Hints and Tricks to Solve a Crossword

You don’t have to complete the crossword puzzles in my Crossword Mysteries Series to solve the mysteries in the books. The puzzles are just a fun bonus feature. Of course, if you don’t actually think crosswords are fun, then they’re just a plain old bonus feature that you can skip like you do the cinematographer’s commentary on a movie.

Crosswords might not seem fun to you because you’ve never really done them before. Much like running a marathon, which must be more fun to actually complete than just see pictures of, right? Right??

I’ve had people tell me they don’t do crossword puzzles because they don’t really understand them. They get that each square gets its own letter and the words cross up and down and left to right, but they’re unclear on how some of the clues work. There are rules to solving puzzles, but mostly they’re unwritten.

Until now! *sparkly confetti toss*

I thought I’d give very basic, generally true tips on how to solve a crossword—but constructors are tricky! Here are some tricky clues I’ve come across in various puzzles:

  • “Cheers, for one” — are they talking about the sitcom or a toast?
  • does “joint” refer to pot or prison?
  • is “Eats” a noun or verb … SUPS or GRUB?

The punny clues can make you laugh out loud or smack your head:

  • Irate novelist Anne? … STEAMED RICE
  • Actor Kevin from Quebec? … CANADIAN BACON
  • Farm butter? … RAM
  • Do the Wright thing? … AVIATE
  • It makes men mean … ANA (“an A” … get it??)
  • Lines at the store … UPCs
  • Sheepish girl? … EWE

I decided to make short videos using some of the puzzles I had piled up as examples.

This first one is from the syndicated King Crossword.

I’m including a photo of the clues because they’re a bit hard to read on the video.

The musical group I couldn’t think of was, of course, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. D’oh. I also wanted to mention about the form of the clue matching the answer, that goes for names or locations as well. If the clue was “Jodie’s role in Silence of the Lambs” then you know it has to be CLARICE, the first name of her character as well. In the video I say that the thing that makes a puzzle easier or harder is the way the clues are written, which is true, but not the entire story. Often the harder puzzles will have longer words and barely any black spaces. That makes the puzzle harder too. I talk about the clues that end in question marks, signifying a pun or joke of some kind. Those are some of my very favorite clues. I’ll often laugh out loud when I get the answer. Playing with language is probably the best part of solving crosswords.

The next one is from the Super Crossword. Related to “Gigi” in 21-Across that I talked about is “No, mein Herr” in 105-Across. That’s going to be “Nein.” Even if you don’t speak German you know they’re looking for the German word for “No.” Or “Pedro’s year” is going to be “Ano.” There’s not much room to write clues so they use shorthand like this, even though foreign words are kind of iffy for constructors. The general rule is that they have to be fairly common in usage for English speakers, or at least something you’d learn in a first year foreign language class. One thing I forgot to say is if a word is in a clue, it won’t be part of the answer. Like 67-Across is “folk knowledge.” The answer absolutely won’t be FOLKLORE. If the clue is “Puts thru beta testing,” the answer won’t be TESTS. That’s often handy information to have.

The third video is from a Monday New York Times crossword.

I didn’t explain that 9-Across [oh well] clue very well in the video. When you have quotations around a clue, that means it’s something someone would say. (Of course, if the quotation marks are around capitalized words, then you know it’s a title.) But when you have brackets around a clue, that means it’s something unspoken. [Oh well] is what you mean when you sigh, so the answer would be SIGH. If the clue was [Hey, buddy], the answer might by PSST because that’s the noise you make when you beckon someone. The brackets are the clue inside the clue.

After I did the video, I completed the puzzle and wanted to show you the clever theme we talked about with 57-Across, the “revealer” clue. You can see the answer to 57-Across is JUSTAPHASE. Now look at the hints the revealer points you to … GAS, SOLID, PLASMA, LIQUID. They’re all JUSTAPHASE of matter. See how themes and revealers work? Fun, right? Not every puzzle has a theme, and not all theme puzzles have revealer clues, but you know them when you see them!

And the last video is from the much more difficult Sunday New York Times crossword.

I don’t have anything else to add to the video commentary except … don’t be afraid of crossword puzzles! They are excellent ways to keep mentally sharp because you’re joining up new synapses in your brain every time you see a common word in a new light or you learn a new word.

If you’re just beginning, use a pencil and erase as much as you need to. I go through and fill in all the answers I know, across and down. When you go back to the beginning, words will have begun to take shape. One thing I’ve learned not to do is take a wild stab and write it in because then that becomes all you can see for that entry. Hold back if you can until you get more squares filled in. If you have to walk away from the puzzle, do so! Your subconscious continues to work on the puzzle and when you come back, you’ll probably have more than one “Duh!” moment.

As you gain confidence and skill, try using pen. If you think you know 1-Across, get in the habit of mentally checking with the Downs to see if it fits. If one or more Downs agree, go ahead and ink it in … you’re probably right!

I’d love it if you’ve never done a crossword before to at least try one of mine. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the world’s best constructor, but I get a tad better with each puzzle. (I wrote a post about constructing puzzles, and all the mistakes and tribulations I encounter.)

If, on the other hand, you like working crossword puzzles, and want to be one of my crossword testers, just email me!

So tell me … are you a fan of crosswords? Hate ’em? Never done one? Did you just need a nudge to send you into the deadly and treacherous* world of word games and now you’re a hopeless word junkie always jonesing for your next fix?

*not deadly or treacherous

2 thoughts on “Hints and Tricks to Solve a Crossword”

  1. I like crossword puzzles but I’m not great at solving them. I used to buy the monthly Dell crossword puzzle books, but haven’t lately. Maybe I will try again! I can’t wait to start your new series.

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