Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Where does the name Diagnil come from?
  2. How hard is it to install?
  3. What is Diagnil's basic concept of operation?
  4. Is it really any better than using pencil and paper?
  5. I'm used to the way Across Lite works. Why can't Diagnil work the same way?
  6. What sources of diagramless puzzles are available?
  7. What about using Diagnil on standard crosswords?

1. Where does the name Diagnil come from?

The name Diagnil (die-AGG-nil) fuses the words "diagram" and "nil." It was an attempt to evoke the concept of diagramless for a new software tool. It was not meant to be an alternative spelling for "diagonal."

2. How hard is it to install?

Installation is easy for Windows family systems if the binary installer is used. The Windows installer merely needs to be launched to establish the full working environment using standard Windows conventions.

Installation is also easy for the Tiger (10.4), (Snow) Leopard (10.5/10.6), and Lion (10.7) versions of Mac OS X. A disk image of a ready-to-run application bundle is available for download.

Under Linux, Unix and other Mac platforms, a bit more work is required, but it's straightforward for those who are comfortable using the command line. Future versions might include improvements that streamline the installation process.

3. What is Diagnil's basic concept of operation?

Diagnil allows you to enter words and either place them on the grid immediately or save them for later placement. As you work through the puzzle and learn more about how the words fit together, i.e., as you discover the diagram's shape, you can paste previously entered words onto the grid where you think they belong. If some of your placements need to be corrected, you can make adjustments easily by dragging words to different locations.

You can also move large regions of words to put sections together once you've figured out the large-scale structure of the puzzle. In addition, there are a few "mini-grids" available that serve as scratchpads, allowing you to work on small word clusters and later transfer them to the main grid. Diagnil offers various aids and conveniences such as picking up word fragments from crossing letters already found on the grid.

In general, the features have been designed to reduce the mundane chores needed to build a puzzle solution, allowing you to concentrate on the intellectual challenge of solving diagramless puzzles.

4. Is it really any better than using pencil and (graph) paper?

For most people, I think the answer is yes. Diagnil probably won't help highly talented solvers, frankly. For the rest of us, it can make a noticeable difference.

I personally have no desire to do diagramless puzzles on paper. There's enough uncertainty in the solving task that it's necessary to make choices speculatively during the early phases. As the structure of the puzzle becomes more apparent, those early choices might need to be adjusted, sometimes radically. This is where paper-based solving bogs down. Instead, Diagnil allows users to edit their work efficiently and painlessly.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you've ever found yourself saying, "I tried diagramless puzzles and they're not worth the trouble," you're just the sort of person Diagnil was made for. If you're a typical crossword enthusiast who's good with conventional puzzles yet never found diagramless crosswords attractive, this software could help you go diagramless.

5. I'm used to the way Across Lite works. Why can't Diagnil work the same way?

If you're a regular user of Across Lite or similar software applications, you will notice that using Diagnil differs in significant ways. The most important difference concerns how letters are entered on the grid. Instead of placing individual letters on the grid as you type them, Diagnil collects letters into words and uses word-based features to fill the grid. You might find this to be an indirect way to get the job done.

What Diagnil aims to provide is flexible manipulation of a partial solution as you work through the clues. With diagramless puzzles, early guesses about the location of words can turn out to be wrong. Being able to move items on the grid easily is important. Selecting and moving individual letters would be awkward, so words were chosen as the basic units of data entry and grid manipulation.

Another difference concerns file formats for saving puzzles. Diagnil can open files prepared in several different formats, but it saves files using its own format. Again, this is due to the demands of working in the diagramless domain. Across Lite ".puz" files can store only the assignment of letters to cells. With diagramless puzzles, we need to save richer, more complicated information about the intermediate state of a solution.

If at first you find these differences hard to get used to, please be patient and realize they serve a purpose.

6. What sources of diagramless puzzles are available?

Currently, sources of puzzles are limited primarily to the print media. Crossword magazines often publish around half a dozen diagramless puzzles along with their more numerous offerings of conventional puzzles. Many newspapers publish diagramless puzzles weekly, usually in their Sunday editions, such as those authored by Myles Mellor for Tribune Media Services. The New York Times offers monthly diagramless puzzles as part of their Premium Crosswords collection, which is available only by subscription. Those with access rights to NYT digital content can retrieve past diagramless puzzles from the Second Sunday puzzle archive.

Occasionally books containing compilations of diagramless puzzles are published, although these are fairly infrequent. A book of very nice diagramless puzzles by Brendan Emmett Quigley was published in late 2009. I highly recommend this book. If people express interest, maybe Brendan will post more diagramless creations on his web site.

As far as I know, there haven't yet emerged any significant online sources of diagramless puzzles. Some can be found at various Web sites, but overall these are scattered and often associated with tutorial introductions. If interest in diagramless should grow, authors and publishers might be encouraged to branch out and serve this niche market.

A database of previous NY Times puzzles is available for study. These puzzles aren't suitable for solving because the answers are filled in. They can be helpful, though, for those new to diagramless by showing some of the grid layouts that diagramless authors use.

This database was created by crossword blogger Jim Horne, who also has proposed the XPF crossword file format, which aims to be an open standard for distributing crosswords. For the curious, a technical description of XPF is available.

An even more comprehensive puzzle specification and file format (ipuz) was proposed by Roy Leban of Puzzazz, Inc. Besides being an open standard for distributing crosswords, ipuz is also a data format for other types of puzzles. For the curious, a technical description of ipuz is available.

Publishers and authors have not yet incorporated XPF or ipuz into their everyday operations. If these formats catch on, the open nature of these standards could encourage more online distribution of crosswords.

A few Web pages with collections of links to crossword-related sites might be helpful:

7. What about using Diagnil on standard crosswords?

Diagnil can be used on regular crosswords, i.e., puzzles distributed with normally visible grid layouts. If you open a puzzle in one of the supported file formats, and it was created as a regular puzzle, Diagnil will ask if you'd like to solve it diagramlessly. If so, it will proceed the way it does with a diagramless, namely, it will initially display nothing on the grid. You will then have the challenge of applying all of Diagnil's features to arrive at a solution as you would with a true diagramless puzzle.

Quasi-diagramless solving might appeal to crossword enthusiasts open to a different kind of puzzle experience. Regular crosswords have more predictable grid layouts, so word locations will be easier to guess. This attribute would allow for a smoother introduction and a possible practice technique for those just beginning to work with diagramless puzzles.

On the other hand, having more predictable layouts means you can choose to tackle puzzles with more difficult clues. Solvers who find typical diagramless clues too easy can take on crosswords as hard as they like by invoking Diagnil in this way. The result would be a crossword experience lying somewhere between conventional puzzles and the full-blown diagramless variety.

One caveat to bear in mind is that non-diagramless crosswords sometimes have special features such as circled letters, shaded squares and multiple letters per square. Diagnil doesn't support such features because they usually don't make sense in the diagramless case. If such a puzzle is opened, Diagnil might not interpret the grid structure as the author intended, making the results unpredictable. It's best to stick to standard crosswords that lack special grid features.