Take To Finish A Crossword Puzzle? (Or My History In Learning How To Do Crosswords)

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