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Working crossword puzzles is great exercise for your brain — and great fun as well. To maximize your enjoyment and your mental workout, take some time to learn basic tips for solving crossword clues. Then, create the right environment so you can focus, move at your own pace, and give the crossword your best effort. And when you’re ready for a different type of challenge, consider working other types of puzzles as well. Your synapses will thank you!

Tips for solving crossword puzzles

You don’t have to be a crossword puzzle expert to enjoy solving easy puzzles or even more challenging ones. But when you sit down to work on any crossword grid, you’ll likely enjoy yourself more if you keep these simple tips in mind:

  • Work in pencil. By working in pencil, you give yourself permission to guess and make mistakes. And mistakes make you a better puzzler in the end.

  • Be loyal to a puzzle editor. When you’re first starting to work crosswords, stick with puzzles you find in a single source (one book or one newspaper, for example). Doing so allows you to become familiar with what to expect from the puzzle editor (the person who compiles and styles each puzzle). This familiarity can simplify puzzles for you.

  • Think about theme. If a puzzle has a title, it indicates the theme of that puzzle. Usually the theme relates only to some of the clues — usually those that require longer answers — not all of them.

  • Fill in the blanks first. The fill-in-the-blank clues often are the easiest type to solve, so you can get a good start on your grid by cracking these first.

  • Focus on small (three-to-five-letter) word entries. Puzzle constructors just don’t have as many of these short words to choose from in the English language. So, as you work more puzzles, you’ll get familiar with the short words that constructors and editors use over and over. By filling these in early on, you may break open your grid and be able to solve a few of your more difficult clues.

  • Visit At this site, you’ll be introduced to short, often unusual English words that puzzle constructors love.

  • Get trivial. Because they’re usually fairly straightforward and don’t involve wordplay, trivia clues also may be fairly easy to answer. Plus, you can locate trivia answers in outside resources when you’re stuck.

  • Eye abbreviations and acronyms. If an answer needs to be an abbreviation or acronym, the clue tells you so. If you see “Abbr.” in the clue, or if the clue itself is abbreviated or an acronym, that’s your tip. Again, these smaller clues can help you answer the more complex surrounding clues you may be stumped by.

  • Go global. If an answer is in a foreign language, the clue informs you by specifying the language or using words from that language.

  • Pick out plurals. When you’re stuck, look for clues written in a plural form. Using a pencil, write an S at the end of each grid entry that you know must be a plural word or phrase. Often (though not always), the S will be correct.

  • Tap outside resources. Most people can’t work a crossword puzzle without a little outside help. But don’t just type a clue into an online search engine; be picky about the resources you use. Keep a quality dictionary, thesaurus, quotation resource, atlas, and almanac on hand. You can use hard copies of these sources, or you can choose their electronic forms.

  • Ask for help. Make a crossword a social experience by asking help from friends or family members when you’re stuck.

  • Check off each clue that you solve. Marking your progress gives you a sense of accomplishment and helps you focus on those clues that remain.

  • Don’t stress. If a puzzle stops being fun and starts feeling like work, simply walk away and come back to it a little later. The answers may come more easily after you take a breather.

Using crosswords to exercise your brain

One of the side effects of enjoying a crossword puzzle is that it gives your brain a great workout. Rarely will you work a puzzle from start to finish without learning something new. And if you work puzzles from the same source on a regular basis, you’ll start memorizing words that your puzzle editor uses frequently.

To maximize your mental workout, try doing the following:

  • Find your focus. Figure out what type of environment helps you boost your concentration. Many people find it helpful to sit in a comfortable chair with good lighting and to keep noise to a minimum. Soft music in the background works well for some people; others require silence.

  • Allot enough time. Whenever possible, set aside an hour or more for your crosswording. Providing yourself with plenty of time allows you to try to complete an entire puzzle from start to finish without interruption.

  • Start your own crosswordese list. Crosswordese is a group of short words that you run across in crossword puzzles but don’t often use in everyday speech. For example, consider the following:

    • Aerie: High nest

    • Epee: Dueling sword

    • Nee: Formerly called, or precedes a maiden name

    • Poi: Polynesian food

  • These words can help puzzle constructors get out of jams, and each puzzle constructor has certain favorites. Keep a list of the short, obscure words you run across more than once when solving puzzles, and store that list with your crosswording sources. (And if you want to mess with your friends, try working these words into your conversations!)

  • Look up what you don’t know. While some crossword purists pooh-pooh the use of outside resources, others are realists. These folks realize that most people need at least some help to finish a crossword. When you’re truly stuck, don’t just turn to the crossword solution. First make the effort to find the answer yourself in trusted print or online resources. Then pat yourself on the back when you learn something new.

Trying out other puzzle types

When you have had enough of crossword puzzles for one day and are looking for other fun ways to boost your brain power, consider the puzzle possibilities listed here. If your newspaper doesn’t carry these puzzles, look for puzzle books or Web sites that feature them. Some of the most popular puzzles include the following:

  • Cryptograms: A cryptogram is a sentence or phrase that’s encrypted, meaning each letter has been substituted with a different letter. To figure out what the sentence or phrase says, you have to figure out each substitution.

  • Word scramble: With this type of puzzle, you look at groups of letters placed in random order and rearrange them into words using every letter. Sometimes letters within the solutions are circled, and the circled letters answer a clue provided by the puzzle editor.

  • Cryptic crosswords: This type of puzzle is tough. The crossword grid doesn’t follow the same rules as a regular crossword. For example, you find lots of unchecked squares on a cryptic crossword. Unchecked squares are white squares that are used in an Across entry but not in a Down entry, or vice versa. Ramping up the difficulty level even more are the types of clues the puzzle constructor creates. No fill-in-the-blanks here; and no trivia either. Each clue is constructed based on wordplay, so you have to essentially solve a riddle or figure out a pun to find the solution. If you’re up for the challenge, look for a book of cryptic crosswords or search online for some examples to try. You can be sure that your synapses will break a sweat!

  • Sudoku: You can find books full of Sudoku puzzles everywhere — probably even in your grocery store checkout lane. Most newspapers publish them as well. The basic Sudoku puzzle is a 9 x 9 grid (it contains nine rows and nine columns) and is divided into nine 3 x 3 grids or boxes. To solve the puzzle, you write in the numbers 1 through 9 in each row, column, and 3 x 3 box. The puzzle constructor gets you started by filling in a handful of entries. Each puzzle has a unique solution; you can’t solve it in more than one way. Sound easy? It isn’t. But it’s definitely fun!

  • Word searches: When you need a break from the hard work these other puzzle types require, try a word search. You’ll still get your brain focused on the task at hand, but success is pretty much guaranteed.

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