a guide to doing grownup crossword puzzles

I did the New York Times Magazine crossword puzzle for the first time on Sunday. It was actually my first time ever doing a grownup crossword. It took me five (consecutive, because I have OCD) hours, and I totally loved it. (Sunday crossword, where have you been all my life??) But I realized during the process that crossword clues are written in a secret language, and I felt like I probably really needed to know that language if I hoped to succeed in this new endeavor. I figured googling "crossword clues for dummies," or something like that, would almost certainly yield some results, and lo, it did! And then I thought I definitely better share this valuable information with you STAT, along with some other helpful, more process-related tips I found.

  1. Start out by going through the clues, filling in the answers you know, and skipping the rest. This will just help to get you started, so you have some letters to guide you with other clues.
  2. If there are multiple possible answers for one clue, write your best guess on the puzzle (in pencil!) and jot down the alternatives next to the clue, so you don't forget them if they are needed later.
  3. If there is a clue that you know for sure time or cleverness will not help you solve, go ahead and use a reference. It's not cheating, because ultimately you'll need more than a reference to finish the puzzle, as not all clues have straightforward, factual answers.
  4. Don't assume single-word answers. Oftentimes answers use prepositions, like "laughed at" or "run to." 
  5. Keep in mind that oftentimes a clue is not to be interpreted literally. It may be a metaphor, play on words, or euphemism. For instance, on Sunday one of my clues was "egg holder." I was thinking one of those cups you eat an egg out of, which would have been the literal interpretation. But no, the answer was: nest. These types of clues are typically followed by a question mark, to nudge you to think outside of the box.
  6. If the answer is an abbreviation, the clue will contain  "abbr.," or another word in the clue will be abbreviated. 
  7. If the clue is plural, the answer will be plural. If the clue uses "a" or "an," assume those will be part of the answer too. In other words, the answer will be interchangeable in a sentence with the clue.
  8. The are special words that turn up with high frequency on crosswords, usually because they are short and have lots of vowels. For a list of these, consult this. Or just learn them over time with lots of practice.
  9. If the clue is not in English, this will be indicated in the clue with "sp." or by mentioning a locale where a different language is spoken.
  10. If the clue uses slang language, chances are the answer is slang as well.
  11. If you get tired, take a break. Maybe even sleep on it. Then, return with a fresh mind! But never go to bed angry. 

Happy crosswording!

references: ny times crossword how to, wikipedia