Crossword puzzles are a traditional part of many daily newspapers. Since 1913, when Arthur Wynne published the first crossword puzzle in the New York World, puzzlers all over the world have delighted in these head-scratching games [source: Brief History of Crossword Puzzles]. And there's more to crosswords than fun; some studies have shown that regularly solving puzzles like crosswords or Sudoku can help improve your memory, and may even reduce mental decline in the elderly [source: Christie]. Crossword puzzles are also a great way to improve your vocabulary and general knowledge.
Some crosswords are simple, but some are most definitely not. The famous Sunday crossword puzzle of the New York Times is one of the hardest out there, and it isn't for the faint of heart. But don't despair -- there are plenty of tricks out there that can help turn you into a puzzle master. Remember, the harder the puzzle, the more satisfying it is when you fill in that final square.
Ready to dive in? Read on for the top 10 tips for solving crossword puzzles.
Work in Clusters of Columns
Crossword puzzles are a little like spiderwebs; each answer is connected to the others nearby to form a woven network of letters. Tugging on one string of letters affects all the others, too. Most crossword puzzles are naturally divided into several groups of up and down clues, connected to the other groups by longer answers. With that in mind, working through the puzzle one cluster of columns at a time -- as opposed to going through all of the across clues at once, followed by all of the down clues -- is a good strategy. Each word you fill in will help solve the others around it.
Pay Attention to Foreign-language Answers
On occasion, crossword puzzle crafters will draw on other languages for their answers. But how are you supposed to know whether the answer is in English or something else? You'll have to rely on the clue to tell you. If the wording of the clue references a specific city or country, or if part of the clue is in a foreign language, that's a pretty surefire indicator that your answer should be in that same language [source: Sayles]. Few crossword puzzle enthusiasts are actually fluent in the languages most often found in the clues, but a basic knowledge of articles, verbs and personal titles in some of the more common languages will go a long way. French, Spanish, German and Latin are particularly popular with puzzle crafters.
Start with What You Know Right Away
A popular strategy for test-taking is to go through all the questions and skip over the ones you don't know. And even though they aren't multiple-choice, you can do the same with crossword puzzles -- thankfully, without being graded at the end. Don't spend too much time tearing your hair out over a clue you just can't crack. Go on to the easy ones, because that strategy comes with a bonus: filling in the answers you know will provide letters for the ones you don't. That narrows down the possibilities significantly, especially for clues where more than one answer could apply.
Take a Break
Are you stuck with a half-finished puzzle and a spinning head? Don't let it stress you out -- crossword puzzles are meant to be challenging, but they're also supposed to be fun. It's perfectly fine to just walk away for a while. Unless you're competing at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there's no time limit, so don't go nuts trying to finish the puzzle on your lunch hour. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to take a break and clear your mind. Come back to it later, and you might be surprised at what jumps out at you.
Double-check Your Spelling
It happens to us all. If you stare at a word long enough, suddenly it just looks wrong -- even if it's a word you've been spelling correctly since junior high school. So it wouldn't be too strange to discover a misspelling amongst your answers, would it? Putting an "E" before an "I" instead of the other way around can throw off the other clues in that particular section of the puzzle. There will also be times when answers originally come from a language such as Arabic or Russian, whose alphabets are entirely different from the Latin alphabet most Western countries use. As a result, there are often a number of accepted spellings for these translated words. In those cases, the clue will usually include a parenthetical "var." to indicate that there is more than one established way to spell the word in question.
Carefully Consider Clues with Question Marks
Is there a puzzle clue giving you extra trouble? Does it have a question mark at the end? In the world of crosswords, a clue with a question mark means that particular clue demands a second look. Usually, that bit of punctuation is an indication that the clue itself is a play on words, as opposed to a straightforward question demanding an answer or a fill-in-the-blank [source: Sayles]. So, the most obvious answer probably isn't the correct one. Think about all possible meanings of the clue; you can always ruminate on it while you go on to other parts of the puzzle.
Figure Out the Theme
Lots of crosswords have a title that provides some insight into the theme of the puzzle. And, whether or not the puzzle has a title, it will almost always have a theme. Throughout the puzzle, the author will scatter answers that tie back into the theme. Those answers will usually be longer and contain more than one word. Frequently, the clues will be a play on the theme, so the connection might not be immediately obvious. Still, keeping the theme or title in mind as you go through the clues might provide some insight to lead you in the right direction.
Keep in Mind Multiple Meanings of Words
Let's call a spade a spade. But does that mean we're calling the spade a shovel -- or a suit of cards? Some words have not just one or two meanings, but several. If part of the puzzle isn't coming together, and one of the clues could have more than one answer, try them all out. Particularly, be on the lookout for words with multiple meanings in the question mark clues mentioned earlier. Puzzle composers and editors are a sneaky bunch; they'll use multiple meanings to throw would-be solvers off the scent. Thinking outside the box, both literally and figuratively, will help you finish the job.
Avoid Intersecting Unfamiliar Entries
Are you waffling between more than one possible answer, or maybe just taking a stab in the dark? There will always be times when you think you know what the answer is, but you can't be 100 percent sure. Do you take a chance and write in your guess, or not? If the answer in question intersects with yet another maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn't clue, skip it for the time being. Writing in wrong answers can lead you astray, especially if you're one of the brave souls who prefer to do the puzzle in pen. Instead, rely on the answers you know are correct to lead you back into safe territory.
Use a Reference Book
There's absolutely no shame in relying on a reference book. Some of the primary benefits of crossword puzzles are expanding your own knowledge and vocabulary. If you've solved all of the down clues in one cluster but one of the resulting across answers isn't a term with which you're familiar, pull your trusty Oxford English Dictionary off the shelf. You'll either find out that the word is correct and add something new to your phraseology, or you'll discover that some of your down answers need rethinking. Other reference books, like a thesaurus or encyclopedia, are equally useful. After all, if you knew every crossword answer without even trying, it wouldn't be as fun -- and you wouldn't have a new nugget of trivia to bandy about at cocktail parties.
For lots more information on crossword puzzles and other games, see the links on the next page.
Get comfy and let's test your knowledge of weird castles, crazy large numbers and embargoed snack foods.
Realted HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Website. (March 15, 2010)http://www.crosswordtournament.com/
- BlankCrosswordPuzzleTemplate.com. "Crossword Strategies." (March 17, 2010) http://www.blankcrosswordpuzzletemplate.com/category/crossword-stratergies
- Christie, Nancy. "Staying Sharp: Electronic Games and Exercises to Fight Memory Loss." EverydayHealth.com. Sept. 18, 2008. (March 17, 2010)http://www.everydayhealth.com/longevity/mental-fitness/brain-games.aspx
- Creadon, Patrick, dir. "Wordplay." The Weinstein Company. 2006. (March 23, 2010)
- Jensen, Sik Cambon. "Brief History of Crossword Puzzles." American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Website. Feb. 1997. (March 15, 2010)http://www.crosswordtournament.com/more/wynne.html
- The New York Times. "Wordplay: The Crossword Blog of the New York Times." (March 16, 2010)http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/
- Oxford English Dictionary. (March 24, 2010)http://www.oed.com/
- Sayles, Philip J. "Free Help in Solving Crossword Puzzles." Crossword Phrase Dictionary. (March 19, 2010)http://www.crosswordphrasedictionary.com/tips.asp