How To Play Crossword Puzzles

Would you like to improve your vocabulary, learn interesting new facts, and enhance your critical thinking skills?  Solving crossword puzzles may be the answer!  Crossword puzzles are complex word puzzles that are enjoyable, relaxing, and rewarding.  This guide will share some information about crossword puzzles and how they are completed.

How does a crossword puzzle work?

Crossword puzzles are drawn puzzles that are usually in the shape of a square or rectangle.  The puzzle is filled with black and white squares.  The goal of a crossword puzzle is to fill the white boxes with the answers to a series of questions.  Most crosswords include numbers in the white squares so the player can match each question with a specific answer location.  The shaded squares are used to separate the answers.

The answers that go into the white boxes are written across and down, with separate clues for each direction.  The answers will interlock with one another, so correctly answering one question will give you one or more letters that make up part of a different answer.  For example, in the picture below once you filled the horizontal word “WORDS”, it gives you a letter “O” as a clue when you fill the downward word “CROSS”

Once you have correctly completed all of the answers, you have “beaten” the puzzle.  Some crossword puzzles are quite difficult and completing them is an achievement you can be proud of!

Understanding crossword clues

The biggest challenge you will face when completing a crossword puzzle is interpreting what the clues mean and then finding the correct answers.  Clues can be expressed in different ways, so a crossword novice may struggle to understand the clue meaning or what they are meant to answer.  The most common clue types include:

Straight clues (Quick clues)

A straight clue is a word or very short phrase that immediately makes you think of several potential answers.  You must match one of those potential answers to the space that is available in the crossword.  Most crosswords published in the United States and the UK use straight clues.  Straight clues are often:


The puzzle will give you a word or phrase and you must think of a synonym that 􀀁lls the location.  In the crossword pictured above, one clue was the word “Lukewarm” and the answer has 5 letters.  One potential answer would be “Tepid”.

Fill in the blank

Some clues will use a blank space, which is 􀀁lled in with a word.  For example, the clue might be “______ Jackson” with an answer that 􀀁ts being “Michael”.  These clues are usually very easy to solve but might give you multiple potential answers that can 􀀁t the puzzle.  You may have to use the letter count and intersection letters to determine the correct answer.


Some straight clues are a single word with a question mark on the end.  Generally, the answer is one of the first words that you think of.

Colloquial answers

Some crossword puzzles will ask you to translate a phrase to a colloquial term.  For example, a clue might be “Friendly greeting”. The answer might be a colloquial greeting like “What’s up”


Some clues might have abbreviated answers.  The clue “Politician: Abbr.” might have an answer of “SEN” which is short for senator or “GOV” for governor.

Non-dictionary phrases

Some crosswords will use non-dictionary phrases as answers.

Indirect clues

Crossword puzzles may also have abstract clues that involve wordplay.  The clues are meant to be taken metaphorically or require some form of lateral thinking to answer.  These kinds of clues usually have a question mark at the end or have a modifier like the words perhaps or maybe. 

For example, the clue “Nice Summer?” might not mean “nice summer”, it is referring to Nice, the city in France.  The answer to the clue might be the French word for “Summer”. 

Another indirect clue would be “Melting icecap used as an emetic“.  The reference to melting icecap actually means the word’s letters are being scrambled to form the answer, which is “ipecac” — a fluid that makes you vomit.  As you can see, indirect clues can require lateral thinking!

Crossword categories and themes

Some crosswords are based around a specific category.  This can help you determine the answers as they must share a relationship with one another.  Common categories include animal names, historical events, celebrities, automobiles, or human anatomy.

Crosswords can also have themes that change how answers are formatted or presented.  Some common themes include:

Adding or subtracting letters

Some crosswords allow you to add and remove letters from answers.  This can be challenging because you need to determine which letter to add or remove and still have the right letter for intersecting answers.

Compound themes

This theme requires that certain answers make sense if they precede or follow other answers.  For example if one answer is “Paper” then the following answer must “Boy”, “Mill” or some other word that can make sense when attached to paper.

Rebus themes

These crosswords allow you to use a letter multiple times or substitute symbols for some letters.

Other themes

Other themes are based on poems, have words that must rhyme, use puns and so on.