Today’s puzzle marks a first for me at The Washington Post: a variety puzzle! It exists because I like to throw you curveballs every now and then. And this one has a meta to boot.

The puzzle is an expanded version of a “From A to Z” variety type; if that’s completely new to you, Brendan Emmett Quigley has written a handful of these over the years that you can download and print from his website (here, here, here, here, here, and here). I wrote one for my old website. Usually they’re themeless puzzles, or at least theme-light, but that’s not the case today.

We’ll walk through each one, and then I’ll show you the meta solution at the end.

Blank grids for the Aug. 12, 2018 variety puzzle, “Spell It Out: A Meta Hunt From A to Z”

The first part of the instructions read: “There are 25 answers in each of these variety crosswords, all beginning with a different letter. Fill in the missing first letter for each clue and transfer the letters to the corresponding numbered spaces for each puzzle. Note that the answers are not in the same order as the clues since no answer starts with the same letter as its clue.”

The meta instructions read: “The unused starting letters will spell a word that completes a set. That set hides a two-word device used in spelling out some words.” We’ll keep the meta in mind but for now, just look at Puzzle 1.

The first clue reads [__uwaiti export]. The blanked-out letter is a K, so fill in a K so that it reads [Kuwaiti export] and transfer that K to the box with the number 1. The second clue is [__enon, e.g. (2 wds.)]. Well, a couple of letters could fit in that space, like T or X, so skip that one and come back to it. The third clue is [__artridge cousins]; a C or a P could fit in that blank, although [Cartridge cousins] would be a pretty strange clue, so P is the more logical option — it’s certainly easier to imagine [Partridge cousins] as being a group of birds, or if this were a tougher clue, cousins of the Partridge Family on TV. But put a P in that blank space and transfer it to the box with the number 3.

When you have filled in the blanks for all clues and transferred them to the appropriate spaces in the grid, you should have used every letter except for one. The starting grid should look like this:

“Spell It Out,” unfilled Puzzle 1

Now, use the clues to figure out the answers and where each answer goes, keeping in mind that no clue starts with the same letter as its answer. The six-letter answer GN???Y beginning at box 11 seems like a good starting point since not many words have that letter pattern. It could be GNARLY. In fact, it is GNARLY. The clue [Very cool, in ’80s slang] matches that. Now maybe look at the six-letter answer Q??I?S beginning at box 7. There aren’t many words that fit that letter pattern either; there’s QUAILS, and the ring toss game QUOITS, but after that you’re getting into pretty obscure territory. Looking back at the clues, QUAILS would fit the clue [Partridge cousins].

It may take some trial and error, but the full grid for Puzzle 1 should look like this:

“Spell It Out,” Puzzle 1 solution

And that missing first letter appears to be a Z. So hold onto that.

Puzzle 2 may be a bit trickier than Puzzle 1 just because it has one answer where all you’re given is the first letter and nothing else crosses it, starting box 15. The #15 clue reads [__ame on photocopiers], and though there are theoretically many four-letter words that end with -ame, the most logical word to make a coherent clue is “Name.” So you have an N at box 15, but nothing else. When every other answer is filled in, the clue that matches the answer starting with N is [Xylophone score mark]. Well, it’s a four-letter word starting with N and has to do with music scores, so a reasonable guess there is NOTE. Indeed, that is the answer, though I can understand if that clue caused you to trip up a little. That was a lesson I learned the hard way: Never write a “From A to Z” puzzle without a clear plan for the clues beginning with high-value Scrabble letters such as X, Z, Q, and J. You can maybe get away with stretching some clues for the latter three letters, but the X really doesn’t give you much wiggle room. Here’s hoping you could still nail that one.

The solution to Puzzle 2 is below:

“Spell It Out,” Puzzle 2 solution

The unused starting letter is U. So we have Z-U-?-? as the first step in the meta … hmm.

In Puzzle 3, after filling in the clues’ starting letters, the grid gives you a pretty good starting point at the top with a six-letter answer with the pattern QU?B?C. Has to be QUEBEC, right? It is, and it matches the clue [Trois-Riviere’s province]. Puzzle 3 also features a rather unusual answer with a more obscure reference in the clues than anywhere else in the puzzle. Clue #18 reads [__oviet submarine class, or an ill-fated lover with an extra T]. That clearly begins with an S, but Soviet submarine classes are likely to be a less familiar subject than all other answers in the puzzle. The answer to that clue is JULIETT. We’ll come back to that, but my hope is that the added info made that clue easier.

Here’s the solution to Puzzle 3:

“Spell It Out,” Puzzle 3 solution

The unused starting letter is L, so through the first three puzzles we have Z-U-L-? for the first part of the meta. By now you can maybe predict what the next unused letter is, and perhaps what the overall meta is hinting at.

Puzzle 4 is the most wide-open of the four grids and features a clue that’s directly relevant to the meta. Clue #12 reads [__rossings, and where to find the meta answer]. That clue begins with a C. Now, look at the grid-spanning answer running down the middle of the puzzle that begins with an I. That’s likely to be thematic. What’s a 13-letter term that means crossings? INTERSECTIONS. So you need to focus on crossing answers to get to the meta answer.

Here’s Puzzle 4’s solution:

“Spell It Out,” Puzzle 4 solution

The unused starting letter is U.

That means the unused starting letters for all puzzles spell out ZULU, which “completes a set” per the instructions. Where does ZULU complete a set that might be relevant to a “From A to Z” puzzle? It may have taken some Googling if you’re not sure — or maybe you began sniffing it out based on the answers to the four puzzles — but ZULU is the last code word of the NATO phonetic alphabet. All of the other 25 code words of that alphabet can be found in the four grids, intersecting each other at specific places:

Solution to Aug. 12 variety metapuzzle, “Spell It Out: A Meta Hunt From A to Z”

Take all of the intersecting code letters in order from Puzzle 1 to Puzzle 4, and you get RADIO RECEIVER. That is something people use when they’re spelling out words using the NATO phonetic alphabet. That’s the answer to the meta.

This was one of the biggest constructing challenges of my puzzle-writing life, from initial idea to final clue. I spent several days just trying to find something relevant that would yield a usable phrase while crossing 25 NATO phonetic alphabet code words. It couldn’t have a W since WHISKEY is the only word in that alphabet with a W, so anything with WORDS was out. It couldn’t have a P since PAPA is the only word in that alphabet with a P, so a phrase with ALPHABET couldn’t work. Well, that’s mostly true. In some cases people spell the first word as ALPHA rather than ALFA, but the latter spelling is meant to help out Spanish speakers since “alpha” would not be pronounced the same way in Spanish as “alfa.” It’s the same situation with JULIETT. My initial grid for Puzzle 3 used JULIET, which English speakers would pronounce as “joo-lee-ett,” but French speakers would pronounce it as “joo-lee-ay.” I did agonize for a while whether I should leave that answer as JULIET, but I felt to be consistent with the alphabet’s standards I should use both ALFA and JULIETT. Don’t let anyone say there isn’t a method to my madness.

I hope you were able to solve this one and enjoy it. We’ll return to a normal crossword on Aug. 19.

As a final announcement, the Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament in New York City is next weekend on Aug. 18. If you’ll be there, come say hi to me, will ya?