Crossword Puzzle Solving Tips

Crossword puzzles can drive you crazy. Here are some tips to help you maintain your sanity, solve more puzzles, and learn a little something as you go.

Crossword puzzle designers do not actually intend to drive you batty. But it sure can seem that way when they achieve their goal of creating a puzzle challenging enough that you'll feel proud of solving it. If you want to enhance your crossword enjoyment while minimizing the risk to your sanity, try out some of the following strategies.

As with any activity, the best way to improve your skills is to solve a lot of crosswords. Most newspapers publish a new one every day. If one a day isn't enough, you can pick up published collections at most grocery stores and newsstands. Also, some web sites offer free crosswords you can solve online. These often include such features as "reveal word" buttons and error highlighting to help you learn as you go.

Since the crossword puzzle designer does want you to eventually solve the puzzle, you'll always find a few super-easy "gimme" clues to help you get started. Fill-in-the-blank phrases (e.g. "___ we there yet?") often perform this duty, as do references to famous people ("The Pit And The Pendulum writer"), classic stories ("what Peter Pan has lost"), and pop music ("love potion's number"). Scan through the clues for no-brainers like these first thing.

You can also look for "favorite words," those clues that crossword puzzle creators use repeatedly. "Aloe" is a common repeat offender, announced by clues such as "drug-producing plant" and "first-aid herb." Another regular is the Israeli airline, El Al. Whichever crossword series you frequent, you'll soon learn which are its author's favorite clues.

If you get stumped for a particular answer, see if you can deduce any of its letters. If the clue points to a singular, present-tense verb or a plural noun, odds are the letter will end in an "s." The clue "compass direction" can often be solved by process of elimination; pencil in "ESE" or "NNW" and see what it does for your cross-clues. Developing an eye for this sort of inevitability.

You should also develop an appreciation for those awful puns signaled by clues ending in question marks. For instance, one Yahoo! Games clue is "Staff in a mess?" "Mess" refers to an army post's mess hall, which is "staffed" by people on kitchen patrol duty: KPs. Another example, this one from a Universal Press Syndicate crossword, is "It's spoken from the hip?" The answer is "Slang," the language spoken by "hip" people.

Often a puzzle will have a theme, either announced by the crossword's title or left for you to discover as you go. Sometimes that theme is a single long quote or well-known phrase split up over several extra-long answers, as in a Yahoo! Games puzzle entitled "Domestic Problem." 8-Across is "Start of a quip about a domestic problem by H. H. Munro". Four other Across clues finish up the quip. Another theme style shows up in the Universal Press Syndicate crossword entitled "The Heat's Getting To Me." The title refers to a pattern of heat-related puns: 20-Across, "TV Producer's hot daughter?" turns out to be "Torrid Spelling," and 54-Across, "Cinderella's hot benefactor?" becomes "Fiery Godmother." Knowing the theme of the crossword gives you an extra clue towards these pieces of the puzzle.

Remember that it's not cheating to fall back on your reference library, especially if you learn something in the process. Many crossword puzzlers keep a dictionary and an atlas on hand. If you're solving a puzzle online, you've got the entire World Wide Web at your disposal. Your bookmarks might include and, useful for finding quotes and looking up words by wild-card pattern, respectively. And you can increase your knowledge in all sorts of subjects as you go. In the process of solving the Yahoo! Games puzzle referenced above, I searched for quotes by H. H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and had a great time sampling his wit. Another puzzle, the one from Universal, led me to a WebMuseum page about Swiss painter Paul Klee. If you take the time to do a little reading for every clue you look up, you'll not only have an easier time remembering the fact next time a crossword puzzle calls for it, you'll also know more that you did before. This kind of educational tangent is one of the perks of the crossword puzzle pastime.

Lastly, having a fellow puzzler by your side can make the crossword puzzle an even more enjoyable experience. You'll bring twice the knowledge bank to the table, you'll have an extra pair of hands for trips to the encyclopedia, and, most importantly, you'll have a friend to groan along with you at all the bad puns.

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