puzzle master’s blog

How to solve crossword puzzles.

I love the challenge of solving crossword puzzles but I used to hate it when I had to abandon the puzzle because I couldn’t fill in all the squares. If you’ve ever encountered the same frustration, here are ten tips to help you solve crosswords like a puzzle master. I’ll help improve your crossword-solving skills and dramatically increase your chances of completing even the most challenging crossword puzzle.

NOTE: Included with these crossword puzzle solving tips are some illustrative examples of clues and answers taken from the clues and answers in one of our 15×15 puzzles that has the theme of Springtime.” Also, when you get to the end of the tips, we have placed a button that you can click to play another themed 15×15 crossword online, to test out the tips in real time. For now, this is what the Springtime 15×15 puzzle grid and list of clues for this 15×15 looks like.

1. Establish footholds

Most solvers “start at the beginning” of the crossword, in the upper left corner of the grid, and go from there. That seems logical, but too many puzzle solvers think they have to complete that part before moving on to the rest of the puzzle. I find it better to just take a quick glance at that corner of the puzzle. If everything falls into place there, fine; but I prefer to move on and scan through the rest of the puzzle, looking for footholds (small groupings of answers I can get right away) that I can use to build on.

2. Don’t let yourself get bogged down

Once you’ve completed all you can to build on a foothold, begin to work on another foothold area of the puzzle, and come back to this part later. I do that a lot. It keeps my frustration at a minimum and my attitude positive since now I’m looking for opportunities, rather than wasting my time at a temporary roadblock. And, when you come back to an area later, you will be looking at the problem with “fresh eyes,” eyes that might be able to see now a solution that had eluded you earlier.


3. Eliminate as many “unlettered” entries as possible

Very few of us have such a wealth of knowledge and quickness of mind that we are able to fill in every entry in a crossword on the first pass. Especially without the assistance of some of the letters of the entry already filled in. Think of how much easier it is to figure out that the answer to “8 Across – chasm” is ABYSS if you see on the grid _BY_ _ instead of 5 blanks. So, how does one populate the grid with helpful letters? See the following two tips.

4. Take the low-hanging fruit right away

You know what I am talking about: those clues that you can figure out in a flash. Find ‘em and fill ‘em in fast! Each one of these can become the beginning of a new foothold to build on. Examples from the Springtime 15×15:

31A. “Truth __________ (drug employed by the bad guys in a spy movie).” Answer: SERUM.

41A. “40 winks.” Answer: NAP.

25D. “You’ll __________ the day . . . !” Answer: RUE.

42. “A __________turner (book that’s exciting to read).” Answer: PAGE.

5. While you’re at it, grab every other crumb you can see

While not all plurals of nouns are formed by tacking an -s on at the end of the word (e.g., the plural of man is not mans, but men), in fact, most are formed with an -s at the end. So, feel free, when you see a clue that indicates the answer is a plural, to put a tentative S in the square the word ends on. That S might be the start or middle letter in the entry that crosses with the plural word and, as such, can help you find the answer to that cross-entry. Example, if the S is the second letter of a three-letter word for poisonous snake, ASP quickly comes to mind. Same with entries that the clue suggests are past-tense verbs (most of them end in -ed) or third-person-singular verbs (they end in -s too). And, there is a good chance that clues ending in -ing likely have answers ending in -ing. Filling in the potential S, ED, and ING squares tentatively gives you more chances to create footholds.

Below is the puzzle grid for the Springtime 15×15 with some of the easier-to-figure out answers and each -S and -ED word filled in. (Click the image below to see). With these squares filled in, you can graphically see where you have opportunities to create solid footholds from which you can begin filling out the surrounding words that cross what’s already is filled in. If you focus your efforts on these areas with letters already filled in, you will create little islands of filled squares that, as they grow, will eventually connect with one another. And, when that happens, the tough entries become gettable.

Click to expand. Click “X” to close.

6. Take the hints

Be on the look-out for obvious and not-so-obvious directional hints contained in the clues. If you see “Abbr.” or “Init.” tacked on at the end of the clue, it tells you the answer is an abbreviation like TSP or a set of initials like LSD. Or, more subtly, a clue that, itself, uses one or more abbreviations might well be asking for the abbreviated form of a word. Example: The answer to a clue that reads “Large mil. grp.” is DIV, which is an abbreviation of division. Some other examples of subtle directional hints in clues from the Springtime 15×15:

30D. [“Over Here!”] The brackets indicate that the answer isn’t a word that you find in a dictionary, but a sound. In this case, the answer is PSST!

40A. Pitcher’s stat. “Stat” is short for statistic, which suggests that the answer is the shortened version of the term sought. In this case, the answer is ERA, short for earned run average.

64A. Arles a. You will see this a lot in crosswords when the answer is a word in a foreign language. Arles is a city in France, so the clue is asking for the French word for the indefinite article “a.” The answer: UNE. Similarly, For the clue, “Night, in Nogales,” the answer is NOCHE. Or, for the clue “Mr. in Mannheim,” the answer is HERR.

Puzzle constructors also add more substantive hints in their clues, which you want to be on the look-out for as well. Examples from the Springtime puzzle:

61D. Capital on a fjord. Where does one find fjords? Norway. What is the capital of Norway? Answer: OSLO.
5A. Berth place. “Berth” can be a verb meaning to dock a boat. That part of a pier where a boat can be docked is called a SLIP.
45A. Grads’ awards (many of which end up being framed). The big hint here is in the parenthetical phrase. What can be framed? A piece of paper. What pieces of paper would be considered to be awards to the graduates of a school? The answer is their DIPLOMAS.
40A. All-American dessert. What’s more American than APPLE PIE?

Click to expand. Click “X” to close.

7. Danger: Misleading clue ahead

On the other hand, be on the look-out for clues that are intentionally or unintentionally misdirecting. I have done it a million times: read a clue one way, forgetting that it can be read another. Example from the Springtime 15×15:
29D. Draft picks. The clue is not asking about football players being selected by professional teams, it is asking about what saloons serve on draft. So, the answer is ALES.



8. Pay attention to those question marks

Occasionally, you will see a clue like “8 Across – Bad start?” or “9 Down – Crude group?” Those question marks don’t mean that the puzzle constructor is unsure whether the clue is a valid clue; rather, those question marks are signals that the clues are very misleading. What the puzzle constructor is doing is engaging in a little word play. You’ll have to think outside the box to solve them. I like these sorts of clues because, even though they can be challenging, it adds to the fun when you are able to figure them out. So, the answers to 8 Across and 9 Down? MAL and OPEC, respectively. Another example from the Springtime 15×15:
60A. Repeat performance? The answer is ECHO, because the essence of an echo is that it repeats a sound being uttered. Tricky, yes; unfair, no.

9. “Crosswordese” words

We hate them, but we must work around them occasionally. If you have never tried constructing a crossword puzzle, I can tell you that it is a very difficult proposition. Why is it so difficult? Because as the puzzle creator, you have to get (in the typical 15×15 puzzle) about 37 horizontal words to mesh perfectly with about 37 vertical words. No overlapping or orphan letters that have no crossing word. It can take hours of hard labor in the best of circumstances to lay out a crossword. Then, if one wants the long entries of the puzzle to have a common theme, things get much more complicated, as one’s options for across/down word combinations become severely restricted. Click on the grid below to see the theme entries in the Springtime 15×15.”

Click to expand. Click “X” to close.

The point of this lament is that, sometimes (but very rarely, maybe once in every hundred entries), to put together a themed puzzle, the constructor has to rely on “crosswordese.” This is the use of words you likely will never read in a novel or newspaper, but if you check the dictionary, by gum, they are valid words. A good example is the crosswordese word used in 62 Across in the Springtime 15×15—ADIT. The clue defines it as “mine entrance,” which essentially is what the dictionary says. However, unless you are in the mining industry, it’s a term you never will hear or see used. 

So, how do you, as a crossword solver, deal with the fact the occasionally you will bump into words you’ve never used and never will use? Well, don’t tear up the crossword and throw it away — instead, cut the constructor some slack for trying to provide a delightful theme that adds some pizazz to the puzzle. Beyond that, once you realize that you are dealing with a crosswordese entry, just move on. Then, after you’ve worked around it and filled in all its blank spaces with crossing words. file it away in your memory bank for future reference. Because ADIT consists of four commonly-used letters, there’s a good chance you will see it raise its sorry head in some other crossword in the future. When I started working crosswords, it seemed like obscure words were more common back then, and so I kept a small notebook listing the ones I had encountered.

10. Be patient, you’ll get it yet

Sometimes, you’ll have completed all but one corner of the crossword and racked your brain trying to find the solution to this last part of puzzle but are at a dead-end. My advice—walk away from it for a while and let your mind reset. It is amazing what some patience can accomplish. In my own battles with the sometimes devilishly difficult Saturday New York Times crossword, more than once, I have slept on it overnight, and then the next day looked at that ugly little circle of empty squares and, within a few seconds, figured out all six or seven missing entries.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. My take, based on four decades of solving crosswords and two decades of constructing them, on how to become a master at solving crosswords. My hope is that you find these tips useful and that, with them at your disposal, your frustration level will plummet and you’ll have more fun working the puzzle. Heck, you might even begin to feel confident enough to start doing the puzzles in ink!

A caveat though: These tips are based on my subjective experience, learning as I have gone along, through trial and error, about what works and doesn’t work for me. What works for me might not work for you. Or, you might have developed even better tactics and strategies for mastering crosswords that I may have missed. Either way, we at Your Puzzle Source would love to hear about it; so please email me at phil@yourpuzzlesource.com or contact us at https://yourpuzzlesource.com/contact-us/ to give us your thoughts on the value of these tips and/or alert us to other techniques you successfully use to conquer the crossword grid. And, good luck solving your next crossword!

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We’d love to hear if any of these 10 tips were new to you. And, do you have any you’d like to share with the community?