January 21, 2007 11:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I solve the Sunday Times crossword puzzle?

I feel like I'm a smart person and yet every week I find myself humiliated at the hands of The New York Times. I can usually work a corner or sometimes a whole section. I've never solved a Sunday Times puzzle on my own. What are some strategies for getting good? If you're someone who can solve it, how do you go about it? Thanks.
posted by adrober to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no crossword expert, but I find it makes an enormous difference if I look a few moves ahead, so to speak. "Well, 6-across might be 'foo' or it might be 'bar.' If it's 'bar,' then 8-down would be a four-letter-word starting with 'rx.' But I'm pretty sure there's no words like that, so 6-across must be 'foo' — oh, and maybe 8-down is 'oxen.' Lemme see if the 'e' and the 'n' would fit in with anything else...."

If I didn't look ahead, I'd be stuck at "6-across could be 'foo' or 'bar,' but I don't know which. Er, lemme look at the next clue."
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:59 AM on January 21, 2007

Don't start with the sunday puzzles -- get a book of the easy ones (in general monday ones are easier and they get harder the closer you get to the weekend).
posted by advil at 12:03 PM on January 21, 2007

This may seem obvious, but just keep doing them--you'll learn certain "crossword words" that are used often, understand how best to read clues for puns, and generally develop an understanding of patterns that repeat.

Shortz puzzles are the best because they adhere to a consistent clue code but remain fresh and challenging.

(eg: compass direction is always some combination of ssw sse, nnw, nne; abbreviated clues have abbreviated answers; foreign locales in clues mean the answer is in the language of that place, etc.)

It also helps to put it down for a while, do something else, and come back to it. It's amazing how a fresh perspective will let you see the answer immediately sometimes.

Sometimes filling in "s's" and "ed's" for plurals and past tense words (when you don't know the rest) can help open up other words, but it's a gamble.

Also, if at all possible, find someone who is a little better at puzzles than you and do the crossword together. Just don't fight over who gets to hold the pencil.

Whatever you do, don't google for answers! That takes all the fun away, because the internet is cheating, for life.
posted by pinto at 12:04 PM on January 21, 2007

The times gets harder from Monday through Saturday (Sunday being about as hard as Thursday, but bigger). so start with Mondays and work up.
posted by frieze at 12:05 PM on January 21, 2007

My experience -- you have to get used to the crossword editor. So if you're trying to get good at NYT, you need to get used to Will Shortz's style of editing and sense of humor. So you should do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, try Thursday, as well as Sunday. (Friday and Saturday are pretty difficult, harder than Sunday -- after years I haven't been able to do Friday and Saturday.)

For me, solving Sunday's is a matter of experience, being used to the style, and persistence. I go through, put in the ones I know, ponder, solve some more, put it down, pick it back up, see some new answers.

And what pinto says.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:06 PM on January 21, 2007

If I haven't looked at a crossword in a while and I have a yen to do the NYT one on Sunday, I'll train myself by solving the crosswords during the week. As the difficulty escalates as the week progresses, building up your crossword-fu over the course of the week is easy.
Also, one technique I use every time is to scan over the clues and immediately fill in the "factual" answers that I'm sure are correct (e.g. LBJ's predecessor, 3 letters) so I'll have something of a scaffold to work from when the going gets tough.
posted by Bromius at 12:06 PM on January 21, 2007

I'm a crossword fanatic. As Pinto says, a huge part of the game is knowing the threes and fours that are likely to spring up. After a while, you'll learn that if you see the word 'Georgia' in a clue, you need to immediately fill in SSR; if you see 'Mission Impossible', you fill in LALO. After a while, you'll get a feel for the types of puns and synonyms that are used. Is 'listing' a clue? Try putting in SLANTED or ATILT. That's a very common clue. A friend of mine complained to me that last week's Sunday contained 'Drink' as a clue for OCEAN, as it held her up for a while. I filled it in immediately simply because I'd seen it before. You'll also get a sense of what the themed entries are like, and when to look for rebuses.

There are two ways to learn the parlance of crossword culture.

1) Do a bunch. Download Across Lite, head to Cruciverb, and do free Across Lite puzzles in the right-hand sidebar. The New York Sun puzzles, edited by Peter Gordon, are great. Many think they're better than the Times ones (although they are much harder). Will Johnston's page contains a huge repository of free crosswords.

2) Read the crossword blogs! It's easy to forget the meanings of weird entries if you just see them in a grid, but the blogs discuss their meanings, making them much easier to remember for next time. The best two are Diary of a Crossword Fiend and Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword. Don't go to these sites before you've tried the today's crossword for yourself, as they contain spoilers! (I'm linking to them, but avoiding opening them up as I haven't started today's Sunday. But I'm about to!).

(Now that I see all the links I've put up, I wonder if I could make this into an FPP)
posted by painquale at 12:22 PM on January 21, 2007 [24 favorites]

It's okay to cheat during training by looking up fact-based clues (proper names, film directors, song titles). If it helps you complete the puzzle on your own, the experience will teach you so much more than leaving it all blank and reading through the answers when they are finally revealed.
posted by xo at 12:26 PM on January 21, 2007

Another thing: the Shortz Sunday crosswords can be really sneaky about "cheap" clues. Example: a puzzle called "Cupid's Target" may have a clue called "fireplace mantle", and the word is 2 letters. It could very well be that the answer is HEARTH, spelled [heart]H, basically using a picture of a heart as a letter. While I love the WS weekday puzzles, I often get fed up with the Sunday ones for this reason.

Anyway, it's always helpful to look at the title of the puzzle, if your newspaper publishes it. It will almost always give you a helpful clue to solving the thing.
posted by rossination at 12:32 PM on January 21, 2007

(Also, painquale, that would be a fantastic FPP, IMHO).
posted by rossination at 12:33 PM on January 21, 2007

My mom does crossword puzzles and she said that a crossword puzzle dictionary really helped her out when she was learning them.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:58 PM on January 21, 2007

My mom and stepfather do the NYT crossword every day. They work them together, and have two shelves of reference books in the kitchen for the crosswords. Some people might think that's cheating, but they love it.

And, yes, they would second the advice about getting used to the quirks.
posted by Mavri at 1:20 PM on January 21, 2007

Find someone who is a little better at puzzles than you and do the crossword together. Just don't fight over who gets to hold the pencil.

I recommend that the weaker person gets to hold the pencil. Otherwise, the stronger person races ahead and the weaker gets frustrated.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:22 PM on January 21, 2007

I liked this article by Will Shortz about some of the standard rules to use when interpreting clues.
posted by lalex at 1:25 PM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I recommend that the weaker person gets to hold the pencil. Otherwise, the stronger person races ahead and the weaker gets frustrated.

The problem with this method is that by the time the weaker person has finished filling in an entry, the stronger person will have completed three more and will call them out... the weaker person will never even get to look at the clues and will end up just filling in the grid.

The best way for two people to solve together, I think, is to let each person have a copy of the crossword of their own and occasionally ask each other questions.
posted by painquale at 2:18 PM on January 21, 2007

It comes down to practice. Pick up some of the collections of Sunday puzzles that have been printed, and work your way through those. Preferably a book of recent puzzles.

I quite like the annual NYT Sunday Puzzle engagement calendar -- 52 puzzles, all from four years ago (I think). I work through them on the bux in the mornings, and it generally takes me the better part of two days' worth of busing to finish a puzzle.

I've been serious for about fifteen years and will rarely get stumped by a Sunday puzzle. I'm about 50/50, though, on the Saturday puzzle.

So: practice.
posted by solid-one-love at 2:21 PM on January 21, 2007

I bought Will Shortz's Black & White Crosswords book to keep me amused on my breaks - I still haven't mastered any of the puzzles beyond Wednesday, but going back and doing some easier puzzles in between attempting the harder ones has helped a lot.

(Which a lot of other people have said, I just thought I'd throw in my two cents that this particular collection is pretty good. Though none of the titles are published, which gets annoying at times when they would shed some light onto the quirks of that particular puzzle.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2007

If you need extra practice (more than one week's worth of building in intensity puzzles provides), then you might consider a book of crosswords that labels which day they are.

Right now I'm working through Crossword Challenge (the one edited by Will Shortz). It's got a big range of difficulty, and it *labels* the day of the puzzle, so I can tell how I'm doing.

Still can't do the Sundays, myself, but I'm getting pretty solid up through Wednesday.
posted by nat at 3:22 PM on January 21, 2007

Have you seen Wordplay? If you haven't, rent it. Knowing how the beast is put together might give you the edge you need -- I've had an easier (or, at the very least, less frustrating) time solving crossword clues now that I know how the puzzles are put together.
posted by phatkitten at 5:05 PM on January 21, 2007

Do a lot of the weekday puzzles. As others have said the week starts easy and then gets very hard by Saturday. If you can't do Sunday, stick with Monday through Wednesday for a while. Look up the clues you could not figure out. There is a consistency to the clues over time so you will get better over time. For difficulty Sundays are kind of like Wednesday to Thursday puzzles, sometimes harder, but mostly they are just big so they take longer. Bigger puzzles can be easier as there may be more areas in which you make inroads to a difficult puzzle. Cheat if you have to and look up a clue here and there. Eventually you will be doing many of them without cheating. Sometimes you just click with the person who drafted the puzzle and even clues which should be difficult will seem easy to you. Sometimes it goes the other way. Of course, a background in foreign languages, mythology, literature, Broadway, tv shows etc. helps a lot. Finally, read the article linked by lalex.
posted by caddis at 6:31 PM on January 21, 2007

My university gets the Times for free M-F, so I've been practicing the crossword puzzles like a maniac for two years now. At the risk of being echo-y: Do them everyday, look up facts you don't know, and move on. I can now do Monday through Thursday without flinching. Friday still makes my soul weep, however.
posted by vkxmai at 9:13 PM on January 21, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This was really helpful. Tomorrow (Monday) is the first day of the rest of my (crossword) life.
posted by adrober at 10:47 PM on January 21, 2007

Be patient. I do very well with the late week crosswords, but they take me a long time. I find it my substitute for meditation.
posted by norm at 12:43 PM on January 22, 2007

This is great -- thanks everyone!

Quick question: does anyone know where I can get a Timer add-on for Across Lite for Windows?
posted by dryad at 5:51 PM on January 22, 2007

One more suggestion--do the "fill-in" clues first. (I mean, the ones where you complete a phrase with a blank space.)

Often these are pretty easy, so they give you something to hang other clues off of as you go.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:28 AM on January 23, 2007

if anyone is still looking, some answers here
posted by caddis at 6:11 PM on January 3, 2008

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