How to Do a Crossword Puzzle

By Matt Koble
Consider using a pencil to easily erase and correct any mistakes.

Part word puzzle, part trivia quiz, crossword puzzles provide a battle of wits where your only opponent is your memory and knowledge of often trivial information. If you’re unfamiliar with the rules, one look at the confusing box full of numbers and laundry list of clues beside it might seem intimidating. Knowing the rules and using a few simple strategies help tame that fear so you can triumph over the puzzle, and by extension, the puzzle maker out to stump you.

Basics

Your standard crossword puzzle.

Crossword puzzles are organized in a grid with some squares blacked out, remaining unused. Other squares are in play, and each contains one letter partially spelling out the word, phrase or abbreviation hinted at by the clues. Each puzzle has two sets of clues, one for answers going diagonal and one for vertical answers, typically labeled “across” and “down.” Answers are always read from left to right for across answers, and from top to bottom for down answers. The puzzle boxes with numbers on them indicate where the answer for the corresponding clue begins. In the photo, the number "!7" indicates where both the 17 across and 17 down answers start.

Abbreviations and Multiple Words

As if crossword puzzles weren’t challenging enough, you also have to keep in mind that some answers may be abbreviations or multiple words. If you’re sure the answer is “vehicle identification number,” but there are only three spaces, try “VIN” instead. Abbreviated answers do not include punctuation, so you’d simply put “Ave” for "avenue," with no period at the end. Similarly, answers containing multiple words omit spaces. If your answer was “Electric Avenue,” it would read “electricavenue.”

What You Know

Upon first starting the puzzle, don’t stress the answers you don’t know too much. As you fill in the answers you do know, you’re essentially giving yourself hints by placing letters in boxes that also apply to another answer. So if you couldn’t figure out “Something you read,” for example, having a “B” already in the first letter’s spot may tip you off that the answer is “book.” The more of the puzzle you can fill in by correctly guessing the answers, the more clues you’ll have regarding clues also using those boxes.

Short Words

Another good place to start is by tackling shorter words of three to five words. While it all depends on the clue, you might find it easier to decipher “tree” than “onomatopoeia.” The New York Times website confirms this clue, saying that there are fewer small words in the English language, and that crossword puzzles typically reuse the same handful.

About the Author

Matt Koble has been writing professionally since 2008. He has been published on websites such as DoItYourself. Koble mostly writes about technology, electronics and computer topics.