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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crossword Puzzle Strategies & Tips

Crossword Puzzle Tip - 1
Choose the Right Difficulty Level
First off, you need to select a Crossword Puzzle that is designed for youe skill level, not too hard, or too easy.  Here's how to do it:
Identifying quality crossword puzzles
Crossword puzzle creation is a difficult skill with few quality practicioners. You must learn to look for the hallmarks of a quality puzzle.  Here are some of the things to look for:
Minimal use of obscure answers.  Crossword puzzles will often use rare and obscure words, that are outside the standard day to day vocabulary of most readers. These difficult answers are seen as a  necessary evil by most crossword makers who attempt to limit their use. A solid quality crossword puzzle will make minimal use of these rare answers, and use commonly known words in the main.  If it is unavoidable to use a rare word, the crossword maker will try to use common words in the intersecting answer entries to compensate. Perhaps the easiest way to select a quality crossword puzzle is not by the puzzle itself but by the publication it appears in.  In general starting off by sticking to such lofty establishments as the New York Times and the big UK papers, one can be assured of a high quality puzzle.  Once you are familiar with these publications, one can seek out puzzles crafted by their current and past crosswords editors for a top-shelf crossword puzzle experience.
Selecting the right difficulty level
Most quality publications assign a difficulty level to thier puzzles.  Some stick to the simple Easy, Medium, Hard scale, while others such as the New York Times, use an escalating weekly scale.  In the case of the New York Times, Mondays publish the easiest puzzles, and steadily increase in difficulty to the most difficult Sunday puzzles.  In fact the New York Times scale is so famous that days of the week are often used to handicap other general crossword puzzles - with phrases such as "that was a Tuesday quality puzzle"  You should start with a difficulty level that matches your experience and vocabulary level.  In general, aim for puzzles that you can almost complete entirely, so there is a bit of learning with each one, along with increasing your confidence.  It is a mistake to bang your head against a wall by starting off with puzzles that are too difficult.  Within a puzzle, you can increase your vocabulary by working on only vertical, or horizontal answers, to test yourself without the ability to use intersecting words to assist your answer solving skills.
Crossword Puzzle Tip - 2
Learn the Lingo for Clues

Professional crossword puzzle makers have a fairly standardized set of clue conventions that are adhered to strictly.  The sooner you become familiar with these, the faster you will improve your game.  Here are just a few of the common crossword clue conventions you will encounter:

  • Fill-in-the-blank (FITB) clues are often the easiest in a puzzle, and a good place to start solving, e.g., "__ Boleyn" = ANNE
  • A question mark at the end of clue usually signals that the clue/answer combination involves some sort of pun or wordplay, e.g., "Grateful?" = ASHES (since a grate might be full of them).
  • Most widely distributed American crosswords today also contain colloquial answers, i.e., entries in the puzzle grid that try to replicate everyday colloquial language. In such a puzzle, one might see phrases such as WHAT'S UP, AS IF, or WHADDYA WANT.
  • Abbreviations, use of a foreign language, variant spellings, or other unusual word tricks are indicated in the clue. A crossword creator might choose to clue the answer SEN (as in the abbreviation for "Senator") as "Washington bigwig: Abbr." or "Member of Cong.", with the abbreviation in the clue indicating that the answer is to be similarly abbreviated. The use of "Var." indicates the answer is a variant spelling (e.g., EMEER instead of EMIR), while the use of foreign language or a foreign place name within the clue indicates that the answer is also in a foreign language. For example, ETE (été, French for "summer") might be clued as "Summer, in the Sorbonne". ROMA could be clued as "Italia's capital", whereas the clue "Italy's capital" would indicate the English spelling Rome.
  • In addition, partial answers are allowed in American-style crosswords, where the answer represents part of a longer phrase. e.g., the clue Mind your __ Qs gives the answer PS AND
  • Non-dictionary phrases, such at those including auxiliary verbs are also allowed in answers. Thus, the clue Mocked could result in the grid entry LAUGHED AT.
Crossword Puzzle Tip - 3
Master the Repeaters

Repeaters are commonly used crossword puzzle answers that are generically useful from a puzzle creation point of view due to their letter composition. Many are quite obscure answers — such as ERATO, the muse of lyric poetry and hymns — that will be unknown to most new readers. The sooner you can become familiar with these repeaters, the better, and they can be commonly found in quality crossword dictionaries. Commonly known repeaters are often used, but puzzle makers will mask them with difficult clues such as this one:

"Next to nothing" = ONE

While you will pick up most repeaters naturally over time just by doing crossword puzzles, it is much faster and easier to study lists of them which can be found in quality crossword dictionaries.

Crossword Puzzle Tip - 4
Sharpen Your Mind

Top crossword champions often use a variety of mental techniques to stay focused and move through puzzles quickly and efficiently.  Here are a handful of tips:
  • Keep an open mind.
    If a clue has you flummoxed, try to look at it differently. Might is be a different part of speech, such as an adjective instead of a verb for example?
  • Keep an eraser handy.
    Going down the wrong path due to an incorrect letter can completely ruin your game.  If you are completely stumped on a certain part of the puzzle grid, be prepared to go back over youe answers and be sure they are correct. Don't be afraid to erase and rework answers.
  • Keep looking at the puzzle.
    If you think you are close to a breakthrough, chances are you are correct.  The brain is a strange beast, and "Eureka!" breakthroughs come at a moments notice.
  • If you're blocked, get up, take a break, and return.
    Even the shortest break can work miracles.  Sometimes just moving your body around, taking in a change of view, and returning will re energize your mind.
Crossword Puzzle Tip - 5
Crossword Puzzle Solvers

There are a great many resources out there for crossword puzzle players.  Never forget to use both the internet and your local bookstore to improve your game.  By all means try to solve the puzzles yourself, but when all is lost, the following resources will help to grow your vocabulary and clue knowledge for next time.

  • has a variety of free tools for solving anagrams, as well as accessing crossword dictionaries.  You can even type in clues and see what answers turn up.  The best part is you are already here!
  • Dictionaries — There are a huge variety of crosswords dictionaries that are indexed both by answers, and by clues, as well as having easy to access lists of repeaters and other crossword puzzle conventions.
Have fun out there, and best of luck!


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