The Ultimate Guide to the Best Crossword Puzzle Clues and Solvers

Are you stuck on 17 Across? Does 12 Down make you question why you don't take up a more leisurely hobby than crosswords?

Face it. Part of the attraction of crosswords is the inevitable frustration and the sense of achievement that comes from solving what seemed unsolvable.

Would you like to experience that joy more often and more consistently? You can once you learn how to solve the most popular crossword puzzles like a pro.

Keep the following tips for crossword puzzle clues and solvers handy when you tackle your next grid. You'll never look at crosswords the same way again.

Table of contents


Start With Simple Puzzles

Puzzle publishers typically produce different crosswords for people with differing levels of expertise. Look for puzzles for beginners. The New York Times offers a free mini crossword that's only 5x5, or one-third the size of a daily puzzle.

The New York Times puzzles get more complex as the week progresses, with the most accessible publishing on Mondays. Saturday's puzzle is the toughest, with Sunday's less challenging than Saturday's. The Sunday puzzle is the largest of the week, but it's no more complicated than those in the middle of the week.

Newcomers believe that it's the answers that make puzzles perplexing. They're half right. It's definitely the answers, but it's also the clues. The Saturday New York Times puzzles are brain drains because the clues are worded to make you think twice. In contrast, Monday's clues are aboveboard.

To illustrate how clues make a difference, the New York Times offers an example of the contrast between Monday and Saturday clues when the answer is OREO, as in the outrageous tasty but nutritionally-deficient cookie.

An example of a clue you'd find on Monday is "Cookie with Creme Filling." But Saturday's puzzle would only offer you "it has 12 flowers on each side."

Really? Did you know an OREO has 12 flowers on each side? Did you know it had any flowers at all?

Answer the Easy Clues First

Quickly go through both the Across and Down clues to find the ones you can answer immediately. Almost all puzzles will include a few simple clues when short answers are needed.

For example, if a puzzle's theme is "Famous Als," one clue might be "Relative Genius" for "Albert" or "Einstein." The reference to "Relative" in the clue refers to Einstein's relativity theories.

Solving the easy clues will help you chip away at the more challenging ones that it crosses. Sometimes, you need a well-placed letter from a simple clue to trigger your thinking.

If you've noticed this, you're getting insight into the intention of the puzzle maker. The constructor will often ensure that a problematic entry will cross an easier one.

You might think the answer to "Enameled Food Grinder" is "Tooth." But according to the word that crosses, your "Enameled Food Grinder" needs to be a different five-letter word that includes the letter "L." That leads you to the correct answer, "Molar."

You can often rely on fill-in-the-blank clues to provide easy answers to get your puzzle started. For example, if the clue is "No more. That's the last ____," what would you guess? Odds are, the answer is "straw."

Or try this other example. Suppose the clue is "The Eiffel __." You don't have to burn too many brain cells to come up with the word "Tower."

Become Familiar With Recurring Puzzle Words

Crossword newcomers may understandably think that easy clues and short answers go hand-in-hand. But that's not always the case.

Due to the difficulties of drafting an original crossword, puzzle makers often need obscure short words to round out the puzzle. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that you have encountered these words during your daily routine. They may have fallen out of common usage generations ago. And some of them were never in practical use.

They were always niche words. Sometimes, they were created specifically for a particular industry or discipline and never found general acceptance elsewhere. In such cases, what can you do?

These words have shown to be so handy that puzzle makers use them repeatedly. So, when encountering one of them, make a conscious effort to mentally record it. Trust us, you'll see it again. A good example is "Alee." That's the side of a ship opposite the direction of the wind.

Learn common prefixes and suffixes like "mis" found in the answers "mispronounce" and "misspell." There are also abbreviations that keep showing up because puzzle makers need two and three-letter answers.

So, you know Mr., Mrs, and Ms, but do you know Mme? Note: You may encounter occasional two-letter entries, but most U.S.-based puzzles will restrict entries to at least three letters.

Notice How the Puzzle Words Its Clues

Crosswords can be head-scratchers, but puzzle makers try to make them fair. And editors verify that clues are appropriate for their answers. So, pay strict attention to the wording of a clue. You'll learn how you should word your answer.

Which Verb Tense Does the Clue Have?

Let's look at a couple of clues for answers about the weather. If a clue for a seven-letter space is "Precipitating," the answer might be "Falling." Why?

The clue is worded as an action that is in the process of happening. It uses the "ing" ending. Therefore, you can expect the clue to match.

On the other hand, if the clue were the noun "Precipitation" for a four-letter space, the answer might be "Rain," "Snow," or "Hail," all four-letter word nouns that describe a type of precipitation.

Does the Clue Contain Words With Multiple Meanings?

But just because puzzle makers play fair doesn't mean they won't have fun with their clues. Be aware of words with more than one meaning. (what's the word?)

Suppose the clue is "dated." Is it referring to someone with whom you went to dinner and a movie? Or is it referring to something that's no longer in fashion?

How much room does the puzzle give you for an answer? That's a huge hint. If there are two spaces, maybe the answer is "Ex." But if there are three spaces, perhaps the right response is "Old."

Another clue could be "Plastered." Does that refer to "Ceiling," "Wall," or "Drunk?" If you were thinking of home improvement projects, you're not alone. Most people would think along the straight and narrow first. If you immediately thought of "Drunk," you probably have an interesting past.

Is the Clue a Play on Words?

Sometimes a clue will end with a question mark. That's a hint that clue is playing with words. You can expect the answer to be slightly off-center and not a common word or phrase. For example, the clue might be "Sudden Itchiness?" And the answer is a "Rash Rash."

Can the Clue Be Both a Noun and a Verb or Some Other Part of Speech?

Be careful when a word can be more than one type of speech. A case in point, the clue "Wind" could mean the noun that refers to the movement of air. On the other hand, it could point to a verb.

Now that you're on alert about the word's multiple meanings, you still have to find the correct answer. Suppose the answer requires seven letters. You might think of winding something like a cord. That could give you the seven-letter word "Wrapped."

The third letter of "Wrapped" is "A," so, let's say that works well with a crossing word. And the sixth letter is "E," which also fits with a crossing word. So far, so good.

But, oops. According to another crossing word of which you're positive, your seven-letter answer needs to contain an "N" in the middle. Can you think of a seven-letter verb that means wind and has an "A" and an "E" in the correct locations? Plus, it has an "N" in the middle? What about "Meander?"

Clues Can Be Connected

Clues can be related. Together they might form a phrase or reference the same person, event, fictional world, etc. At first, this type of clue could seem overwhelming. But having related clues increases the likelihood of solving one of them.

Then the completed answer will make it simpler to think of the related answer. The answer for one clue could be "Brake," while the related answer is "Pedal."

Do Less to Do More

Do you like to complete puzzles by racing the clock? There's nothing wrong with that. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with patiently completing the puzzle throughout the day.

The Brain Needs Rest

The latest research suggests that unless you let your brain rest, you'll suffer the effects of a toxic buildup of glutamate. There are indications that the brain tries to protect itself from highly driven people by signaling exhaustion. How?

You may realize that you're struggling to recall even simple things you know well. For example, you might think you're going into the kitchen to make a cup of - something. For a second or two, the word "coffee" escapes you. That could be your brain telling you it needs a siesta.

Your break may come from just walking away from the puzzle for a while, or it could include a nap. Scientists believe that a 30- to 90-minute nap works wonders for the brain. There seems to be a boost in both memory and thinking ability.

Take Your Mind Off Your Puzzle

Time spent focused on something else can be rewarding when you take a break from your puzzle. Don't be surprised if you get most of your insights while doing laundry, driving, or walking the dog.

When we're not thinking, we're still thinking. We may consciously rest, but the brain's default mode network is still hard at work. This subconscious part of the mind will help you remember something you couldn't consciously plunk from your memory banks.

How often have you tried to remember the name of the kid that sat across from you in third grade because a character in a film reminded you of him? All through the movie, the dinner that followed, and the drive home, you relentlessly demanded that your brain give you the answer.

Then back home, just before bed, you look out the back door and notice an owl perched in the tree, staring at something in the shadows. You wait to see what will happen. You get absorbed in the features of the owl, its behavior, and possible actions.

And then - "Gerald Von Flosstenec!" That's the kid's name. Where did that answer come from, yu wonder? You can thank your default mode network.

So, take a break from your crossword and consciously get involved in something unrelated. Don't worry. Your default mode network is still working on the puzzle.

Get Help When You Get Stuck

Puzzle lovers create their own rules for completing crosswords. Besides trying to finish it in one sitting, some people won't allow themselves to consult references like crossword dictionaries and thesauruses for answers. They don't want any tips for solving the crosswords. It's an individual choice.

There's certainly some degree of pride in not needing research sources. However, it's not reasonable to believe that working out a puzzle alone is always possible. No one could amass enough arcane knowledge to solve every crossword using only a personal repository of facts.

So free yourself from the notion that it's cheating to scour the internet for the name of some Egyptian Pharoah of the First Dynasty or a 1920s silent movie star. Remember, the primary motivation for solving a crossword puzzle is to have fun and, perhaps, learn a little along the way.

Don't be so hard on yourself. No one's judging you. Enjoy the trip when a puzzle takes you into the far-flung corners of the internet. And bring home some souvenirs, like Narmer from Egypt and John Gilbert from Hollywood.

Expand Your Frame of Reference

Most general topic puzzles will encompass information from various subjects. It doesn't hurt to vary your exposure to reading material. It's usually not necessary to become an expert on a topic to pick up crossword puzzle tips. But you might want to become conversationally familiar with it.

Know enough to understand the reference someone makes at a dinner party. You don't need to be a country music historian to know Dolly Parton, but do you know Patsy Cline? Many people with no particular interest in sports recognize the name Michael Jordan. But do you know LeBron James?

There's another way to overcome your lack of knowledge in a specific field. And it could increase your enjoyment of your hobby. If you're not a hermit, isolationist, or misanthrope, why not create a partnership with another enthusiast, and solve puzzles together?

Discussing a puzzle with a friend is one of the benefits of crossword puzzles. Once again, this is not against the rules. There are no rules.

Are You Ready to Use Your Crossword Puzzle Clues and Solvers?

We hope you enjoyed our discussion of crossword puzzle clues and solvers. Remember to take your time, read your clues carefully, and take mental breaks.

Start with more straightforward puzzles before you tackle the real brain busters. And whatever you do, have fun.

If you want to explore all types of puzzles, check out our rundown of puzzles from crosswords to beyond. We introduce you to everything from cryptograms to slitherlink puzzles.

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