The knock against crosswords is that they rely so much on esoteric knowledge. That’s the popular conception, and it’s not entirely wrong.
Let’s say you’re a puzzle virgin but you’re crossword curious. You open your newspaper’s Entertainment section, spot the empty grid, and the first clue you read is “Exile isle for Napoleon.”
How are you supposed to know such an obscure fact? Napoleon died before you were born. (I’m guessing.) Maybe you know a few things about him. He posed with his hand scratching his belly. There was a babe named Josephine. He missed getting Beethoven’s Third dedicated to him because he pissed off the composer. Oh, and he met his Waterloo at some famous battle.
At this point, you can either decide crosswords are just as stupid as you thought, or maybe you push on looking for a clue you care about. Or maybe, just maybe, that famous palindrome occurs to you, “Able was I ere I saw …” Able backward is ELBA. That’s the answer!
Dredging out a fact that you didn’t know you knew is satisfying. I wrote about what I called The Crossword Puzzle Moment for the NYT, and I think it’s a key as to why crosswords are popular. Yes, filling in empty squares is satisfying all by itself, but making those long-lost cranial connections is an endorphin bump.
Maybe you don’t make the palindrome connection, but scanning through the clues you see such a wide range of topics that there’s probably something you recognize – a Sondheim lyric, a Groucho quote, an opera character, a basketball coach, a rapper, or that river in Venezuela you just watched a documentary about.
You’ll connect with something. But, your connections will be different than mine, and that’s what makes crosswords so personal. Your crossword experience depends on your life experience.
This range of topics and individual reactions to them makes crosswords a great topic for bloggers. Something in every puzzle is likely to amuse you, annoy you, confound you, trigger you, or send you down a train of thought that makes for a good story. It’s also why crossword blogging can be controversial, and controversy is the secret engine for blog success.
Pick a hot topic. Here’s one: what words should be banned? The rules can seem arbitrary. HITLER and CANCER are bad, but MAO and ENOLA GAY are fine? One recent kerfuffle concerns words offensive to various groups. I didn’t understand “CHINK in the armor” was that bad, but Jeff Chen set me straight in his discussion of the great BEANER controversy. Many words seem obvious, but which of these would you outlaw: SPADE, BANANA, NIP, GREASER, OKIE, YANK, HILLBILLY, LIMEY, SHYLOCK, or, god forbid, CANUCK?
Other words trigger some groups while delighting others. GAY, CANCEL, WOKE, FAUCI, PELOSI. Is QANON a good entry? Editors can’t win, but bloggers will always have something to latch onto.
Another possible topic is, what makes a good crossword anyway? Judging by comments on blog posts, at least some solvers “hate” circles, rebus, cross-references, pangrams, connecting dots on the grid, Roman numerals, or any references to topics they don’t personally follow.
There is a lot of humor in crosswords, in the clever clues, in reconstructed phrases that make up a theme, in quips or quotes. Are they funny? It’s hard to imagine a more personal question. Is a puzzle bad because the jokes fall flat for you? You get to decide!
What about gimmicks? I tend to love them, but asking solvers to, say, write outside the grid, annoys many. Joe Krozel is, perhaps, the most polarizing constructor of gimmick puzzles. I was so delighted by this puzzle that I had it posted on my office door at work. Most of the top bloggers passionately hated it. Look closely at the grid, or click it to see a detailed view.
Then there’s crosswordese, words that because of their useful letter combinations, occur far more frequently in crosswords than in everyday life. I tend to forgive these if they’re in the service of an otherwise outstanding grid, but some people who know a lot more about crosswords than I do would toss their OREOs at that suggestion.
Go blog yourself
All this makes for great blog fodder, particularly if you have strong, or better yet, outrageous, opinions. Starting a blog is easy. There are several platforms, and some are free. Most of the top crossword bloggers use some version of WordPress or Blogspot. Google for more. If you need inspiration, XWord Info has links to several blogs on our Blogosphere page. We’ll add yours if you manage to post regularly.