Books, blogs and practice
This is partly repetition of advice I've already given, but it's important. Learning to solve cryptic crosswords is a bit like learning a language. You need the right mixture of textbook (How to solve books) and language lab/reading room (trying to solve puzzles). You should spend most time in the lab, but read the textbook and review it from time to time. The other point is that after you've solved your daily puzzle (or solved whatever clues you can), you should check the appropriate solving blog. The three blogs listed on the Puzzles page cover the five "broadsheet" puzzles which are the main focus of serious cryptic crossword solving because they're by and large the best puzzles of their kind available (and for daily paper cryptics I'd extend that best to the whole world, not just the UK). A puzzle in another paper may be easier, but until the other papers have blogs, you'll learn more by tackling a harder puzzle which is blogged. The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times are slightly easier than the other papers, so start with one of those if you find the others (Times, Independent, Guardian) too hard at the moment.
Expect the unexpected
Many of the suggestions below will help a lot of the time, but not necessarily
all the time. Cryptic setters love to do things you don't expect - such
as writing hidden word clues for 11-letter words, or writing two-word clues which
are cryptic definitions rather than double definitions. It's worth knowing that
'flower'=river, but once you start expecting it to do so, you'll fall for
the double-bluff (or should that be zero-bluff?) clue where 'flower' is
a definition for something like 'daisy'.
The long and the short of it
Try the short words first
Italian rivers: Try the Po before the Tiber.
Composers: Forget Beethoven and Rachmaninov. Remember Elgar, Ravel,
Ives and above all others, Thomas Arne (who wrote Rule Britannia).
Ancient cities: Forget Persepolis and Babylon. Think of Ur and occasionally
Two-word clues are extremely likely to be double definitions.
Short and long answers
Short words are much easier to write hidden word clues for than long ones.
Long words or phrases are quite often clued by anagrams.
Things that are true only in cryptic crosswords - or at least far more often there than in the real world.
ion = charge
This one makes me quite annoyed. An ion is a charged particle. Some setters
think this is the same thing as a charge.
CE = church
In crosswords, the Church of England is "CE", almost never "C of E".
EC = city
This comes from the fact that postcodes for the City of London all start 'EC'.
Cryptic Crossword conventions
Me and you
In clues, "I" or "Me" = the setter, "you" = the solver (Remember who wrote
Sometimes, clues to Down answers rely on you interpreting things as if
the clue were written downwards, as well as the answer.
'Your' or 'Ones'?
Phrases you know with the word "your" in may appear with "one's" instead,
such as KEEP ONE'S HAIR ON. If you try building a few grids, you'll soon
find out how much easier it is if ONES is used. If the answer is such a
phrase and the SI works for both versions, look at crossing answers, but
expect ONES rather than YOUR about 19 times out of 20.
Things to ignore
Although most clues turn out to be written in a very precise way when you
understand them properly, there are some things which you should take little notice of.
Some punctuation is significant, but you're often best off trying to ignore any punctuation.
If you imagine reading the clue out loud, do so with completely equal gaps between words and no stress on any word.
Spacing and hyphenation differences
Whether a word is hyphenated or shown as two words depends on the dictionary you use - you might now be looking at any of a web site, web-site or website. Try not to be thrown when the clue or answer uses a form you're not used to.
The wordplay in clues usually works in the present tense, e.g. "Nothing stops Chelsea playing tie" for SHOELACE=tie - O=nothing in anag. of Chelsea, with a subtle "insertion indicator" - "stops" as in stopping a tooth. (Watch out for imaginative indicators like this, especially at the Times, Guardian and Independent.) If the clue had "stopped" or "will stop", the logic would be just the same. As the clue is written several months before you solve it but (obviously!) read when you solve it, and you can think of the wordplay taking place at the time of writing or the time of solution, any of the tenses make sense. Present tense is the norm, but you'll see future or past occasionally because they improve the surface reading or are needed to make the wordplay fit.
Here's a Times Clue (18/4/2007): Primitive dwelling accommodates working class assembly (8). The answer is CONCLAVE = assembly.
The wordplay is C(ON=working, CL=class)AVE. In this clue, "working class" is an example of what my Times Championship rival Mark Goodliffe once called "lift and separate" in a report for the Times for the Times blog. You have to break this phrase down into its component words and treat them separately. By contrast, "primitive dwelling" means exactly what it says - the external CAVE. Inevitably there will be other times when it looks as if you need to treat the words separately, but in fact you need to use the phrase.
You can do this in several ways:
One of the habits shared by many crossword solvers is to cross out the
number of each clue as the clue is solved. For standard cryptic puzzles,
I recommend ditching this habit. If you use number deletions
to draw your attention to the clues which aren't solved yet, try looking
at the grid instead. Blank squares there are just as conspicuous as undeleted
clue numbers, and the grid entry includes the clue number. If you
look at the grid first, you can see any letters already provided by intersecting
answers. Often these can give you strong hints about the likely answer, or eliminate
some wordplay possibilities. This only works, of course, if you take care and
ensure that only the definite answers are written in the grid.
Another habit shared by many solvers is tackling the clues in numerical
order. You can speed things up on your first look at the clues
by looking at
intersecting down clues whenever you solve an across clue. This means you
have to keep a mental 'thumb' somewhere in the list of across clues, so
that you eventually check them all. You can gradually refine this method
so that you ignore down clues that you've already looked at, or ones that
won't provide any checking letters for later across clues you haven't seen yet.
Exactly how you exploit checking letters is up to you - looking at one corner
of the grid at a time may suit you better than my method described above.
Some people (apparently including the late John Sykes who won the Times Championship
almost whenever he wanted) will tell you that you should start with the last few down answers,
because the setters run out of ideas when they get close to finishing, or that 1 Across is
always difficult. I don't believe any "fact" like this is true often enough to change
from starting at the top left.
If an answer has more than one word, it's often useful to mark the word
breaks in the grid. You can thicken the bars at word breaks (blocked
grids only!) or use small hyphens where they're shown in the enumeration.
If you find that long answers are sometimes quite easy to solve, it might
be worth looking at all the long answers first - an answer to a 15-letter
word will give you some information about 7 or 8 others. The word
lengths in multi-word long answers can give you some hints about likely
words - 3 letter words are quite likely to be THE or AND, and "2,3" sequences
may be OF THE. In "Jumbo" puzzles, you may find cases like "F_E_D_F_....."
(5,2,3,5,2,4) - if the phrase "FIELD OF THE CLOTH OF GOLD" comes to mind,
you can be pretty sure that it's the only one with the right word-lengths
that fits, and not worry too much about what the clue says. In 15x15 puzzles
there are some multi-word answers that get used a lot and can be spotted quite easily
from the word-lengths and part of the def. Examples: TITUS ANDRONICUS (hardly any other well-known (5,10) play),
ON TOP OF THE WORLD, MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, A DROP IN THE OCEAN.
Clues joined by ... ellipses
"Ellipsis" is the fancy name for the three dots sometimes used to end a
sentence (and "ellipses" is the plural of this word, as well as of "ellipse").
Sometimes, one clue ends with an ellipsis and the next one starts with
one. The most common reason is that the surface meanings of the two clues
are related in such a way that joining them in this way makes them look
connected. It usually turns out, however, that the two clues work just as they
would have done without this device.
Sometimes, the two clues overlap. For instance, you may need to use
the first one or two words of the second clue as part of the first one.
I can only recall seeing one pair of clues where both extended past the
ellipsis into the other member of the pair.
At the time of writing, Guardian setters seem to be running an
unofficial competition to see who can join the most successive -
If you see sets of three or more clues
with ellipses, the third and later clues in the set may continue from
the first clue, not the second.
The initial capital letter trick
Most cryptic clues, like English sentences, start with a capital
letter. This simple fact is often exploited by setters. Sometimes
they use it to avoid emphasising the initial capital letter of a
word which is a proper noun, by using that word as the first word
of the clue. Sometimes they do the opposite, and place an
ordinary noun at the beginning of the clue, because they would
like you to think it is a proper noun.
Find your definition
A major part of the task of solving a cryptic clue is
correctly identifying the definition. Remember that nearly all (I'd
guess at least 95%) of clues have a definition which starts at
the beginning or ends at the end of the clue. If you're stuck,
try interpreting the first or last one, then two, then three, (etc.
etc.) words as a possible definition, and see if you can make
sense of the rest as wordplay. In most puzzles you can use a lazier
method and just try the first or last one or two words - one of
these choices will often account for at least 80% of the definitions.
Have you made a mistake?
If you're completely stuck, a few answers short of finishing a
puzzle, look at the answers you've already written in, to make sure
you haven't made a spelling mistake or entered a 'red herring'
- an alternative answer which seems to fit the clue. I see quite a
few requests for help with clues where the checking letters supplied
turn out to include ones from mistaken entries, and correcting them
is enough for the baffled solver to see the answer.
Brackets in 'cryptic logic'
Remember the principle in mathematics, that calculations in
brackets are done first, so that 3+(4 times 5) = 23 and (3+4) times 5 = 35 ? Some cryptic clues require you to work out
where their 'brackets' are.
||Cross or embarrassed holding silver, given short
||ENRAGED - Ag = Silver inside Red = embarrassed, next to
en = short measure (in printing). Here, the clue with brackets would be:
"Cross or (embarrassed holding silver), given short measure", not (e.g.)
"Cross or embarrassed holding (silver, given short
measure)", which would give something like "RAGENED", which is not
a genuine synonym for 'cross'.
The transition from learning to instinct
When you're a beginner at cryptic crosswords, you need to
think about most clues very carefully. Gradually, you'll learn to
recognise bits of cryptic jargon and some of the words which
often imply a particular clue type. You'll also remember
particular clues and recognise them when you see them
again, whether in the same form or a slightly different version.
After a while, what you learn will enable you to solve some
clues "instinctively" - you'll just read the clue and
see what the answer is, with very little conscious thought. If
you see people solving cryptic puzzles very quickly (say 5
minutes for a daily newspaper puzzle), much of their solving will
be done in this way. This causes problems when an "expert"
solver tries to explain how to solve cryptic puzzles - their
chief method of solving doesn't work very well until you've been
doing cryptic puzzles for quite a long time. The expert can
usually tell you why the answer to a cryptic clue is the right
answer, but you can be pretty sure that this explanation has
little to do with the thought processes that led him to that
answer. It is usually "him", despite the
stuff in the Guardian (25 June 1999) about brain
mapping, which reckons that "women are better at processing
complex verbal information". Perhaps cryptic clues are
actually "simple verbal information"?
Editor: Peter Biddlecombe