What makes a crossword cryptic?

A cryptic crossword takes the fundamentals of a crossword puzzle and cranks up the wordplay, misdirection, and, on a good day, sphinx-like poetry.

A cryptic crossword takes the fundamentals of a crossword puzzle and cranks up the wordplay, misdirection, and, on a good day, sphinx-like poetry. Rather than the traditional crossword’s one definition-based clue, a cryptic crossword gives you both a definition path and a wordplay path to the answer but — “alas” — they’re deviously hard to distinguish. What kind of wordplay? Whatever we can winkingly tell you to do. A cryptic clue should always literally tell you how to arrive at the answer … but should also bury that literalness up to and sometimes past its neck.

Here’s our one-sheet solving guide. Posted below that are our favorite resources for prospective solvers seeking further reading.

Cox & Rathvon’s Guide to Cryptic Crosswords. The variety cryptic crosswords created by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon for the Wall Street Journal and, previously, The Atlantic are the brass rings we’re always stretching toward with The Rackenfracker. They pack a lot of good instruction into a single page, but Cox and Rathvon’s out-of-print Random House Guide to Cryptic Crosswords approaches the status of a holy text.

If you want something book-length and “in print,” Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto’s invaluable Word Salad dives deep into the rules, the controversies, and the state of modern American cryptic crosswords. Presented in bite-size chapters, they grapple with everything from anagram indicators to the lack of American publication diversity. If you wonder how we have enough cheek to attempt some of the outré things our puzzles attempt, it’s because Kosman and Picciotto laid down covering fire.

Selinker & Leban’s How to Solve Cryptic Crossword Puzzles is another gold-standard resource for new solvers.

Ron Sweet, using the nom de énigme Kegler, makes very good cryptics, and has made what we consider the very best beginner cryptics. If you’ve read the above guides and want something to sink your teeth into, Kegler’s Beginner Puzzles are cake with lots of frosting.

The Browser has a highly interactive guide to solving cryptics, which makes the experience a game. Twitch legend elderism‘s new guide to cryptics for a new solver is invaluable, though its UK provenance means some of its finer points may not be universally applicable. Stella Zawistowski at her Tough as Nails blog did a very deep, very useful dive into each clue type. Thanks to all for developing and pointing us to these resources.

For simple puzzles to get you off the ground, may we direct you to joeadultman‘s Cryptic 101 puzzles, which each focus on one and only one type of wordplay? Once your grounding there is complete, Steve Mossberg‘s collection of over 25 Quiptics is a necessary next stop. These puzzles provide the nature of the wordplay alongside each clue as a form of training wheels — and then, when you are ready, you can switch to solving them without those hints, before moving on to larger puzzles. An invaluable resource.

“OK,” you say, “I get all of that, but what’s a variety cryptic?” Cryptic crosswords take the basic format of the crossword and pull the rug out from beneath the clues. Variety cryptics just find more rugs to pull on — special rules to complicate the solving process. Variety cryptics often involve dirty tricks and are a good place to start co-solving with friends. The more, the harried-er.

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