How to become better at crosswords

Like any activity, the more you practise, the better you get. When it comes to crossword-solving, there are quite a few ways to improve your game.

First of all, you don’t have to start with 1 across. Have a look at all the clues, and start with the ones you know. That will then give you some crossed letters, for the answers you don’t know.

The shorter answers are usually easier to guess, so try tackling the 3 and 4-letter answers. Remember that these words crop up often in crosswords, as they are the stepping stones. The most common are those with lots of vowels, so look out for answers such as aria, iota and ooze etc.

Look carefully at the clue to see if it’s plural, in which case the answer will probably end in s, (except for the irregular plurals such as children or cacti). Also, the past tense of a verb will most likely give you a word ending in –ed, a present participle will end with –ing, and a superlative clue, such as ‘Most beautiful’ will probably end in –est as in ‘fairest’.

Another thing to look out for is a clue that indicates an occupation. The answer often ends in –er (painter, butcher) or –or (doctor, sailor) or –ist (chemist, artist).
Many puzzlers use a pencil and have a guess, keeping an open mind if it doesn’t seem to be working. Keep that rubber handy!

If you’re not getting anywhere, take a break and clear your head. Sometimes, after a night’s sleep, the elusive answer suddenly comes to you when you next pick up your crossword. I don’t know how that happens, maybe a part of your brain never sleeps and is thumbing through all the million bits of information stored in your grey matter, to find the answer.

Finally, if you just can’t finish that crossword, is it cheating to take a peek at the solution? Certainly not, it’s a learning tool. But try just looking at the unfilled answers one at a time, because when you fill in the letters, it sometimes gives you letters to other tricky answers. Sometimes, just one letter can trigger an AHA! moment, and away you go.

When it comes to solving those devious mind-bogglers known as Cryptic crosswords, the secret is to keep a very open mind, as clues can be so deceptive. For instance, “Fashion sense shown by trusty leader” might have you racking your brains for a trusty leader of fashion, when all the while, the trusty leader is merely hiding the answer inside.

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Look out for the trigger words, that indicate what sort of cryptic device is being used. For instance, an anagram clue will have a word or phrase suggesting reorder, going astray, being jumbled or running amok. For example, “Paces around room (5)” – the word ‘around’ is the trigger here, and as ‘paces’ is the only word with 5 letters, it must be an anagram – space, meaning ‘room’.

When solving an anagram, you might find it helpful to write the letters around in a circle.
Another cryptic signal is a word that is read backwards. Triggers might be ‘reverse’ or ‘back’, such as “Gateman takes back identification (7)”. When you read ‘gateman’ backwards it reads nametag.

When a clue contains the words ‘initial’ or ‘at first’, look out for an acronym clue, such as “First impressions never divulge discovery (4)” and then look at the first letter of the first four words – they spell out find.

I could go on forever giving tips for solving cryptic clues because unlike other skills, which you can master on your own, solving cryptic clues doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Our ‘How To Do Cryptic Crosswords’ booklet explains the various types of cryptic clues and how to solve them. Our puzzlers have often written to tell us that, having previously thought they would never be able to tackle these mysterious enigmas, they gradually break through - and what a satisfying feeling it is!

So practise with an open mind, and don’t give up, is my advice. Your hard work will pay off eventually, when you become puzzle champions!

What are your favourite puzzles to tackle? 

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