Hmmm… 4 letter word. “Pointers.” .. Oh! “Tips!”

A few weeks from now, we’ll be celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and in celebration, PuzzleNation Blog will be focusing on crosswords for the entire month of December!

And what better way to start than highlighting some tips for crossword solving?

Whether you’re diving right in with a Sunday New York Times puzzle or just picking up the Monday puzzle in your local paper (or the puzzle on one of those page-a-day calendars), here are some helpful hints to sharpen your solving skills.

–Puzzles in the newspaper tend to get harder as the week goes on. Saturday puzzles are usually the most difficult, so if you’re just starting out, Monday and Tuesday are excellent puzzles to try out.

–Whether you’re solving with pencil or pen, write softly. This will make it easier to erase mistakes or to write over them, depending on your writing implement of choice. Newspapers and puzzle magazines aren’t made from the hardiest paper, and it’s easy to tear a hole with an eraser unintentionally, or fill up a tiny square with one or two false starts.

–Don’t be afraid to use the margin to list possible answers before committing to filling in the grid. Some clues lend themselves to multiple interpretations — “cleave” could be a clue for “cling” or “split,” for instance — and sometimes it helps to keep potential answers nearby to be eliminated later.

–Remember, you don’t have to start at 1 Across and work your way through the list consecutively. Let your eyes jump around the clue list. Look for something you know.

–Look for quotation marks and blank spaces. Quotation marks usually indicate film, movie, or song titles, and blanks often involve completing titles or phrases. (A clue with quotation marks AND a blank is a prime candidate for early gimmes.)

–Similarly, keep your eyes peeled for hints within clues. A foreign word in a clue indicates a foreign word answer. An abbreviation hints at an abbreviated answer.

–Verb tense can be helpful as well. “Broke down” is past tense, so an -ed ending is likely. “Breaking down” implies an -ing ending, while “breaks” could mean an -s ending. (Be careful, though. Craftier constructors may use phrases as answers, so “appends” could have an answer like “tacks on.”)

–Keep an eye out for question marks, since these indicate that a pun, joke, or some form of wordplay is afoot. (For examples of some cunning clues, check out this collection of constructors’ favorite clues.)

From The West Wing:

Jed Bartlet: Three letters. “It may be bitter.” “Tea,” right?
Abbey Bartlet: “It may be bitter?”
Jed: Yeah.

Abbey: “End,” you idiot. “Bitter end.”

–Once you’ve placed a word you feel confident about, check the words nearby, especially the clues for words crossing your entry. Just one or two placed letters can make a big difference when figuring out other entries. Similarly, focusing on an individual section instead of the entire grid can make a puzzle less daunting.

–As you grow accustomed to solving crosswords, you’ll probably discover some words you only encounter while puzzle-solving. We refer to these words as “crosswordese,” and while many constructors have made a concentrated effort to eliminate crosswordese entries whenever possible, some invariably slip through the cracks. Familiarizing yourself with the worst offenders is often helpful.

–Keep solving!

It’s easy to get frustrated, especially if two proper nouns are crossing, or if you haven’t been able to suss out the theme of a given puzzle just yet, but don’t give up! Take a break for a few minutes, or invite someone to solve with you. Say a few clues out loud and see if that sparks anything.

Good luck and happy solving to you!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! Be sure to check out our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, featuring dozens of terrific puzzle books, games, and products!

You can also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at, or contact us here at the blog!

1 thought on “Hmmm… 4 letter word. “Pointers.” .. Oh! “Tips!”

  1. Pingback: It’s Follow-Up Friday: That Has a Name?! edition | Blog

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