How can I get better at solving NYT crossword puzzles?
November 30, 2017 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been trying to improve my crossword game for a few months now, and I feel like I've hit a rut. I can usually solve the Wednesday puzzles, but beyond that, I have a lot of trouble getting through them. Are there any strategies for improving my crossword skills? I solve them either on the NYT website of their crossword app, if that makes any difference. Thanks!
posted by Fister Roboto to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked at their new How To Solve a Crossword Puzzle Guide? I think it was just updated/released a few days ago. I too have picked it up as a hobby a few months ago and am about the same level as you are.
posted by carabiner at 1:40 PM on November 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thursdays are gimmicky so until you figure the gimmick out, it can be really tough. The wall between Wednesday and Thursday is normal I think. Don't get discouraged. Just keep working at it. There are times where a mostly empty grid just needs one or two breakthroughs to get you going. Put it down and come back to it with fresher eyes.

There are certain topics you might need to just do some learning on. There are a lot of baseball terms for example that drive my wife crazy, but I have no problem with. Acai, eft. There are just some words that I only know of as crossword puzzle words.

I assume you already know to read into the clues as much as you can for past tense, plural, etc. You sorta just eventually get used to how they write clues.
posted by cmm at 1:42 PM on November 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Are you doing them on-line? When I started out, I had no shame at all about googling, about using the "check answers" option partway though, or about having it fill in letters or words as I went. The need to do that naturally faded as I improved. But it took months.
posted by Orlop at 2:00 PM on November 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was like that too, though for Friday puzzles (I had years of helping my mother with the Sunday puzzles so I got an eye for how themes worked). Also, reading Rex Parker and cheating letter by letter as needed helped me improve.
posted by jeather at 2:00 PM on November 30, 2017

Do you read their crossword blog? I’ve found it helpful to read the post for particularly difficult puzzles, since it gives insight into how they write clues, how other people solve, etc. I finally broke through on Thursday/Friday/Sunday puzzles (Saturday continues to elude me) but it took close to a year of doing it every day to get there.
posted by MadamM at 2:00 PM on November 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

And oh yeah I use check answers all the time. I basically complete every puzzle, but I only solve it without using check answers for Monday-Wednesday and some Thursday/Friday/Sundays. I usually push it as far as I can without using the helper tools, then check my work and finish with help. I do have a completely arbitrary no-Googling rule but that’s just my personal weirdness.
posted by MadamM at 2:10 PM on November 30, 2017

Yeah, just do a lot of them to practice (a lot of the clues and answers are incredibly repetitive). If you have access to the puzzles then unless things have changed you also have access to the entire puzzle archive. You can go to town downloading hundreds of them for practice. :-)

Other than that, try this approach: when you start a new puzzle, go down the list of clues until you find one you think you know. Don't just fill it in unless you're positive; instead, check the intersecting words based on your hypothesis. This (a) prevents you from having too many wrong guesses, and (b) becomes a highly useful habit that will often let you fill in an entire area based on one guess. In general, only fill in things you're fairly sure about at first, because blank spaces are still easier to deal with than ones wrongly filled out.

And yes, having it show you when a square is wrong can definitely help you learn.
posted by trig at 2:26 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also came in to suggest using the check answers option. I need it less and less the more I practice.
posted by freezer cake at 2:33 PM on November 30, 2017

Also, in case this isn't clear: a lot of times the clue might be a single word, and when you see the answer you'll think "wait, how is that a synonym?" I'm pretty sure the way it works is that the clue and answer have to be substitutable* for each other in some context, not in any one. That context may well be a single, very random idiom. (A lousy example: "suit" for "please." As in "suit yourself.") Again, when you've done enough of them you'll have seen this so often that it becomes second-nature to guess cynically (and be right).

* Is that a real word? Probably by crossword standards!
posted by trig at 2:36 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been working my way through packs of old crosswords in the app, which are organized in some cases by day. Mondays were pretty easy from the beginning, Tuesdays took a bit but then were easy, and now I am slowly conquering Wednesdays (those damn themes!). So I can't give you help beyond Wednesdays, but a few things that have helped me:

- Learning some of the words/names they like to use over and over again, like Inca, tec for detective, UCLA, etc.

- I don't like to get hints from the app because I hate that it marks the squares you had it fill in, so I look things up online when I have to. I have a hierarchy of cheating in my mind: googling is the least cheating, followed by looking things up on, followed by getting the app to fill this in. This hierarchy is bullshit of course, but it's my bullshit.

- I have thought about starting to take notes whenever I see clues/answers repeated for topics I'm not great in, like sports. I haven't gotten around to it, but if you're really serious about getting better, it might help.

- One thing I like about buying the packs (which are $4/10 puzzles) is that it's easy to stop playing one puzzle when you get stumped and come back to it later. I almost always find if I do that, I will be able to solve the puzzle within 10 or 15 minutes when I come back to it after a day or two.
posted by lunasol at 3:25 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

There was an FPP a couple weeks ago about a guy attempting to master one difficult skill each month for twelve months, with the month 12 challenge being good enough at chess to beat Magnus Carlsen. The month nine challenge was to successfully complete a Saturday NYT crossword in one sitting; here are his blog posts. Basically, in addition to doing a lot of crosswords, he wrote and trained with a couple of flashcard type programs based on a scrape of NYT puzzle data prioritized by frequency : one that showed him a clue, and one that showed him an answer with some of the letters missing.
posted by bassooner at 3:33 PM on November 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've been on the NYT crossword app for about six months and I'm just starting to see my skills getting better. At some point I decided to dive into the archives and I did all the Mondays in 2017, then all the Tuesdays, and now I'm almost done with the Wednesdays. I agree with the others that a lot of it is just practice, practice, practice. And in terms of the NYT there are so, so many repeated words used that at this point some of them just really jump out at me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:43 PM on November 30, 2017

Hello fellow fan! I echo others in saying that a lot of improvement will just come from practice. I can get through all days of the NYT xword pretty easily, but I've been doing them for 20 years. (And my relative speed on Thursday and Sunday is almost entirely dependent on when I pick up the gimmick). Most of my improvement over the years came from two areas:

1. Picking up "crosswordese"; the frequently-used ARALS UMAS EWERS YSERS of the crossword world. This is probably something you can proactively study and improve on by learning lists of these words. Here's XWord Info's list of the most commonly used words in the NYT crossword; if you click on any individual word you'll see the clues that have been used for that word.

2. Loosening up my brain to be able to approach a clue from a bunch of different angles.

When I see the word SET used as a clue, my mind can easily get stuck on looking for a word that's a synonym for "group of things", but of course SET can also mean LAYDOWN, GEL, READY, and a bunch of other things.

And then there are the trickier ones, like the clue/answer pair Will Shortz identified as being a favorite: "It might turn into a different story"/SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

For this, I might suggest taking advantage of the NYT archives to "practice" by working through Patrick Berry's puzzles. His puzzles use very little crosswordese or obscure names and terms; all the difficulty is in the cluing.

A list of his puzzles can be found on this page...I didn't link to his author page because it has thumbnails of the completed puzzles.

Good luck!
posted by lalex at 4:45 PM on November 30, 2017

Another web site is Rex Parker does the NY Times Crossword. There is a certain "inside baseball" to some of his comments but it's amusing if not helpful.

One of the hard things about the NYT puzzle is that it's often aimed at some particular age level. For example, I'm 71 and I don't do movies. All the clues about film directors (except the Lees) are obscure to me. Also many popular entertainers. Still, Rex's comments suggest that it's pointed at an older demographic (but younger than me, I guess).
posted by SemiSalt at 5:22 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thursdays are their own thing, because they can have rebuses instead of single letters and words spelled backwards and going around corners and stuff. If you have trouble with them you could skip them, or just shamelessly show answers to help you understand them.

Fridays and Saturdays are really hard. The key for me is getting one long clue. If I can figure out one long clue, it can help open up a corner or other section of the puzzle and from there I'm often able to make progress.

I usually can't do a Friday or Saturday puzzle in one sitting. I do what I can and come back later in the day or the next day. If I'm really stuck, I'll use Google to find the name of the movie the actor was in in 1991, or the name of the hockey MVP from 1957. Sure, I'm cheating, but the reality is I don't know who the hockey MVP was and I'm not embarrassed about that.

If you can't make any progress on these harder puzzles, I'd suggest revealing one long clue, and then just working from that for a while. Don't expect to solve it in five minutes. Again, it's fine to come back later in the day. After a while it sometimes just clicks.

In addition to all the usual crossword tips (baseball terms, eft, abba eban, the usual list of words that show up all the time in crossword puzzles), you also want to have a good feel for comfortable turns of phrase. Sometimes you just need to think "how would I say that" and a four word phrase pops out and fits.

You want to be aware of what letters commonly go next to other letters in English words. It can help a lot to narrow a square down to 2 or 3 letters because of what letters are next to it in another direction.

I'm sure you're aware of this, but it's very important for New York Times puzzles: they are constantly providing clues that use the secondary meanings of words. You need to always be looking for those secondary (or tertiary) meanings, or you'll be lost.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:54 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I went from about there two years ago to finishing my first Saturday puzzle a couple of months ago!

I do google if I need to, usually starting around Thursday. I think being willing to google is what started me getting way better, as revealing a couple tough ones gave my brain more practice at the act of "figuring things out" on the tough clues. I assume "check word" and "reveal square" would have the same effect.

The other thing that helps is starting at night and then revisiting it the next day. It's amazing how clues I puzzled over seem obvious 12 hours later.
posted by mark k at 8:09 PM on November 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

FWIW, I thought today's puzzle was a lot easier than the typical Friday.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:54 AM on December 1, 2017

You just keep doing them, and if Fridays are impossible, look a few things up until you have a foothold. It's honestly mostly practice and learning the conventions and knowing a few things that get used over and over. For instance, there are a number of not very common four-letter words that are handy for crossword writers, so if you see the word "Melville" it's gonna be Omoo even though it's not something most people have ever read. See also: olla, etui, agar.

I used to take a long time to do Wednesdays and now can finish a Friday or Saturday in not a terrible amount of time, and I don't think I got any smarter. (Sometimes I think there are categories of knowledge that would help, admittedly, like rivers in Europe, #^&* Yser...but studying for a crossword seems to miss the point. And, well, I just will never know anything about sports and that is that.)

Thursdays, either you enjoy the gimmick thing or you don't. I skip them, because I don't.
posted by Smearcase at 9:04 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love the free Shortyz app for Android for crosswords. Because I use my dad's subscription for the NYT I get that puzzle downloaded every day, plus a bunch of free ones. I've found that doing a range of crosswords has improved my ability to complete the NYT ones. I especially like the option in the app to not have any visible sign that I revealed a letter or a word. It will tell you at the end how many letters you revealed and what percent that is against the total, and I use that to judge if I am improving. And I agree with walking away from the puzzle for a few hours or overnight - I often get stuck on Sunday puzzles but can come back and finish them later.
posted by twilightlost at 8:34 PM on December 1, 2017

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