[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation-puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where all clues from past Nation puzzles are explained in detail.]
The solving guidelines that we tout each week at the top of our blog posts are intended to be explanatory, a general answer to the solver’s initial confusion as to what cryptic crosswords are all about. But knowing how to dive in and start solving is another story. Just as in chess, you can’t begin until you know the rules—but even then, it’s not always clear how to make your first moves.
Last week’s post, which made a case for the inclusion of simple clues in any cryptic crossword, points the way toward a solution to this quandary. Any crossword is going to have some clues that are easy places to start solving; the trick is finding them. Here are a few helpful pointers.
• Remember that both the wordplay and the definition will independently offer a path to the solution—and it doesn’t matter which path you take. For some clues, it’s easier to let the wordplay lead you to the solution; for others, it’s easier to be guided by the definition and use the wordplay after the fact to confirm your answer. Some beginners feel that the latter approach is “cheating,” but rest assured that it is an approach all cryptic solvers use.
• If you’re looking for the definition part of the clue, keep in mind this handy rule: because the two parts of a cryptic clue are distinct and side-by-side, the definition will always come either at the beginning or end of the clue. You can’t be sure where, and of course you can’t be sure how long the definition will be; but either end of the clue is the place to look for the definition.
• In the search for simple clues, you might first look for hidden-word clues, because the answer to those is sitting in plain sight. Hidden words are indicated by phrases like “can be found in,” “ingredient of,” “in the grip of,” and the like.
• Most solvers agree that the next easiest clues to spot are those involving a single anagram of the entire answer. They’re not necessarily the easiest to solve, because anagramming is often a challenge, especially for longer entries. But anagram clues have two giveaway features.
For one thing, the indicator—the part of the clue that tells you what kind of cryptic wordplay you’re dealing with—is often easy to identify. When you see a clue whose surface involves disorder, drunkenness, rearrangement, misfortune, unexpectedness, or anything along those lines, it’s a good bet you’re dealing with an anagram.
Even more revealing is a word or sequence of words with the same number of letters as the answer, especially in longer clues. This is very likely to be the “anagram fodder,” the source of letters to be anagrammed.
• Similarly, phonetic clues and reversal clues have fairly blatant indicators: anything to do with hearing or speaking for the former, anything connected with backwardness (or, in Down clues, ascent) for the latter.
• A clue that involves only one kind of wordplay (anagram, charade, container, etc.) is easier to solve than one that combines multiple techniques. The simplest way to improve your chances of finding one like that is to start with the shorter clues.
Even with all these suggestions, learning to solve cryptic crosswords is not easy. There is no shame at all in seeking help, whether from a human or a machine. We’ll discuss this in a future post.
Got any other helpful hints for beginners? Please share them here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments,) please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.