Hints for Solving Meta Contests

This is a place to learn about the Muggles community and some of the terminology we use. It also contains suggested strategies for solving meta crosswords, as well as a repository of all past WSJ crossword contests and solutions.
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Bob cruise director
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Hints for Solving Meta Contests

#1

Post by Bob cruise director » Fri Apr 26, 2019 2:27 pm

For our newest Muggles who are going through the same struggles that we all went through as we got into meta puzzles, below are a series of thoughts and advice. However remember that you must enter your answer either through an email to crosswordcontest@wsj.com putting your answer in the title or through the contest on line.

On the WSJ web page: Crossword Contest 101, Matt Gaffney contributed some guidelines some of which I have plagiarized here.

1. First and foremost, think outside the box. The creators of these metas are extremely clever in continually coming up with ideas (some would say nefarious). There is no pattern to the solution so it is using cleverness, experience and your intelligence.
2. The answer is usually contained within or derived from the grid however there are contests where the answer is either embedded in the clues or derived from the clues with minimal input from the grid.
3. Read the title. You will see this over and over as the title will give you direction to the solution. Often the title is cryptic in how it is intended to be interpreted.
4. Look for question marks or stars within the clues and long answers in the grid. Either or both will point you toward the answer
5. Look for unusualness anywhere. That includes unusual wording in a clue like word selection which is strange. It includes the use of really strange words in the grid.
6. Look for patterns in the grid. An unusual number of answers starting and ending with the same letter set.
7. Rarely but not never, look for an unusual pattern in the dark squares in the grid.
8. Look for answers which may have a different meaning when pronounced phonetically.
9. After the contest is over, go back and look at how the answer is derived. It is a learning experience. Also look at some of the paths that others took in getting to either the right or wrong answer.
10. After the contest is over and you have a question, please feel free to ask. There is no such thing as a bad question but there are a lot of unasked questions that beg for an answer.
Finally, there some very good solvers here. They get the answer every week. They also get the answer very fast. Do not let that intimidate you. This is a lifelong improvement path and everyone is here to have fun and learn. Showing an amusing path to the wrong answer or no answer is therapeutic and almost every time there is another muggle who went down the same wrong path (which we call going down a rabbit hole).

As you may see with the comments made, there is technical and nontechnical muggles, younger and older muggles, experience and new muggles, male and female muggles. All doing these for the enjoyment, comradery and fun.
Bob Stevens
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Toby
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#2

Post by Toby » Fri Apr 26, 2019 2:49 pm

Thanks Bob. This is great. I have a few more to add:
- sometimes clue numbers are important
- sometimes words are anagrammed
-most puzzles have identifiable "theme" answers (usually symmetrical and long words or word combinations, which are usually key to the solution). It often helps to write them down
- sometimes theme words relate to other shorter words in grid, and that provides the path to a solution.
But for me, your advice is #9 has been the most helpful. Brilliant as the constructors are (and I believe they are) they do sometimes use similar paths for the answer.

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BrianMac
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#3

Post by BrianMac » Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:06 pm

Bob, thanks for writing that up! I would add:
  • Solve on paper. I know it's not for everyone, but circling entries and letters and making notes in the margins can be extremely helpful.
  • Start over. Paper solvers may have to do this because their sheets get too messy. But even when my paper is clean, I find that when I get stuck, just printing a new puzzle and refocusing on solving the grid often helps shake something loose.

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Bob cruise director
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#4

Post by Bob cruise director » Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:17 pm

BrianMac wrote:
Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:06 pm
Bob, thanks for writing that up! I would add:
  • Solve on paper. I know it's not for everyone, but circling entries and letters and making notes in the margins can be extremely helpful.
  • Start over. Paper solvers may have to do this because their sheets get too messy. But even when my paper is clean, I find that when I get stuck, just printing a new puzzle and refocusing on solving the grid often helps shake something loose.
Excellent additions. I do mine on paper and have a highlighter handy and circle both clues and answers. Not infrequently I have to reprint and start over.
I am constantly amazed at how people like Al do these metas so fast. Beyond me
Bob Stevens
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Bob cruise director
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#5

Post by Bob cruise director » Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:23 pm

Toby wrote:
Fri Apr 26, 2019 2:49 pm
Thanks Bob. This is great. I have a few more to add:
- sometimes clue numbers are important
- sometimes words are anagrammed
-most puzzles have identifiable "theme" answers (usually symmetrical and long words or word combinations, which are usually key to the solution). It often helps to write them down
- sometimes theme words relate to other shorter words in grid, and that provides the path to a solution.
But for me, your advice is #9 has been the most helpful. Brilliant as the constructors are (and I believe they are) they do sometimes use similar paths for the answer.
Thanks - great additions. Now I will see if I can modify the original post as I get more great advice.
Bob Stevens
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Meg
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#6

Post by Meg » Fri Apr 26, 2019 4:18 pm

Sometimes only PART of the title or each theme answer is relevant. The rest is just decoration. Writing things down really helps.

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Al Sisti
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#7

Post by Al Sisti » Fri Apr 26, 2019 9:11 pm

Bob cruise director wrote:
Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:17 pm
BrianMac wrote:
Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:06 pm
Bob, thanks for writing that up! I would add:
  • Solve on paper. I know it's not for everyone, but circling entries and letters and making notes in the margins can be extremely helpful.
  • Start over. Paper solvers may have to do this because their sheets get too messy. But even when my paper is clean, I find that when I get stuck, just printing a new puzzle and refocusing on solving the grid often helps shake something loose.
Excellent additions. I do mine on paper and have a highlighter handy and circle both clues and answers. Not infrequently I have to reprint and start over.
I am constantly amazed at how people like Al do these metas so fast. Beyond me
First of all, thanks for the kind words! But why I'm really writing is to remind you/us all how the greatest meta-solver in the world does it. I'm talking about JanglerNPL -- Jeffrey Harris -- who has solved every single one of Matt's MGWCCs since the leaderboard started (and certainly before it did). Matt interviewed him back in 2014, and here's the process he says he goes through: http://xwordcontest.com/2014/08/mgwcc-3 ... -word.html

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#8

Post by CPJohnson » Sat Apr 27, 2019 11:35 am

Thanks, Bob! I would add, "If all else fails, count the number of each letter used in the grid. If there is an unusually large number of J's, X's, B's, or some other letter that is more rarely used than others, it may be significant." Remember Joe, Abu (monkeys), and the Map Quest puzzle (X marks the spot)?

Tony S
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#9

Post by Tony S » Sat Apr 27, 2019 12:52 pm

Finally, there some very good solvers here. They get the answer every week. They also get the answer very fast. Do not let that intimidate you. This is a lifelong improvement path and everyone is here to have fun and learn.

This is worth repeating over and over again. In every activity (sports, music, drawing, writing, cooking, etc.) there are the few who seem to excel easily and then there are the rest of us. Desire and discipline (practice, practice, practice) will determine how good we'll be. These puzzles are no exception.

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#10

Post by BarbaraK » Sat Apr 27, 2019 2:29 pm

Wish I remember who said this so I could give proper credit because it's brilliant. "You have to find the answer, not just think of an answer."

If the number of letters in the answer you're looking for is the same as the number of theme entries, there is a good chance that you need to somehow derive one letter from each theme answer.

Note all the qualifiers in the suggestions - often, sometimes, rarely. In the world of metas, rules are made to be broken. Keep an open mind.

If you want to look at letter counts, as CPJohnson suggests, this site makes it easy: https://boisvert42.github.io/mechapuzzle/
It requires a .puz format file. For the WSJ puzzles, you can get that from https://crosswordfiend.com/download/

And speaking of crossword fiend, that's a great place to read about the solutions each week. Their explanations are longer and more detailed than WSJ can fit on Monday's puzzle. Sometimes if you're stuck, going back and reading about past puzzles can trigger an idea.

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#11

Post by Tina » Sat Apr 27, 2019 7:59 pm

A while ago, I wrote a list of tips to help in solving metas. I meant to share it and get other people's input on it, but I never got around to it. Anyway, here it is:

1. Look at the THEME ENTRIES.
Do they have SOMETHING IN COMMON?
Can the entries (or part of the entries) be ANAGRAMMED to something?
Do the INITIAL LETTERS mean anything? Do they spell out a word? Do they suggest something like airport codes, state abbreviations, or chemical element symbols?
What about the FIRST FEW LETTERS of each entry?
Do the FINAL LETTERS or MIDDLE LETTERS mean anything?
Are there SYNONYMS or ANTONYMS that are important?
RHYMES, PUNS, SIMILES, or other FIGURES OF SPEECH or WORDPLAY?
Can a word PRECEDE OR FOLLOW the entries?
Can a PREFIX or SUFFIX be added to all the entries? Or can any letters be added anywhere?
Do the entries SUGGEST something, like a three-word acronym, a number, a person, etc?
Are the theme entries HOMOPHONES or HOMONYMS of something?
Look at the LETTERS in the words. Is there anything interesting, like double letters?
Are there HIDDEN WORDS inside the entries?
Anything hidden BACKWARDS in the entries?
Look at the entries that INTERSECT the theme entries.
Can you CHANGE ONE LETTER to make another word or name?

2. Look at the GRID ITSELF.
Is the grid UNUSUALLY LARGE?
Is the grid an UNUSUAL SHAPE?
Check the DISTRIBUTION OF LETTER FREQUENCY. Are some letters missing? Are there more rare letters than usual?
Is there an unusual amount of DOUBLE LETTERS?
Are some LETTERS CONCENTRATED in a certain area?
Anything unusual about the LENGTHS OF THE ENTRIES?
Are there any DIAGONAL words?
Can you form any SHAPES in the grid with certain letters?
Any interesting JUXTAPOSITIONS of letters?
Anything significant about the BLACK SPACES?
Any words hidden in STAIR-STEP or BOGGLE fashion?

3. Look at the CLUES
Anything interesting about the WORDS IN THE CLUES? For example, lots of proper names, acronyms, dates, place names?
Is anything WEIRDLY CLUED?
Are some clues UNUSUALLY LONG?
Do some clues contain EXTRANEOUS INFORMATION?
Do the FIRST LETTERS of the clues spell anything?
Are the BLANKS, QUOTES, or PARENTHESES important?
Are the NUMBERS OF THE CLUES significant?
Could the definitions apply to MORE THAN ONE GRID ENTRY?

4. Look at the NON-THEME GRID ENTRIES
Anything interesting?
Anything that relates to the theme?
Can any words be extended beyond the grid?
Any interesting word intersections?

5. Other things to think about:
– Constructors often use ROMAN NUMERALS, GREEK LETTERS, AIRPORT CODES, ATOMIC NUMBERS and SYMBOLS, STATE ABBREVIATIONS,
– Sometimes a square is a REBUS, occupied by a symbol or more than one letter.

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Meg
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#12

Post by Meg » Sat Apr 27, 2019 8:03 pm

Wow, Tina!! A lot of us sort of know these things subconsciously. It’s great to see your huge list!

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#13

Post by Gwyneth_S » Sun Apr 28, 2019 4:49 pm

Wow, all of these hints for solving are fantastic! Thanks to all of you. I started cutting out the Monday WSJ answers of the ones I couldn’t solve as a means if reminding myself of some of these techniques. Now I can find it all right here.
Hopefully it will stave off the “deer in the headlights” feeling I get sometimes once I’ve finished the grid and simply can’t see anything to go on!

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#14

Post by JJD » Sat May 11, 2019 8:10 am

I’ll add some advice I wish I’d followed a couple weeks ago:
Look at the center of the grid and at the first and last across and down clue and grid entries for how they might offer a hint to the theme.

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Bob cruise director
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#15

Post by Bob cruise director » Sat May 11, 2019 8:27 am

JJD wrote:
Sat May 11, 2019 8:10 am
I’ll add some advice I wish I’d followed a couple weeks ago:
Look at the center of the grid and at the first and last across and down clue and grid entries for how they might offer a hint to the theme.
Especially with Mike Shenk puzzles as one of his styles is to include hints exactly where you indicated
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BarbaraK
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#16

Post by BarbaraK » Mon Jun 10, 2019 9:57 am

One more tip - if the solving process leads you to a set of numbers, look at those squares in the grid and see if the letters in them spell something.

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#17

Post by howardl » Mon Dec 16, 2019 8:50 am

To Tina' hint (and Bob many thanks to both) "Can the entries (or part of the entries) be ANAGRAMMED to something?". I would add: "If you ever think you need to use an on-line anagram solver, you are on the wrong track."

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#18

Post by DBMiller » Fri Dec 20, 2019 11:02 am

howardl wrote:
Mon Dec 16, 2019 8:50 am
To Tina' hint (and Bob many thanks to both) "Can the entries (or part of the entries) be ANAGRAMMED to something?". I would add: "If you ever think you need to use an on-line anagram solver, you are on the wrong track."
Not necessarily. Sometimes you have the right letters, but the correct ordering isn't apparent. An anagram assistant may help find the right answer, and then you might be able to figure out why that order is being used. Could be numbers in parentheses; order of the clue # that led you to each letter of the clue; or the clue # where you finally found each letter. There is almost always a method to the madness, you just may not see it at first.

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#19

Post by Joe Ross » Wed Apr 29, 2020 12:50 pm

WSJ Crossword Contest 10 - Matt Gaffney.gif

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Joe Ross
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#20

Post by Joe Ross » Fri Jun 19, 2020 6:49 am

C=64 wrote:
Sat Jun 13, 2020 8:28 pm
I'm new to metas but am learning that my brain is great at creating red herrings from random letter placements in the grid. I need to stop playing Boggle with my crosswords.

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