M2M Day 253: A nice counterintuitive trick
This post is part of Month to Master, a 12-month accelerated learning project. For July, my goal is to solve a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in one sitting without any aid.
So far this month, my training has been almost exclusively focused on two things: 1. Memorizing the most popular crossword answers and 2. Learning how to identify and interpret the main types of cluing misdirection.
One thing I haven’t put too much time into is solving technique.
In other words, what’s the best way to actually approach a NYT crossword puzzle? Or, more specifically, based on my current knowledge of clues and answers, can I improve my puzzle-solving abilities through some sort of solving-focused optimization?
In reviewing my practice logs (and some screencasts of my solves), I noticed an interesting pattern in my approach to the puzzles:
- First, I usually work through all the Across clues and all the Down clues, in order, filling in all the words that I know right away.
- I then find the most densely filled-in part of the grid, and work my way through that area until I get stuck.
- I proceed to move around the rest of the puzzle in this way until I can’t solve anything more.
- Then, I use the “Check” option to reveal how much of the puzzle so far is correctly filled-in. Typically, I’ve made a few mistakes, and I erase those.
- Somehow, after erasing the incorrect letters, I’m able to make more significant progress, using the newly-created empty space as cues to reassess the corresponding clues and assumptions that I made.
- Eventually, I can’t solve any more of the puzzle and will “Check” again, erasing everything that I’ve gotten wrong. And so on.
In my mind, before going through this exercise, I imagined that I was mostly using the “Check” functionality as a way to validate my not-so-confident guesses. But, in reality, I’m using the functionality as a way to invalidate my guesses.
This might seem like the same thing, but the distinction is important: My ability to move forward is often more predicated on knowing when something is not the right answer.
So, here’s my idea: When I get to the point in a puzzle where I’m completely stuck, I should just assume that I’ve made some mistake somewhere. Then, I should search through the puzzle, find the answer I’m least confident about, assume that it’s completely wrong, and erase it. Then, hopefully, this manufactured anti-knowledge helps me make forward progress. If not, I should then remove the next least confident answer, and so on, until I start building forward momentum again.
This might sound like a horrible idea, where I end up erasing the entire puzzle, but, despite it’s counterintuitive nature, it seems to be working.
Today, I put this idea into practice, while solving a Friday puzzle from 2017. Fridays are almost as challenging as Saturdays, and since the puzzle is from 2017, none of the clues and answers are in my training set — so, this is a genuine solve. (I’m saving the 2017 Saturdays for later in the month).
In 20 minutes, I was able to almost completely finish the puzzle, with only a few blemishes in the northwest corner.
I wasn’t sure if this was just an extra easy puzzle, so I headed over to Rex Parker’s crossword blog to see his opinion. He thought this was a “Medium-Challenging” Friday puzzle (which likely equates to an “Easy-Medium” Saturday puzzle), so I was pretty happy about that.
Still, it will be interesting to see if this was just a fluke, or somehow this delete everything until I can make forward progress approach is actually an effective method.
Despite it working, it still feels like a bad idea.
I’ll try it again tomorrow and find out.
Read the next post. Read the previous post.