Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!

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Clueless? Not these folks!

If you saw the clue “poultry sum,” would you deduce the answer was “CHICKEN FEED?” What about the clue “Spanish root word?” Would you write “OLE” in the grid?

Clever cluing is the lifeblood of great crosswords. No matter how crafty a given puzzle’s theme, no matter how challenging or playful the entry words, crosswords live and die on their clues. And there’s a real art to creating a great clue.

I have a few clues in my personal files that I’m pretty proud of, ones that employ wordplay or pop culture references in an interesting way.

In the past, I’ve used “Locksmith?” for “HAIRDRESSER,” and I’ve previously clued the entry “TELL-ALL” as “Book of revelations?” Both of them employ just enough wordplay to appease my inner pun-loving wordnerd.

With that spirit in mind, I reached out to a few of my fellow puzzlers and asked them to contribute some of their favorite clues, either that they’ve created or that they’ve seen in other puzzles.

Los Angeles Times Crossword contributor Patti Varol wrote one of my all-time favorite clues — “Baa nana?” for “EWE” — so I was eager to see which clues she was most proud of.

She offered “In a glass by itself” for “NEAT,” which is great, as well as the playful “‘Egads,’ like, way updated” for “OMG.”

Patti also recommended a clue for “SPELLS” from the August edition of the Crosswords Club: “Breaks down in English class?”

New York Times Crossword contributor Ian Livengood also suggested a fellow puzzler’s work, stating that Jeremy Horwitz delivered “Bum rap?” as a dynamite clue for “BABY GOT BACK” in a Times puzzle.

LA Times Daily Crossword editor Rich Norris provided a cagey clue for “MOMENT”: “Second cousin?”

Several puzzlers from Penny Press were happy to lend some of their favorite clues as well.

Crossword guru Eileen Saunders plucked a few choice ones from her Rolodex for us, including “Mouse sound?” for “CLICK,” “Fir coat” for “BARK,” “Support system?” for “BRA,” and “Flip one’s lid” for “BLINK.”

(Patti also recommended one of Eileen’s clues, citing “Spot remover” for “DOGCATCHER,” echoing Eileen’s inclusion of “Labrador retriever?” for “DOGWARDEN” as one of her favorites.)

Puzzle editor Keith Yarbrough offered up some nimble wordplay as well, including “Feat of Klee” for “ART,” “Bean dip” for “NOD,” “Bach’s lunch” for “WURST,” “Kid, napped” for “SUEDE,” and “Thyme and thyme again” for “HERBS”.

All of these clues show the ingenuity, intelligence, and whimsy that are inherent to truly fun and engaging puzzlemaking, and I’d like to thank my fellow puzzlers for sharing some of their best with us today. Keep up the great work!