Both of the above came with some brutally hard, yet really well done puzzles. The best part of each? They were ultimately solvable with deducible steps and logical conclusions. I know this seems like an extremely basic premise, but too often I find myself floundering for an answer--trying different methods that I think might exist--not sure if the 'answer' I've arrived at is the intention.
"Does it use shorthand? Do I further manipulate this string of letters? How did I get here?"
I should clarify... this is not (always) the puzzle maker's fault. I'm the one not acting with purpose in these situations.
When solved correctly, a puzzle should leave very little doubt when you have cracked it or are at least on the right track. The above puzzles not only really hammered home the importance of pattern recognition, but also emphasized the follies of not acting with purpose. Some takeaways:
Basics: Do the elements of a puzzle all have a common feature? Can I find a common feature that allows me to group elements? For one puzzle, one batch of twelve words all had exactly one 'O.' Recognizing that all of the words shared this feature ended up being extremely important to the solution where the position of the various O's proved to be important.
Do multiple elements have the same quantity? If I find 10 of one thing and 10 of another, it's a good bet that they may work together eventually. One might order the other. Or perhaps we'll be using A to decode B.
Lastly, do the elements of the puzzle add up to a recognizable figure? Often we'd see 26 of something show up. You should at least consider those will correspond to A-Z. 12 is another good one. Time, months, zodiac could all come into play as an ordering technique. (I do hate zodiac though... so many possible significances. Signs, elements, traits, months, ordering... which brings us to:)
Why are you doing what you're doing? Did the puzzle tell you to use an acrostic? Did the puzzle even tell you to reorder things? This was one that we fell for multiple times. For example: one puzzle paired a list of 12 names with zodiac symbols, so we immediately reordered by zodiac. Later, we realized that the zodiac symbols were merely helping us to derive the zodiac signs for a later purpose. After doing that we missed the answer because we had reordered the data with no reason to do so.
Does the wording of the puzzle imply any sort of method. Back to the significant O positions from the previous section. That puzzle was called Torus... why use a simple first letter acrostic when you can pull letters using O's as implied by the name?
Some of the trickier puzzles will also provide sneaky directions in the phrasing used. Words like "muddle," "glean," "follow," could all be directions that might be worth acting on.
Is there a way to confirm that what I'm doing is correct? A common method that shows up is subtly hinting at the number of letters in your answer is correct. For one puzzle, Alinea did this with a 'flavor chart.' 3 stars of flavor ended up being RAM for Aries.
Labor Day had some interesting confirms as well. Essentially a crossword on drugs, sometimes the answers were quite hard to deduce. When we would find one that was missing a letter it was almost certainly the wrong answer. However, they played with patterning the missing letters to emphasize that you actually weren't off base. In this case the missing letters ended up being A, B, C, D, E, F in order to be used later.
There's more to be said for sure, but this is a batch of things that cross my mind when I find myself brute forcing yet another cipher or letter pull. Is this the most sensible method? Is this really what the puzzle maker intended?