Recently I've been trying to improve my cryptic crossword solving and it's been a lot of fun. Solving clues is very satisfying, they often make me laugh, and there's something creative about the way you have to think that I'm afraid Scrabble just doesn't have...
During the week I do the Guardian almost every day and (now that it's online for free) the Independent when I have time. On the weekend I do the Guardian prize crossword and the Azed, although the latter normally takes me a few long sittings and lots of research. I haven't yet had a mention in the Azed clue-writing competition, but coming up with entries for that has been an excellent exercise, and has increased even further my respect for crossword setters.
The Guardian on a weekday currently takes me about half an hour if I can concentrate on it, but there are normally a few clues at the end that I can't get without some cheating - see below for more on that.
Suggestions for Beginners
Since I'm not very good yet, you should take the advice below with a pinch of salt. If you're a complete beginner, it's worth getting a book that explains the various types of clues that you'll see. I've bought four or five books along these lines, but my favourite is definitely Don Manley's Chambers Crossword Manual. It doesn't go quite so slowly over the basics as some other introductory guides, but the examples and discussion are all excellent and the later sections on devising clues and types of advanced cryptics will certainly be interesting if you find yourself becoming addicted.
The following tips are things that I wish someone else had told me when I was initially trying to learn to solve crosswords:
- As Don Manley suggests, it's a good idea to begin by looking at every single clue in turn. (He suggests 10 seconds each, but I think 30 or so is more realistic for a beginner.) Hopefully you'll have some inspiration for a few.
- For each clue, make sure you understand what the surface meaning is intended to be - sometimes the surface reading of the clue will be a bit strained, so this might not be totally straightforward. You need to bear in mind what the surface meaning is so that you can avoid thinking along those lines when looking for the cryptic meanings...
- Next, I'd go through each word individually (and then small groups of words) trying to think of any way at all that they could have a different meaning from that in the surface. In many cases you'll find that by doing this the answer will jump out at you.
- When you're trying to think of strange synonyms. as described in the tip above, try to think in tabloid headline language, i.e. prefer shorter synonyms (or abbreviations) to longer ones. (The British tabloids tend to use the shortest words possible for headlines even if they would be bizarre in normal writing (e.g. "rat" instead of "cheat", etc.), so the font size of the headline can be as large as possible.) Clues of the charade type are very often built up of lots of these types of words.
- Make sure you have a copy of the Chambers English Dictionary, particularly if you're trying an advanced cryptic crossword that's likely to have lots of obscure terms or bits of broad Scots.
- After you've given up on a crossword, that shouldn't be the end of it. If you're to improve your solving it's really important that you go back and make sure you understand the clues when you have the answers in front of you. The discussions of the clues on fifteensquared are invaluable for this, and people are helpful if you ask about a clue you don't understand.
- Look out for indicator words. I think this is
probably the most frustrating aspect of doing cryptic
crosswords as a beginner, and I know lots of people who
have been put off by it. All I can suggest is to:
- Consult an introductory crossword book to learn some of those that are so common as to be almost cliches (e.g. "flower" or "banker" to mean a river.)
- If you think you've worked out a clue from the definition part but it's not clear to you how it works, trying searching for each word in the clue in a list like this one.
- Make your own list of indicators, but only add to it those that that you've seen in a crossword yourself and wouldn't have spotted without looking them up. The huge lists of crossword indicators that you come across (e.g. the link above) have lots of terms that only appear very rarely, or might not be used at all in the daily puzzles, so it's worth making sure you focus on the ones that do actually come up... (If you find one which you think is missing from that big list, please email me so I can add it.)
- Even little words that might look like noise can be indicators, such as "when" => AS, "as" => QUA, "one" => A, AN, I, etc.
- I think it's useful to take notes about which crossword setters you particular enjoyed the puzzles of, and which ones you found especially difficult. (Azed's book A to Z of Crosswords has some fascinating biographies of most of the setters you'll come across in the daily papers, and they also discuss how strictly they follow Ximenes's principles for crossword setting.)
Levels of Cheating
I think the ideal situation for doing cryptic crosswords is if you're on a train or waiting for someone in a pub, or some other situation where you have no access to other reference sources. However, if you're really stuck then there are lots of places to get outside help from. I've ordered these tactics from most to least acceptable:
- Sometimes my general knowledge just isn't up to the job, and there'll be a word or proper name that I've never come across before in the crossword. In those situations, I think it's acceptable to look use Google, a dictionary, etc. to educate yourself enough to be able to solve the clue. (Of course, often you'll later realise that the proper name in question is just anagram fodder, but it's still worthwhile overall.)
- With the Azed, I find that there are so many words in it that I've never heard of before (normally at least half, including rare alternate spellings) that the only reasonable approach is to guess that a certain word might exist from the subsidiary part and then look it up in the dictionary. I think that's acceptable with advanced cryptics of that type, otherwise it'd be impossible for me to get anywhere.
- A much more dubious tactic: using grep on /usr/share/dict/words or the Scrabble SOWPODS word list to find words that match the letters you have. I think this is fine if you find a word that otherwise you wouldn't have known (the autodidacticism justification again) but of course you don't know that until you've tried it...
- Similarly, using an or another anagram solver to find anagrams is very suspect (and essentially unnecessary). This is another thing I sometimes have to resort to if I've never heard of the word in question, but try very hard not to.
I have a deliberately omitted any even less ethical tactics that may exist from this list :)
Do let me know if you have any comments or suggestions about this page.