1. Monday is the easiest puzzle day, Saturday is the hardest.
Most people assume the iconic Sunday NYT puzzle is the most challenging, but most crossword enthusiasts find Saturday’s puzzles have the highest level of difficulty.
The puzzles start gentle on Mondays and get increasingly tougher as the week goes on, so if you’re a novice, start with a Monday puzzle and work your way up to a later-week puzzle. (You can buy books of puzzles from certain days of the week; here’s a book of all-Mondays.)
2. Figure out the annoying (but sometimes clever!) gimmick.
Most Sunday puzzles, and some weekday puzzles, have a “theme” that can be a bitch to figure out, but put you on the fast track to Solvesville once you get it.
For example, this Sunday’s puzzle was called “Downright Tricky!” Each “gimmick” answer ran down and then traveled to the right. The reason is explained in the clue for EL CID (“Spanish hero whose 113-Down is represented enigmatically six times in this puzzle”). In other words, the theme answers form six “L”s, and all the “L”s are three-part phrases where each part begins with “C,” “I,” and “D,” respectively.
Yeah, they’re a pain. But once you figure out what the puzzle is doing, you’ll be able to easily fill the remaining clues in the theme.
3. Tenses will always match up.
If a clue is in the present tense (here, “trade cross words”), the answer will be in the present tense as well (“bicker”).
5. A question mark at the end of the clue means it’s going to be a pain in the ass.
Well, it means the answer is going to be some sort of pun or wordplay. Some examples from a recent Sunday puzzle:
Eye covers for the naive? —> WOOL
Circular parts? —-> ADS
Pot pusher’s vehicle —-> TEACART
Remember, the Times has a reputation for being a wee bit stodgy. So think dad humor, not Jon Stewart humor.
6. Beware of homonyms.
“Nurse” can indicate the noun for “medical caregiver,” but it can also mean the verb form of that. It could also mean to feed an offspring from a breast, or to receive feeding from a breast. In this case, it’s used in the sense of “nursing,” or “sipping,” a drink. Agh! Frustrating.
7. If you’re stumped on one single letter, try every letter of the alphabet until you get it right.
Seriously! This is how I finally solved the puzzle this Sunday. (The answer was ESTIVATE, which I’m still not convinced is actually a word.)
9. Learn “crosswordese.”
There are certain words the New York Times LOVES, words that are often found in crossword puzzles but rarely in everyday conversation. These can include words like “iota,” above, which is common in speech but that the puzzle uses over and over.
It can also include weirder words, ones that have a lot of consonants or vowels. Things like APSE (a “semicircular church foyer”), OLIO (a “miscellaneous mixture of elements”), EPEE (a fencing sword), and AGA (a Turkish honorific title).
And names of rivers. The ARNO and the ELBE come up at least once a month.
10. When in doubt, look up the answer.
Obviously, most people would consider this CHEATING!!! And it kind of is. But I say, when you’re doing the puzzle to improve your own timing and proficiency, sometimes you just need that one clue to get you past your mental roadblock. As time goes on, you can wean yourself off Google, or set different rules for yourself. (For me, Googling is cheating, but I don’t consider it cheating if I ask a friend for help and she tells me the answer.)
If you’re really stuck, head over to Rex Parker’s famous crossword blog. He solves the puzzle the night before it publishes — using the iOS app which publishes early — and posts the solved puzzle every day, with commentary. Try not to get jealous of his times (11 minutes for Sunday!), but sometimes it’s good to see the finished version of a puzzle you’re stuck on, for that refreshing “AHA!” moment.