Every cryptic clue has two main parts: (1) a definition of the answer, as in a standard crossword puzzle, and (2) some sort of wordplay leading to the answer, often accompanied by an indication of what sort of wordplay it is. The two parts can appear in either order in the clue. At the end of the clue is a number in parentheses that tells you how many letters are in the answer; multiple words are numbered separately with commas in between.
There are many types of wordplay. Among the most commonly used ones:
Single fish (4)
The simplest type of wordplay, where the clue simply combines two distinct meanings of a single word. In this case, “single” and “fish” can both clue the answer to this clue, SOLE. Double definitions’ clues are often on the short side, which can make them easier to spot.
Priest spilled soft drink (6)
Here, “soft drink” is the definition, and “Priest spilled” is the wordplay. “Spilled” suggests that the letters of PRIEST are to be rearranged; other common anagram indicators are adjectives like “weird” and “upset,” adverbs like “poorly” and “unusually,” and verbs like “change” or “moving”. The answer to this clue is SPRITE.
Remained stiffly proper, I hear (6)
“Remained” is the definition, and “I hear” means that you want to listen to a word that means “stiffly proper”. That word is STAID, which is a homonym of the answer to this clue, STAYED. Some other homophone indicators include “overheard,” “to the audience,” and “aloud.”
Whose ancestor holds paranormal gathering? (6)
The answer to the clue is spelled out directly. In this case, “whose ancestor” holds SEANCE, the answer to the clue. Other possible hidden-word indicators include “part of,” “within,” and “keeps.”
Note that the question mark in this clue is not relevant to either the definition or wordplay. Punctuation in cryptic clues can be misleading.
Cheese boxes hold sweet treat (7)
A word for “cheese” boxes (contains) a word for “hold”, leading to an answer meaning “sweet treat”. BRIE contains OWN, making the answer for this clue, BROWNIE. It is also possible to have container clues work in the other direction, where a word “is contained by” another word — for example, OWN “is inside” BRIE. So look out for words meaning “holding” or “containing” as well as words meaning “is held by” or “goes into”.
Stylish Mr. Jennings is afraid (7)
In a charade, the answer is broken up into multiple pieces. “Stylish” is CHIC, “Mr. Jennings” is KEN, and putting those together gives a word for “afraid,” CHICKEN. There is often no indicator for a charade, though sometimes a clue might say that CHIC is “by” or “with” or “before” KEN, for example.
Tailless animal sounds like a calf (4)
In this clue, an animal loses its tail (last letter) to get a word meaning “sounds like a calf”: tailless MOOSE becomes the answer to this clue, MOOS.
Deletions can be at the end of the word (as here), the beginning of the word, or anywhere in the middle of the word. Look for words like “drops,” “without,” “missing,” and so on.
Friends strike back (4)
A synonym for “strike,” when written “back” (in reverse), becomes a synonym for “friends”: SLAP reversed becomes the answer to this clue, PALS. Some indicators include “the other way,” “returned,” and things like “up” or “north” for Down entries.
Congenial dancing! (5, 4)
The sole exception to the rule that every clue breaks up into “definition” and “wordplay” portions; in an &lit. clue (short for “and literally so”), the whole clue is the definition AND the whole clue is the wordplay. In this case, you’re looking for a phrase meaning “congenial dancing”; also, CONGENIAL “dancing” (anagrammed) leads to the same answer: CONGA LINE.
BITS AND PIECES
You will frequently see single letters clued in cryptics. Sometimes they will be abbreviations (“liberal” = L, “empty” = E); other times, they will be clued as a part of a phrase (“head of lettuce” = L, “center of gravity” = V, “end of discussion” = N).
A lot of clues use combinations of wordplay types. You might see a word backward inside another word, an anagrammed phrase without one letter, and so on. When properly read, the clue should tell you exactly what you need to do, no matter how complicated it is.