Thanks to the lovely people at Splinter Design, you can watch my thoughts about taking your first steps into solving cryptic crosswords as part of the BBC’s IDEAS project, a series of short films explaining interesting things in entertaining ways. Click here to watch the film on the BBC’s website.

Get the Basics

If you’re new to cryptic crosswords, the first thing to understand is that almost all clues have two parts: a definition and some form of wordplay, possibly with a couple of neutral connecting words. Working out how the wordplay works, while subconsciously testing possible definitions, is what cryptics are all about. Most of the wordplay that you’ll see falls into one of these categories:

ANAGRAMS Yes, of course there’ll be anagrams. All the letters of the solution should be there, with an indicator word to tell you that you’ll need to unscramble them:

TRAINSPOTTERS They observe transport site movements

CHARADES Another staple, where the solution is split up into other, smaller, words. Instead of the letters, you’re given synonyms for these components. There may be an indicator to tell you how to put them together, or they may just follow naturally one after the other:

CAR PARK Where to find transport for a fish? On a boat

REVERSALS The fun comes from spotting the indicator that tells you to read something backwards:

RENNET Money back due to substance in milk product

HOMOPHONES You know, where one word sounds like another. Sometimes, it’s surprisingly hard to spot the indicator:

ATISHOO Evidence of virus disputed in report

HIDDEN WORDS The solution is there for you to see! These tend to be a bit easy, so I try not to have more than one in a puzzle:

ENTRAINMENT Railhead activity leads to accident – rain mentioned in covering letters

DOUBLE DEFINITIONS Instead of wordplay, there’s an alternative definition, usually quirky:

RULE Headline?

SPOONERISMS I love Spoonerisms, and hear them everywhere. It’s debilitating, really. Not everyone likes these, so I limit them to one per puzzle:

DRAGONFLY No drink in the pot for Spooner’s former nymph

TICHY (TONGUE-IN-CHEEK) The anarchists of the clueing world, they follow no-one’s rules but their own:

TROLLEY You may find gateaux on it, but not fruitcakes

CONSTRUCTION KIT Where nothing else works, you can always put a clue together from odds and ends:

FINAL Last of its last in first: first of last?

ACROSTICS Another get-out-of-jail card: there’s always an acrostic, sometimes an apt one:

DICK Little Richard didn’t intend covering “Kiss” at first

Now Have Some Fun

Once you’re happy with the basics, it’s time to start playing with the form …

MIXED-UP INDICATORS Most setters take pride in finding indicator words that sound as if they have a completely different purpose. I really like using words that are part of the definition in some clues and part of the wordplay elsewhere. If I can find two or three different ways of doing that, I’ll be quietly grinning to myself:

BUTTER Milk product from a goat?

LAMBKIN Ban milk product from a sheep?

SUBTRACTION ANAGRAMS Some people have kindly attributed these to me as a signature device, but they come from a perfectly respectable tradition:

DIE HARD Careless dispatch rider loses script for film

According to the classical rules, I’m cheating here, because there should be a word in the clue to indicate that it’s the letters of SCRIPT, not in their normal order, that are subtracted. I reckon that my cavalier approach works, as long the result is clear.

REVERSE DEFINITIONS This is where the solution sounds like the wordplay for a clue. It can be tricky, but it’s great fun when it works:

ORDER ABOUT Clue to U-boat command?

&LITS This is a special class of clue, where the whole of the clue is the definition and the whole of the clue is also the wordplay … you don’t see true &Lits very often, but they’re very satisfying when you do:

CARTOON No actor playing here

SEMI &LITS I like to use a treatment where the definition spreads out to take over the whole clue, but the wordplay doesn’t. This isn’t the same as a true &Lit, but it’s fun … well, it is for me:

AMISH Community in bosom of Abraham is holy

PUNCTUATION It’s not there to help you … that’s all I’ll say!

Boatman References

You may have noticed that my puzzles normally have either one or two Boatman references in them. I’m not the first setter to use my name to stand for “I” or “ME”, but I’m usually playing a different game … or rather, one of two different games. Have a look at these two examples:

WAIVER Boatman’s got involved in fighting for release

SPAB They protect our heritage from worsening odds. Boatman backs them

More Thoughts

You can find more thoughts about compiling, including my 13-step method from notebook to finished puzzle, in my blog, by clicking here.

Crossword Magazines

Enjoy these sites, which are dedicated to publishing interesting new work and are worth following whether you’re starting out as a setter or looking for new solving challenges:

New and classic puzzles from 1 Across magazine – now with a place for you to upload your puzzles for public comment 

Mark Goodliffe’s Magpie magazine

Crossword Solving Tuition

I don’t teach how to solve crosswords, but I know a man who does … If you want to sharpen your skills, take a look at Kaz Pasiecznik’s excellent classes:

Crossword Tutors

More Crossword Websites

You may enjoy paying a visit to some of these crossword-related websites:

Guardian Blog Alan Connor’s round-up and analysis of the best of the week’s cryptic crosswords in the Guardian and elsewhere. Alan has created a handy index to his posts to date here.

Fifteen Squared A band of dedicated solvers provide super-fast solutions for Guardian and other crosswords, featuring wise commentary and robust discussion

Unscramblerer Extensive lists of abbreviations and clueing indicators – very handy for both solvers and setters

Crossword Unclued Intelligent discussion of clue types and conventions, including some more examples that you may recognise from my oeuvre

Best-for-Puzzles Who’s Who Well-researched compendium of, as it says, puzzling people

Big Dave Keeper of the unofficial Telegraph crossword blog, which may possibly be the world’s most popular crossword blogging site

The Crossword Centre by Derek Harrison

JETDoc’s Crossword Events Calendar and some bonus quiz rounds from Enigmatist

David Astle The fearsomely fertile mind of DA

The Stickler by David Stickley, another great compiler from Down Under

Paul Henderson who is Phi and many more