To the uninitiated, crossword puzzles are opaque, enigmatic black holes into which intellectual self-esteem is swallowed. Ah, but it doesn't have to be this way! With a bit of strategy and effort, anyone can solve a crossword puzzle — even the legendary crossword from The New York Times.
Turns out, crossword puzzles aren't akin to IQ tests. Nor are they reliant on a massive vocabulary arsenal. The key is to understand the universe in which the puzzle — and its clues — operates.
Let's start with some advice from the Gray Lady herself. If you're a beginning puzzler, start with the Monday crossword and stick with Mondays until you gain some mastery. Why? Each day of the week, from Monday onward, The New York Times' crossword puzzle becomes more difficult, culminating in the most challenging of all: Saturday's crossword. Think Sunday's crossword is even more challenging? Not so. The Sunday puzzle typically has a midweek difficulty rank.
Here are five tips from some experts that will certainly help you to hone your crossword solving skills. So sharpen your pencil or, if you're really brave, pull out your pen, and let's get to solving:
1. Know the Lingo
For starters, you'll want to familiarize yourself with a few crossword basics. For example, if an abbreviation is called for, you'll see "abbr." If you see the word "letters" as a clue, it refers to an abbreviation. For example, if "hospital ward's letters" is the clue, then "ICU" could very well be the answer.
Here are a few more examples of hidden messages in crossword clues that will help direct you to the proper answer:
Question mark: A question mark at the end of a clue means that it shouldn't be taken at face value. The answer is likely to be a red herring or misdirection — probably a pun, or some other type of wordplay.
Pairings: Pairings often use the word "partner." For example, if the clue is "cause partner," then "effect" may be the answer — because people often pair together the words "cause and effect."
Perhaps or maybe: The clue is meant to be an example of the answer. For example, a clue that reads "sign direction, perhaps" may be "stop" because sometimes signs are stop signs; "keep cold, maybe" might be "refrigerate."
Slang: The answer will often be a slang word if you see the word "familiarly" in the clue. For example, if the clue is "enjoyed, familiarly" a three-letter answer would be "dug."
2. Preserve the Tense
Pay attention to the tense in which the clue is given. A clue of "trade cross words" would have an answer that also is in the present tense, which means that "bicker" or "argue" would be potential answers, depending on the number of spaces available.
To complicate matters, this advice doesn't always hold true. The answer could be in another grammatical tense. If the clue is "nurse," the answer could simply be the noun form of this word: "caregiver." Or, it could be a verb that may not seem as closely associated, such as "breastfeeding" or, as in the case of crying into one's beer, "nursing."
If you encounter a homonym, this signals that the answer will be spelled or pronounced like the clue, but will vary in its meaning. The word, "lead" may refer to metal or an action verb, like "lead" the horse.
3. Start With the Easy Ones
If all this seems rather confusing, take heart. Becoming a solver simply means thinking your way into the puzzle, and you will get better at this over time. Focus first on the short answers and the ones with easily understandable clues. Don't worry about finishing an entire puzzle until you have the short answers down and can replicate your success several times. Why? These short answers are often replicated from puzzle to puzzle and eventually you will learn to recognize them.
When you begin a new puzzle, scan the clues for answers that seem obvious. Pencil (or type) those in, paying close attention to fill-in-the-blank clues, abbreviations and the like.
"I always speed through it on first pass," says Nate Runkel, editor-in-chief of Yo That's My Jawn and an avid puzzler. "Don't get hung up on a clue. Read it, and if you don't know it right away, skip to the next one. Let the second pass be the one where you read and think. That first pass will fill in some letters on the opposite directions that will assist in better identifying the right word on the second."
4. Leverage Your Answers
Once you have a good start on the crossword, confirm your answers by trying to solve the clue that intersects with them. If you answered "cat" to the clue "black Halloween animal," but find that the crossing word doesn't fit with this answer, rethink your options. The answer could be "bat" instead.
Conversely, you can use this "crossing" method to help solve clues that have you stumped.
"Even if you can't fill in the word entirely, fill in what you can," says Brian Donovan, CEO of Timeshatter. "For example, if you know that the answer has to either be 'hats' or 'caps,' fill in the "_a_s" since you are certain about those two letters. This might help you solve the surrounding words more easily."
5. Use Outside Resources
Even The New York Times recommends looking up answers to clues you can't solve. Crosswords are, after all, a game. And games are meant to be both engaging and entertaining — not maddening. There are several online guides that offer answers.
Collaboration is another option. While you may have a depth of knowledge in a certain area, such as medicine, a friend may be a classical music afficionado. Pairing up could be of great benefit to you both.
"If you get stuck, you can ask friends to help you solve it," says James Green, owner, Build A Head, who also recommends tenacity. "The more you do crosswords, the better your mind will be at solving them."