Ten Tricks for Successfully Tackling the Trickiest Puzzles

Here I offer some simple tricks for trying to push through the inevitable solver’s block: the feeling that you’re truly stuck mid-puzzle and can’t find a way to move forward.

Nailing Down Your Puzzle Editor’s Style The person responsible for compiling and styling the puzzles in a certain newspaper, book, or Web site is called the puzzle editor, and it can help to get familiar with that person’s style. The difficulty level of a crossword depends on how the clues are written. Whether the puzzle editor creates each crossword himself or edits crosswords from other puzzle constructors, his influence on the style of each puzzle is strong. For this reason, when you first start working puzzles, it can help to focus on puzzles published in the same source.

Setting the Mood The right environment to work a crossword depends on your personal preferences, of course. For me, these things are essential: ✓ A comfortable chair ✓ Silence or soft music ✓ Good lighting ✓ Easy access to resources (whether books or a computer) ✓ Ample time to complete the puzzle — or at least to make a good effort!

Analyzing the Theme Not every puzzle constructor creates themed crosswords. You’ll often see crosswords that don’t have titles, which means they don’t have themes. The theme of a crossword is simply a central idea that the longer clues tie back to. If a puzzle does have a theme, try to keep it in mind as you read each clue. Doing so may help you tap into the puzzle constructor’s point of view, which may make solving clues easier.The puzzle title doesn’t always present the theme in a crystal-clear way: Sometimes you have to give the title a bit of thought (and work a few clues) before figuring out what it means.

Focusing on Fill-in-the-Blanks These clues usually involve a familiar phrase or title from which one or more words have been deleted. The puzzle constructor uses an underline to indicate where those words are missing, and you have to determine what they are.

Studying Crosswordese I bet you didn’t realize that working crosswords involves learning a new language. In truth, crosswordese is just a subset of English words — specifically, a group of words that you often run across in crosswords but don’t often use when you talk to your friends and family. Puzzle constructors love crosswordese because it’s chock full of short words (usually three to five letters long) that can get them out of jams. They try not to use too many of them in any given puzzle, but they do lean on them pretty regularly.

Let me give you just three examples of the types of words I’m talking about: ✓ An epee is a type of fencing sword. ✓ A gam is a pinup model’s leg. ✓ Another name for margarine is oleo.

Getting Familiar with Common Fillers In addition to crosswordese, puzzle constructors sometimes fall back on certain short entries to help them make a puzzle gel. Following are three types of these short entries you’re likely to encounter if you work crosswords often enough: ✓ Compass points: If you come across a two- or three-letter entry whose clue asks for a direction, you know you’re being asked for a compass point. A two-letter entry has only these four possible answers: NE, NW, SE, and SW. A three-letter entry has eight possible answers: NNE, NNW, SSE, SSW, ENE, ESE, WNW, and WSW.

✓ Roman numerals: If it’s been a while since you’ve worked with Roman numerals, you may find that crosswords force you to reacquaint yourself with this numbering system. You may run across clues that even force you to do some math! Here’s a simple example: The clue “Half of XXVI” requires that you first know that you’re looking at the number 26. Then you divide by 2 to get 13, and finally you translate 13 into Roman numerals to arrive at your answer: XIII.

✓ Latin words: While we’re doing as the Romans did, you may want to brush up on your basic Latin — especially Latin abbreviations. I explain in Chapter 1 that puzzle constructors often create entries from foreign words (and must alert you to which language they’re looking for). Along with French and Spanish, Latin is a favorite, in part because it’s chock full of short words (such as circa, vox, and unum) and abbreviations (such as A.D., ibid, and etc.) that can serve as the glue holding together an unwieldy section of a puzzle.

Picking Out Plurals A simple but useful trick when you’re stuck mid-puzzle is to search your list of unanswered clues to find those written in a plural form. If the clue is plural, the answer must be plural as well (assuming your puzzle constructor is doing a decent job!). Using a pencil, lightly write an S at the end of each grid entry that you know must be a plural word or phrase. You can’t assume that the S will work in every case — the English language is never that easy (think about the plural forms of mouse, dice, or child, for example). But in many cases, that S will be correct. And you’ll be surprised at how often a single letter may inspire you to solve an intersecting clue.

Looking at Verb Tenses Again, if the puzzle constructor is worth his salt, the verb tense used in a clue will match the verb tense used in the answer. So if you’re looking at a clue that contains a verb in the past tense, you may want to pencil in the letters ED at the end of the corresponding entry. Of course, the English language has a lot of irregular verbs that don’t end in -ed in the past tense (consider think, eat, and write). But if you’re stuck mid-puzzle and are searching for ways to break through your solver’s block, this tip is definitely worth a try. Clues that contain verbs ending in -ing are worth a look as well. Depending on how the clue is written, the answer could also end in ING.

Gathering Great Resources I encourage you to consider outside resources (whether books, Web sites, or friends and family members) as fair game when you’re working a crossword. You may know people who think otherwise — who consider cracking open a dictionary while working a crossword the ultimate form of cheating. But I consider it a simple act of learning and a very appropriate means of becoming a better puzzler.

Taking a Breather! If you’ve worked for a long time on a puzzle and still can’t quite figure it out, walk away. Do something else that you enjoy — even another (perhaps easier) puzzle — and return to your challenge with fresh eyes. Working puzzles should be fun — even when it’s frustrating. So if the frustration threatens to smother the fun, give yourself a break!