Garry Gillard > crosswords > starting out

How to start solving a cryptic crossword

When you first look at a cryptic clue, if you're a novice, you'll see the surface. Part of the setter’s job is to write a pleasing ‘surface’ - what the clue appears to be about - to deliberately try to mislead the solver into forming an idea of something unrelated to the answer.

You might read 'Dread slithering snake (5)' and imagine a snake coming towards you and feeling scared. Resist this impulse.

You should, rather, make two guesses.

1. Guess which word or words is/are the 'definition' (synonym, literal) part of the clue. As I'll tell you on the clues page, almost every cryptic crossword clue consists of two parts: the definition and the word-play. On that page, I also write that the definition is always at the beginning or end of the clue - and more often at the start (and quite often just the very first word).

In the example above, guess whether the 'definition' is 'dread' or 'snake'. Your first guess may be wrong, but you have to start somewhere. ... In this case, the 'definition' part of the clue is 'snake' and 'dread slithering' is the 'wordplay'.

2. Guess what kind of clue this is. I suppose you can't do this until you know which kinds of clues there are, so again, you'll have to read the clues page.

But the main thing to learn here is: do not be misled by the surface of the clue: consider the words (and even the letters) separately rather than reading them together to make a little story.

In the example above, the clue type is that of the anagram. You can make an anagram out of the letters of 'dread' to make a type of snake: it's an ADDER.

Fortunately, anagrams must be signalled by an anagram indicator (the term is often shortened to anagind or anagrind). Here it's 'slithering'.

Anagrams are why you have to note the number of letters. The letters in the clue have to be the same number as the answer.

Now go to the next page, and learn about clue types.

Garry Gillard | New: 2 April, 2018 | Now: 20 December, 2018