But Deb Amlen, columnist and editor of Wordplay at The New York Times who wrote the official guide to solving The New York Times crossword puzzle, and Matt Gaffney, a professional crossword puzzle constructor who has written over 4,000 puzzles for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and others, don’t want you miss out on the fun.
Here are nine crossword tricks to help you get better at solving the puzzles.
The New York Times crossword puzzles increase in difficulty as the week goes on, with the hardest puzzle appearing on Saturdays. If you’re just getting started, begin with the easiest ones.
“If you want to build up your skill set, I would start with the Monday puzzles and get confident with that before you then push to the Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” said Amlen.
If you know the answers to any of the clues right away, write those in first. Amlen says fill in the blank clues tend to be the easiest because the brain loves filling in the missing information.
“Grab the low-hanging fruit first. That’s what we call ‘gimmes,'” said Amlen. “Go fill in your ‘gimmes’ because there’s nothing like writing in the grid to really increase your confidence. And if your confidence increases, your abilities sometimes increase along with it.”
“ERA” is the most common word in crossword puzzles, as well as “ARE,” “AREA,” and “ORE,” according to Gaffney.
“Anything that’s 3 or 4 letters and vowel-heavy is going to be pretty common, so ERIE is a crossword writer’s favorite lake and IOWA and OHIO our favorite states,” he said. “Every grid needs some of these words to keep things together, but we also try to work in snazzier entries as well.”
“YOKO ONO” and “BRIAN ENO” are also popular names to use for their useful letter patterns, according to Amlen.
If you’re stuck on a word that goes across, Amlen suggests try filling in more words that go down to add more letters to it, Wheel of Fortune-style. The inverse is true with a word that goes across — answering more words that go down will add letters to it.
Tenses have to match, so if the clue is in plural, the answer will be in plural, too.
“Even if I don’t know the answer to that plural clue, I may just drop in an ‘S’ at the end because I know it’s going to be a plural,” said Amlen.
According to Amlen, a “veiled capital” is when the first word of a clue is a proper noun — it would be capitalized anyway since it’s the first word, so it’s not always clear that it could be referring to something else. For example, a clue that began with “Outback” could be referencing the Australian outback or the restaurant chain Outback.
Like any other skill, mastering crossword puzzles takes time.
“Practice, practice, practice, like everything else,” Gaffney said. “Something like 12% of crosswords are comprised of the 250 most common grid entries, so if you nail those 250 down you’ve got about one eighth of most grids figured out.”
Crossword puzzles are meant to be fun. If your brain is getting tired, take a break and revisit it later.
“It’s not the SAT. You’re allowed to put the puzzle down if you get frustrated,” said Amlen. “The fascinating thing to me is that your brain continues working on it in the background. When you come back to it, you might be able to fill in more than you thought you could.”
If you ask Amlen, looking at the answers when you’re stuck isn’t cheating — it’s learning.
“If you have to look something up and you don’t know it, but you learn about it so you know it for next time, that’s a good thing,” she said.
Solving some puzzles digitally allows you to just look at one word or letter and keep working on the rest of the clues.
“If you’re solving digitally, you’ll have the option of checking just one entry or even a single letter if you’re stuck; frequently, that one letter or word can break open the entire grid,” said Gaffney. “So don’t throw the puzzle aside when you hit a wall — just peek at a letter or word you really want and see if that doesn’t do the trick. Next time, maybe you won’t need the cheat.”
Originally published on Business Insider.
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