If you enjoy a good crossword puzzle, you may have said to yourself "I wish I could do this for a living!" Because some crossword publishers offer cash prizes for a correct solution, it's just possible to make this happen. To become a professional crossword-solver, you need three things: skill, speed, and dedication. You may be able to solve even the trickiest cryptic puzzles — but your skill in solving clues won't help you much if another solver beats you to the post. Many publishers only give out a prize to the first correct entry they receive; you need to be fast to ensure that the winning entry is yours. You also need to be able to work steadily without seeing much reward at first. It may take time to win your first prizes, and this can be a frustrating period. Many would-be professional solvers fall by the wayside because they get discouraged.
Realistically, it's going to be much harder to generate a living wage (let alone a comfortable income) if you're only able to solve simple clues. While there are cash prizes available for solving simple crosswords, these tend to be much smaller than the prizes you can win if you're able to solve cryptic crosswords. A simple crossword may win you five or ten dollars, while a cryptic crossword from the same publisher can garner upwards of a hundred dollars in some cases. Cryptic clues may seem very daunting at first; however, they all tend to follow the same basic rules. Once you understand these rules, you'll find solving cryptic clues much easier.
There are plenty of websites and books detailing the tricks behind solving cryptic clues. You can also find desktop software, browser add-ons and mobile apps that will assist you. These can be a big help when you're really struggling. Look for works by successful crossword writers — the people who create crosswords for national newspapers or other well-known publishers. These give you detailed breakdowns of the different types of cryptic clue, the ways in which you can recognize them, and the best approaches for tackling each one. You may also be able to find books by other professional solvers; however, it's harder to verify a solver's credentials than it is to determine whether a crossword writer is successful or not. For this reason, you should be a little more cautious when buying works by solvers.
In some areas, you may even be able to find courses in solving clues. Here you'll have the benefit of interacting with a teacher who can answer your questions and work with you when you find yourself struggling. You may also be able to find a tutor for one-to-one instruction, either in person or online.
(If you've tried books, software and tuition but still can't manage cryptic clues, you might be better off spreading your net more widely and entering lots of different kinds of competitions — other puzzles, prize draws, and so on.)
A surefire way to improve your success rate is to keep on building your vocabulary. The greater your word-power, the more likely it is that you'll be able to deduce the correct word from the clue given — and the faster you'll be able to finish each puzzle. There are lots of ways to do this. Reading widely is always advisable. Books on different topics, in different genres and from different eras will contain very different vocabulary from each other; you'll find you pick up new words and expressions without even noticing that you're doing so. Anytime you have to stop and look up an unfamiliar word, make a note of it so you can come back and practice it later on. You will also find online vocabulary builder tools, including sites where you can sign up and track your progress as you expand your store of words and phrases.
Finding puzzles is easy. Identifying the competitions that will give you the best chance of winning enough money to live on is a little trickier. Most newspapers still have a prize crossword or two in the back, and national newspapers often give out large cash sums or valuable consumer goods to the lucky winners. The downside of such prestigious crosswords is that you're competing against an enormous number of people; no matter how good you are, when a paper has a circulation of millions, the law of averages dictates that there will be many thousands of people just as good as you. That's not to say you should ignore or avoid well-known prize crosswords — indeed, you should make the effort to complete some of these high-value puzzles on a regular basis. That said, you can increase your chances of winning by seeking out competitions that are likely to have fewer successful entrants.
You can narrow the field a little by completing crosswords in niche publications on topics that interest you; they're unlikely to be much trickier than the crosswords you find in the broadsheet newspapers, but the lower circulation of a specialist magazine means you'll have less competition. Women's magazines often have a crossword in the back; the prizes are often quite small, but they're worth including in your regular round of puzzles. As well as newspaper and magazines, look out for crossword puzzle collections in stores. Besides being a great way to keep your clue-solving muscles in trim, they often have prize crosswords alongside the just-for-fun puzzles. The prizes may not be substantial, but they can add up.
As well as conventional printed crosswords, you can find plenty of prize crossword puzzles online. The first places to look are the Web editions of many newspapers; these typically offer free puzzles every day. There are also lots of sites dedicated solely to crosswords, offering regular prizes to contestants. The Web is also a good place to get hints if you're really stuck with a clue; there are plenty of sites dedicated to sharing the answers to brain teasers of all sorts, including daily newspaper crossword solutions.
If deriving an income from solving crosswords should ever pall, you can always take the next step and start compiling your own puzzles. Most crossword writers got their start as a solver of crosswords; with an in-depth knowledge of how crosswords are devised, it's not hard to make the switch from professional solver to professional crossword writer.