- Crossword puzzles have you solve clues to fill in words, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
- It might help to stick to one kind of puzzle at first before branching out.
- If you see an exclamation point in a clue, it’s usually a signal that something cryptic is going on.
If you’ve ever attempted a crossword puzzle, you know that the clues can be confusing and the format can be downright baffling.
In order to help both veteran and beginner solvers tackle challenging puzzles, INSIDER spoke to crossword expert Shuchismita Upadhyay, author of Crossword Unclued, a website for cryptic crossword solvers and setters.
Here are a few tricks that can help you solve even the toughest crossword puzzles.
First, you should figure out what kind of crossword puzzle you’re dealing with.
Unfortunately for novice solvers, crossword puzzles don’t come in a dizzying array of flavours. Each requires its own strategy, so be sure you know what kind of puzzle you’ve encountered.
Upadhyay explained that puzzles can be “straight” or “cryptic,” based on the types of clues provided. The way the blank letter spaces are arranged can also vary– some puzzles feature large blocks, while others use bars or a freeform design to organise the grid.
Lastly, Upadhyay noted that puzzles have different “setting” gimmicks. These can range from themes to which that all the clues adhere and even puzzles that allow the solver to use more than one letter per square.
The most common types of crosswords are American-style (a straight, blocked grid with higher checking) or British-style (cryptic, blocked or barred grid).
Before trying to plug in your answers, make sure you identify the kind of puzzle in front of you.
It might help to stick to one kind of puzzle at first before branching out.
Even though all almost crossword puzzles are based around a system of clues and answers, the wide variety of puzzle types can sometimes be discouraging to newbies. If you’re looking to increase your crossword confidence, it might be a good idea to pick a particular style to practice.
If you’re looking to get better at British-style crosswords, Upadhyay recommended checking out The Guardian or The Independent for free interactive puzzles. You can also follow their solutions on Fifteensquared.
Pay attention to words in clues that could have multiple meanings.
In cryptic crosswords, a setter – i.e. the person who created the puzzle – will often try to disguise a clue’s real meaning with a misleading surface interpretation.
“For example, the word ‘setter’ need not be a reference to the puzzle’s author – it could be a dog, a jeweller, or a winding street,” offered Upadhyay.
Keep a close eye on grammar and watch for anagrams.
Sometimes even the smallest details in a clue, such as an apostrophe or comma, can make all the difference when it comes to finding the solution. Upadhyay illustrated this point by pointing to the clue, “It’s fixed with a red pin, not yellow.”
“To the uninitiated, this might seem to be about an object with oddly specific pin colour requirements. Far from it – the answer to this clue is actually ‘intrepid,'” he explained.
If you pay close attention to the grammar and words used in the clue, you’ll soon see that “it” is fixed (or arranged) with “red pin” to give a word that means “not yellow,” i.e. unafraid.
If you see an exclamation point in a clue, it’s usually a signal that something cryptic is going on.
A clue that contains an exclamation point or a question mark usually warrants a closer look. When these two punctuation marks appear, they usually signal the presence of cryptic answer or some intricate wordplay.
Sometimes the entire puzzle has a surprise element to it that is signalled by the use of an exclamation point. For example, the 1996 New York Times Election Day Crossword predicted the result of the election before the actual ballots had been counted. The puzzle could be solved with two different sets of solutions, leading to declarations of either “CLINTON ELECTED” or “BOB DOLE ELECTED.”
Resist the urge to look up the answers too early.
When you’ve been struggling to piece together a puzzle for hours or even days, it can be extremely tempting to look up the answers online.
“Solutions are very useful for understanding what you missed, but give yourself a fair chance before you reach out for them. If you want to improve your game, you have to work out the solution yourself!” Upadhyay told INSIDER.
Though interactive crossword grids often let you reveal letters or words and fully annotated solutions are just a click away, make sure you’ve given it your best shot before harvesting the answers from the internet.
Start with the easy stuff, then tackle the harder clues.
One of the key things that puzzle solvers should keep in mind is to start with the easy clues before rushing to tackle the difficult stuff.
“Find a foothold in the grid – actively look for the long entries, the easy anagrams, the helpful checking letters. Once you have cracked a portion of the grid, it will be easier to spread out from there,” advised Upadhyay.
Try to use your knowledge of parts of speech and common spelling patterns to your advantage.
When you’re solving puzzles, it can be helpful to remember common spelling patterns and the way words typically fit together.
For example, you probably would expect the appearance of a long string of consonants on your puzzle to signal a mistake somewhere, as most English words have vowels disrupted fairly regularly within them.
“This can help you guess the trailing letters of the answer, e.g. ED, -S, -ING, which can give you possible letters for the crossing clues,” Upadhyay pointed out.
It’s also good to remember that if you have an “x” in the second letter slot, the first letter is likely to be a vowel.
The best way to get better at crossword puzzles is to practice.
If you really want to master the art of crossword puzzles, you’ll have to devote some serious time and energy into working your way through as many puzzles as you can get your hands on.
“Solve a lot – that’s the most effective way to learn! Many good quality puzzles are available online, and there are blogs that discuss their solutions,” urged Upadhyay.
Checking your answers using online resources or the insights of fellow crossword fans will help you figure out the techniques that work best for you. And above all, remember to keep at it.
“Nobody becomes an expert solver overnight. We all start with staring at blank grids and scratching our heads. If you are interested and persistent, you will get better with time,” he said.
Don’t let yourself get too frustrated with a puzzle – taking a break usually helps.
If the solutions to a particular puzzle are eluding you and you find yourself getting hot under the collar, try stepping away and coming back to the puzzle later.
“The maxim ‘sleep on it’ applies to difficult puzzles too. Taking a break helps to remold your pattern of thinking and gives you fresh ideas for arriving at the solution,” advised Upadhyay.
The whole point of solving crossword puzzles is to have fun. Upadhyay recommended treating the puzzle as a gentle pastime, not a test of skill.
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