For some reason, a lot of people believe that the ability to solve crossword puzzles is a talent doled out at birth to a select few. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Crosswords aren’t an immutable test of your vocabulary or intelligence — they’re a learnable skill that anyone can develop.
No other word game or puzzle asks quite as much of your brain as a crossword. Experienced puzzlers consider not just the literal meaning of each clue, but also similar ones they’ve seen before, frequently repeated answers, syntax quirks, puns, cultural references — and, of course, the puzzle’s theme.
Unfortunately, this means that crosswords can be downright unwelcoming to newcomers.
Everyone starts somewhere, and no matter what your capabilities look like now, here are four general strategies to help you improve.
Do Puzzles Every Day
The only way to improve at crosswords is to do a lot of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.
For me, that means tackling a few puzzles from an ancient book of 365 Will Shortz crosswords before bed every night. My mum prints out Washington Post crosswords and chips away at them over breakfast; my friends who commute by bus or train are diehard New York Times crossword app fans.
New York Times puzzles are many peoples’ crossword gateway drug for a reason: They’re easy to find and have a built-in difficulty grading. Mondays are the easiest, Saturdays are the hardest, and the puzzles in between ramp up day by day, so you can pick and choose the ones that work for you.
That said, The New York Times is far from the only publisher out there. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Merriam-Webster also publish daily American-style crosswords; if cryptic crosswords are your jam, try The Guardian.
Just remember that each publication has its own style — mastering the tricky clue phrasing in a Saturday New York Times puzzle won’t necessarily translate to one from the Post, and vice versa.
Use an App
If you really want to up your crossword game, subscribing to an app, such as this one from The New York Times, is a great idea.
As much as I love them, paper puzzles just can’t touch the user-friendly features you get with an app. You can easily check your work or reveal answers letter by letter, rather than accidentally peeking at the entire solution. This demystifies clues just enough to make them feasible, which is exactly what you want. Also, most apps time your work, which makes it easy to measure your progress.
But really, the biggest advantage is accessibility: Carrying around thousands of digital puzzles in your pocket makes it easy to do a lot of puzzles.
Know When — and How — to Cheat
Cheating is a sensitive topic among crossword enthusiasts, but there’s no denying it has its place. Crosswords should be fun, and repeatedly banging my head against the same wall, praying for a different result, isn’t my idea of fun.
Besides, frustration is a lousy teacher; unless you have serious competitive puzzle aspirations, stubbornly refusing to look up answers or check your work will get you nowhere.
A lot of games require a big time investment — at least, if you want to have the best gear, the funniest emotes, the most locations unlocked, a shot at completing all the achievements, etc. And while you could play fair and square, you could also be that person and use hacks, exploits, or other creative techniques to achieve whatever it is you’re trying to do in your favourite title, even if that’s 'ruin everyone else’s day by using a utility to kill them a lot faster than they can kill you'. That’s fun too, right?
Obviously, you should solve every clue you possibly can without help, but you can’t improve without a challenge. A bit of strategic cheating can guide you through even the toughest puzzles.
Apps make this super easy: Just check or reveal letters one at a time until you can solve a particularly nasty clue. This gives you just enough information to (mostly) hack it on your own, which in turn makes the answer more likely to stick in your memory.
Paper puzzles make strategic cheating a little tougher, but thanks to the internet, not by much.
If you’re stuck on a print crossword, Google the whole clue in quotes. Framing your search around the clue rather than, say, how many letters you have to work with will help you understand what the clue wanted from you.
Over time, you’ll find yourself needing less and less help to solve puzzles that previously would’ve been real stumpers.
If you’re serious about crossword mastery, the internet is full of likeminded people who would love to help.
A blog such as Rex Parker’s is a great place to start. He solves the New York Times puzzle each day, compares the difficulty to other puzzles from that day of the week, and breaks down key clue/answer pairs in a short post.
Between the posts and the comments, you’ll get a more complete picture of the solution than if you’d just looked up the answers.
You can also specialise even further and brush up on your crosswordese — words that appear frequently in crosswords but almost never in conversation. The New York Times has a quiz that tests your crosswordese knowledge, and there’s a more general guide from Dictionary.com.
If a statistical approach is more your speed, there are crossword answer databases out there. Data scientist Noah Veltman analysed a set of New York Times crossword clues and answers from 1996-2012, then arranged them by “crosswordiness” and how frequently they appeared. You can filter the lists by the minimum number of appearances or word length, and see details about any given answer.
Similarly, Xwordinfo.com will show you the most popular answers and clues for Times puzzles by year or word length.
Hell, you could really go all-out and code yourself some training programs like this guy did, though it’s unclear whether his approach is more effective than just doing a whole bunch of crosswords.
This is not to say that you must build a robot or memorise clues to solve crosswords more efficiently; the best “training strategy” is the one that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter how many puzzles you solve, or how fast you can solve them — just that you keep at it. If you can do that, you’ll never stop improving.