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 PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

Puzzles in Pop Culture: The West Wing

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped classic episodes of M*A*S*H and MacGyver, as well as the numerous puzzly plotlines that’ve been featured on The Simpsons over the years.

But when it comes to erudite, hilarious references to solving crosswords, you’d be hard-pressed to find sharper puzzle-infused dialogue than the moments featured in episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s landmark political drama The West Wing.

Set in the West Wing of the White House, the show focused on the lives of the president and his advisors and staffers as they navigated political situations at home and abroad. To this day it’s a regular feature on most reviewers’ lists of the top television shows of all-time.

And in a show noted for sparkling wit and all kinds of intellectual wordplay, it’s hardly a surprise that the New York Times Crossword was referenced in the very first episode.

In the video below, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is frustrated with the Times for misspelling the name of Muammar Qaddafi, and his attempts to contact the editor of the Times Crossword and get it corrected are stymied at every turn:

The White House staff’s dubious relationship with crosswords is revisited in the season 3 episode Dead Irish Writers. This time around, as the president’s wife Abbey prepares for both a birthday party and a potential ruling on her medical license, the President busies himself with a crossword in his own inimitable style:

Beyond the spirited humor of both scenes, there’s a marvelous undercurrent of how smart people react when their intellectual superiority is challenged. Leo responds by trying to correct what he sees as an egregious error, while the President bends the rules to suit his own expectations.

In addition to being a wonderful launchpad for the show’s signature rapid-fire banter, it’s a simple and effective way of shedding light on how each character views the world and his role in it. (With writing and direction this layered and engaging, it’s easy to see how The West Wing earned an astounding 26 Emmy Awards!)

Even as subplots in a much-larger narrative, these puzzles added color and personality to scenes that took us inside the minds of these characters. Pretty impressive for crosswords that are only mentioned briefly.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do? =)

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can 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 PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!