PuzzleMail is now FREE + other big news

Dear readers,

TWO big pieces of news at from LRHQ this week.

1. I'm going to be a first-time father in a matter of days!

This is obviously very exciting, and if you want to know my daughter-to-be's name, look out for 1-across in an upcoming September puzzle in my newspaper slot. But, due to the impending duties of fatherhood, I'll be making some changes to PuzzleMail....

2. PuzzleMail is now FREE!

You heard correctly. As part of the shake-up, the PuzzleMail newsletter will be totally free of charge, but instead of four pages weekly, I'll be breaking it up and distributing one page per week. Aside from workload reasons, this is also due to some feedback I've had that the newsletter contains simply too many puzzles!

PuzzleMail could still use your support.

Now that the newsletter is free, all paying subscribers have been moved onto my new subscription service called LR’s Puzzle Library. You too can support my puzzle-making by signing up for Library - it gives you access to all my crosswords past, present and future, and it’s updated weekly.

Thanks to everyone for your support to help me get to this stage. If any of you have any questions about the changes please email me.


🎉 Celebrating six months of PuzzleMail! 🎉

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On December 1st last year I launched PuzzleMail, a weekly collection of crosswords, cartoons and more, filling two A4 pages to the brim! It’s the place I put all the puzzles that are too cheeky, challenging or experimental for my newspaper gig, emailed every Thursday morning.

PuzzleMail is still only in its infancy, and there is still a long way to go in my PuzzleMail plot! But I enjoy watching my baby hit inboxes every Thursday, and corresponding with the solvers who always let me know what they think of my wacky puzzle ideas.

A look back at the last 26 editions of PuzzleMail:

Subscriber stories

I’ve connected with subscribers from America, England and all corners of Australia. With my international audience in mind, I usually I try to minimise Australianisms.

Gift subscriptions have been popular! Stephanie bought her partner a gift subscription to PuzzleMail for their anniversary - solving crosswords together can be such a romantic activity. My generous wife even subscribed for 6 weeks until I caved and told her she could have PuzzleMail for free.

Marketing madness

I’ll try anything to try to find those LR crossword fans out in the world - both on the internet and in the real world. I printed 100 colour copies of PuzzleMail’s free sample to put in cafes, only to spot a glaring error on page one.

Other marketing campaigns include appearing on ABC radio to spruik the newsletter and annoying the heck out of my Twitter followers with my constant plugs. When my marketing budget gets bigger, I plan do pull some bigger stunts. Do you think it’s possible to skywrite a crossword?

Favourite puzzles of the last 6 months?

My favourite quick crossword would have to be this one in which I made all the across clues 2-letter words. These puzzles take a crazily long time to make, and I’m often cursing myself after the fifth hour of staring at the half-made grid. But it’s worth it when you finish.

Most of my cryptics have themes, with this tricky bugger being my pick of the bunch.

The future of PuzzleMail

Of course, one day PuzzleMail will be found in all good cafes, book stores and newsagents, with guest compilers, puzzle news and will be a dozen pages thick. But for now, subscribe to this well-kept secret while it’s still underground.

How to solve cryptic crosswords

Once you know the basics, cryptics are actually easier than regular crosswords.

Wordplay is all around us – in advertising, newspaper headlines, the nicknames we give each other, even the lame jokes our dads make. Cryptic crossword compilers use all of these familiar lingual tricks in their puzzles – the key to solving a clue is identifying which type of wordplay is being used.

A standard cryptic clue is made up of two elements: wordplay + definition. So, if you’re good at spotting the definition, which always appears at the beginning or end of a clue, then you’re well on you’re way to breezing through cryptic life.

So, let’s have a look at some of the most common varieties of clues.


Everyone who’s ever drawn letters out of the Scrabble bag understands the challenge of anagrammatical unraveling, and this is probably the most common type of cryptic clue.

As we’ve discussed, clues are made up of definition + wordplay (not necessarily in that order, of course). The wordplay section will often contain a hint to explain what type of wordplay is being used. We call this hint word a signpost or indicator.

Imagine you draw the letters I R A N P E T in Scrabble. If you’re good, you might realise you can make the word PAINTER, using all your letters, which will give you a great score! (You could also make REPAINT or PERTAIN!)

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This scenario also could give birth to a cryptic clue. For example: Artist from Iran pet organisation (7)

Artist is the definition

Iran pet organisation is the wordplay

And, you see that organisation is used as a signpost which gives us a hint to “organise” the letters of IRANPET

Anagram signposts come in all shapes and sizes! Any word that suggests chaos, reform, change, damage, disaster or strangeness can act as an anagram indicator. Your challenge is to spot it.


If you can hold your own at the well-known party game Charades, you probably have good cryptic crossword aptitude. Imagine you had to act out a clue for the movie Top Gun.

First word: *points at woollen jumper* = TOP

Second word: *makes shooting gesture* = GUN

“Charade” cryptic clues work in basically the same way. For example:

Jumper and shooter in action movie (3,3)

“Action movie” is the definition

Jumper and shooter is the wordplay (charade)


Another wordplay device commonly used in cryptics is the homophone - a word that sounds exactly like another word, but with different spelling. For example: calmer, karma; steal, steel; Rex, wrecks.

So, again, if we were playing Charades, and you wanted to act out the classic horror movie Saw, you might gesture to your ear (meaning “sounds like”) and then act out being in pain or “sore”.

We could translate this riddle into cryptic clue form:

Horror movie sounds painful (3)

Horror movie is the definition

Sounds painful is the wordplay

Sounds is used here as an indicator which hints that there is homophonic wordplay being used. There are many words that can act as homophone indicators - depending on how inventive or cruel the compiler is. Some common ones are: heard, listened, eavesdropped, broadcast, reportedly, said, outspoken. See the pattern?


Most seasoned cryptic solvers will look at the following clue and immediately guess that it is a container clue, because the word “holds” is a very common indicator for that type of wordplay.

Coach holds on for more money (5)

The answer is BONUS!

Coach holds on is the wordplay

more money is the definition

Coach = BUS, and it holds ON.


Notice how the clue makes it seem like the clue is about a sports coach? We call this trick "misdirection" and crossword compilers revel in throwing these red herrings to poor old solvers.

So, now you now a little bit about the basic structure of a cryptic clue. This next section is an introduction to possibly the most alienating but important element of mastering cryptic crosswords…..


Let’s look at an alternative clue for BONUS.

More money for bishop duty (5)

This is a simple charade clue: bishop = B and duty = ONUS.

Bishop = B? Yep, this is one of thousands of abbreviations or symbols that might pop up in a crossword. Usually they have some logical reasoning behind them. For example, b is a common abbreviation for Bishop in the world of chess.

However, sometimes these abbreviations have obscure or archaic origins, and cryptic crossword solvers just have to suck it up and accept their presence.

You might also find that B could be represented by: beta (Greek alphabet), bachelor (university), bee (the insect), black (chess again), bowled (cricket), bravo (phonetic alphabet).

If you don’t know much about cricket you might be at a slight disadvantage.

Another common trick to represent the letter B might be “Urban centre”, “top bunk”, “first base”. Likewise, “second base” could be A, “third base” could be S and so on.

Some of my most hated common abbreviations are Model = T (as in Model-T Ford), Sailor = ab (short for able seaman), son = s, daughter = d, and many more.

The reason I dislike these is because they aren’t really in common usage and tend to make new solvers befuddled and ask “why?”.

Of course, it’s very subjective. Some of my favourite abbreviations have resulted in a few scoffs and complaints: I = line, ewe = u, nerd department = IT

Hey! Try this interesting-looking crossword

Sometimes when I’m making a crossword I realise it’s probably more entertaining to compile than to actually solve, and maybe this is one of those puzzles.

The challenge here was to create all across clues with only two letters, while going overly verbose with the downs. What resulted was quite an odd-looking puzzle that made me laugh. And was quite challenging to solve by all reports.

See how you go! Click here to solve online or alternatively print the image below. This puzzle appeared in PuzzleMail Issue #021. Subscribe here

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Letters to LR - March 2019

Hi LR,

Just wanted to say a big congratulations on the upcoming wedding. Wishing you and your partner a lovely day and long and wonderful future together. 

Here’s a bachelordom clue for you. I don’t really think ‘spells’ works as an anagram indicator but it’s more for your enjoyment than a real clue:

Mooch a bed with LR? It spells an end of this for him! (11)

Thanks for the crosswords mate 

– Patrick, via email

Dear Patrick, thanks, this made me chuckle! The wedding was great, cheers

– LR

birdshit copy.jpg

Hi LR,

Loved last week’s cartoon - it happened to me once in Lane Cove Plaza - a woman rushed up to me to tell me the bird poo on my head was lucky! 

Karen, via Twitter

Dear LR 

Re Classic (PuzzleMail #017)

Brutal. So many I couldn’t get at all so it remains unfinished. C’est la vie. VASECTOMY, though, made me laugh

 – Brendan, email

Dear Brendan,

Not surprised, it’s a bit of a radical theme!

– LR

Here's a free sample of PuzzleMail

My weekly crossword newsletter launched in December 2018, and now I have a loyal band of subscribers chucking me a couple of dollars each week to entertain them with my particular brand of puzzles.

It’s magnificent having a captive email audience to unleash my puzzles on every week, but the truth of the matter is I need more subscribers if I’m going to continue to publish past 2020!

So here, have a PuzzleMail freebie and ask yourself if you would like to see one in your inbox every Thursday morning.

Learn more about PuzzleMail here

LR is a Melbourne-based crossword creator. His puzzles appear in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Mondays.

I made a crossword for our wedding reception

As a puzzle lover, my favourite part of our wedding prep was putting together the seating plan. We had two big long tables and three smaller tables - and trying to decide who should sit next to who was like a giant game of human sudoku.

We paired two winemakers, lined up some vegans and generally just clumped like-minded souls together. On top of that, we had the ultimate ice-breaker to help people strike up conversation with their neighbours - a bride/groom themed crossword.

The finished product

The finished product

I’m a professional crossword writer by trade, and I’ve made puzzles for many birthdays, anniversaries and hen’s nights, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do an actual wedding puzzle. I was really keen to observe how the crossword would be received, and whether this might become a template for future jobs.

The first bright idea I had was to make all the across answers about the bride (Helen) and all the down answers about the groom (me, Liam). It divided the crossword very much like a traditional ceremony seating plan, with an “aisle” down the middle of the clues which proved to be a nice aesthetic. I was able to phrase the clues in such a way that all the clues began with either Helen or Liam.

We printed the puzzles on the backside of peoples’ place cards, and we supplied a commemorative pencil with “H+L 2019” engraved. We got these cool looking pencils from Pencils.com

Our pencils.com pencils

Our pencils.com pencils

Once guests sat down, it didn’t take them long to realise there was a secret puzzle on the back of their place cards, and everyone was quickly immersed in the crossword, with lots of neighbourly collaboration/competitiveness. There were a handful of tricky clues based on obscure facts about the bride or groom, but I made sure that each clue had at least one guest present who knew the answer.

The first to finish!

The first to finish!

As the contest heated up, I was wandering around the tables offering help to the more befuddled guests. The great thing was that Helen’s people were learning facts about me, and my people were learning facts about Helen - all by talking to new people and making new friends.

It was a really fun part of the day and I would highly recommend a wedding puzzle to anyone having an upcoming wedding. It’s a wonderful ice-breaker and souvenir for guests and married couple alike. Our guests weren’t particularly nerdy, but everyone got into the spirit.

It would be difficult for a professional crossword compiler to create such an intimate puzzle if you were working for clients you barely knew. It was relatively easy to write this puzzle for our wedding because I could put a word in the grid like RABBITS and then lean over and ask Helen “Tell me a fact about you that relates to rabbits”. Of course, if I was creating for strangers I wouldn’t have that luxury.

The way I would approach such a crossword if I didn’t know the subjects at all would be to get them to give me a list of about 50-100 words about them - their jobs, their family, pets, places they’ve traveled and hobbies etc. Then I would build the scaffolding of the puzzle. Lastly I would book an in-person appointment with them to go over the puzzle in person and fill in all the remaining slots. “Tell me a fact about you that relates to rabbits” I would ask the bride, and she would hopefully have some whiz bang family anecdote about the time her great aunt cooked rabbit stew for Christmas dinner.

If you’re interested in a crossword for your wedding or other special life event, check out my other custom crosswords and get in touch.


Letters to LR - February 2019

Dear LR,


I’d like to know why, in Issue #011, 7-across “Condolences for missing start of holiday” [RIP] is (3), while 14-down “I do to ‘I do’ do” [RSVP] is (1,1,1,1).


Perplexed or Pedantic?

Dear Perplexed,

Technically RIP should be (1,1,1) or maybe it should be (1.1.1)? Personally I feel that (1,1,1) provides too much of an extra clue, so I prefer (3). I also feel like all crosswords should follow the US style of not having word lengths at all! Open for debate... 

– LR

LR says: Last week’s “groundbreaking” Cryptic #013 (and Quick #013) had many readers tearing their hair out with unjoy, but encouragingly, many readers also wrote in to express unrage! For those who may not have had a chance to get around to solving it, the gimmick was that there were no letter counts given for clues in either of these puzzles, something which is the norm for American puzzles. It seems some of you enjoyed the extra challenge. Personally for me it was a fun experiment, but I don’t think I’ll be throwing word-lengths on the scrap heap any time soon. I think TS probably summarised the issue best when he said:

Dear LR - my two cents: 

  • Numbers are good because it saves counting cells in the grid. This is just busywork - not part of the solving skill - so it detracts from enjoyment.

  • The vast majority of clues are a single word, but when it’s not the US convention annoys me because thinking of a phrase can be very different to a thinking of word

  • It seems especially annoying in cryptics where knowing it’s a phrase can help evaluate which part is the definition. 

  • The interconnected nature of the US grids gives you a lot more chances to get cross letters that make the word/phrase thing fall out later if you’re not sure initially.

In a related note, I had to look up 10 across - the first suggestion was POINTLESS which seemed apt ... ;

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying the weekly PuzzleMails. I hope it continues to grow!



Patsy summarised things even more succinctly:


Argh, not into it! Bring back the word lengths please. 


Twitter is great for getting instant opinions and Gary was one of the first to give his thoughts:

LR – I only just had time to do puzzle #13 and hated the missing number counts... Esp 7d...bring them back please

Justin said: 

It was an interesting experience going in blind. Made a choice not to write them in. My brain had to work much harder to solve, even the less curly ones.

But eventually a few rave reviews trickled in.

Dear LR,

I loved it! At first I thought to myself, Oh ffs they’ve forgotten to put the letter counts in but since you flagged it in your email I realised it must be intentional. It got me with 7d for quite a while; never realised how much I depend on the added clue of the letter count :) And I couldn’t get 10a till the very end.

Nice one!!!


Dear LR

From your email, and your answer to Perplexed’s question in this week’s PuzzleMail, I get the sense you’d like to know what solvers think about this week’s ‘countless’ clues...

I really enjoyed it.  Thanks for putting it out there!  As you say, the word lengths are an extra clue.  I’d never done one without them, so I’d never thought of them as I suppose I do now - like getting a hint in addition to the actual clue.  I’m not sure whether I really want hints!!!

I’m worried some folks won’t like the countless clues.  It would be great to see you put them out like this even just from time to time, for an extra challenge.  Hopefully most people are up for it!  

10-across was a great clue, by the way, obviously!



Rhett, a well-known fan of the New York Times crossword, told me on Twitter:

Put me down as someone who agrees that we should do away with word lengths in crosswords!

Anyway, thank you all for taking the time to write in, it was great to get an idea about the solving experience without word-lengths for non-US type crosswords. Something to think about

 – LR

Letters to LR - January 2019


Dear LR, in your opinion, what makes a perfect cryptic crossword clue?

– Dan, via email

To me it’s surface sense – the clue should make sense as a real series of words. A good test is to see whether the clue will return a search result when googled. For example, 1-down in today’s cryptic is found in this excerpt from a nature blog: “The element of surprise is the sparrowhawk’s secret weapon as it zips through the forest snatching unwitting songbirds from their perches”. 

A great clue misdirects the solver, contains interesting but fair wordplay elements and is likely to make you say aha or haha - LR

Dear LR,

Why don’t you make the blocks in the crosswords grey so those printing PuzzleMail can save money on ink?

– Brendan, via email

Dear Brendan,

Excellent idea. I have fiddled around with the image settings for the crosswords and found a way to make them an appropriate shade of grey. Solvers, please let me know what you think!


Dear LR,

My guilty pleasure is to roll a small joint and sit down to my weekly PuzzleMail and your 9-across in the classic (Issue #008) was absolutely fantastic. It’s a great way to solve them – I feel slightly more challenged after a puff and hence more proud of myself when I finish one!
– Anonymous

Editor’s note: 9-across last week was:

Bogan jailed - smuggled cannabis (5)

Dear LR,

Do your solutions on PuzzleMail really need to be upside down?

– Andy, via Twitter

Dear Andy,

Not really! The upside down solutions were a suggestion by a fellow reader who was concerned about seeing the answers to a prior puzzle before he’d had a chance to solve it.  Perhaps it’s a bit paranoid, but better safe than sorry? Or am I mollycoddling my solvers?

– LR

Try my Ancient Rome themed crossword for the National Museum of Australia

Portrait bust of Hadrian  Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy, about 125–130 CE marble. 1805,0703.95  © Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Portrait bust of Hadrian
Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy, about 125–130 CE
marble. 1805,0703.95

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Recently I was approached by the National Museum of Australia to supply a giant crossword to promote their AMAZING-looking exhibition in Canberra. It’s all about Ancient Rome and I have learned so much about the empire through the process. They took out a full page in the Canberra Times and I am really happy with the result. As you will see they have used a pretty standard newspaper template and put some subtle branding on it. Please feel free to download a copy here and share it with anyone who loves this sort of thing - especially those in the Canberra area. Hopefully the crossword will be a successful campaign for the Museum, and other forward-thinking businesses might follow their lead - meaning more crosswords for everyone.

I’ve been saying for YEARS that I think more companies should sponsor the puzzles pages in the newspaper. Think of all the eyeball-minutes of people whose daily ritual is to fill out the crosswords from A to Z and the sudoku from 1-9. A crossword is the type of marketing content that can keep people glued to a page for hours. Think of the prestige of being associated with the smartest part of the paper. As long as the ads aren’t tacky what is there to lose?

It generally seems that the puzzles page is treated as sacrosanct, and there are rarely ads on the page. Maybe it’s because there are already too many puzzles squeezed in leaving no space for any ads?

SOLUTION here if you need it!

The art of making a truly memorable gift crossword

The giver of this puzzle got it framed and added photos - a nice touch!

The giver of this puzzle got it framed and added photos - a nice touch!

A personalised crossword puzzle makes a really awesome gift for a puzzle junkie, but they’re not as straightforward to make as you might think.

As a professional crossword writer, I have made puzzles for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, retirements and lots more. And every job has one thing in common: by the end of it I feel like I know the recipient like my own brother, because I’ve stared at a list of factoids about them for about a week!

Whether it’s your maths teacher Jeff’s retirement or Alex’s hen’s night in the Barossa, I always need to start with a  LOoOoONG list of words so that I can make an attractive puzzle. If you don’t give me enough words then it’s going to make a pretty patchy looking puzzle, but if you give me lots of juicy words of all shapes and sizes I have a better chance of making a dense professional-looking grid.

I need to know everything - their favourite movie, the street they grew up on, their middle name, star sign, allergies, everything! The more words you give me, the less time it will take to piece together this thing.  I have an extensive list of questions I give out to help generate these answers. Once I start to get a feel for the information, I can extrapolate using my highly developed common sense - for example if I know the subject is a tennis fan then I can jam common words like ACE, NET or BALL into hard-to-fill corners.

By the time I’ve created a crossword for a seventieth birthday, for example, I’ve usually experienced the highs and lows of a lifetime. My subjects have served in the army, beaten cancer, raised families, volunteered in Africa, divorced, run triathlons… you name it, i’ve clued it. It’s such an intimate process that I always feel blessed to be involved in creating such a profound present. And it’s made even better when I get occasional messages from the recipient afterwards about how much they enjoyed it.

Pricing has always been a challenge, though, because I put so much time and care into my crosswords. Many times in the past I would quote a job based on the 20-30 hours it would take to put together, and potential clients would go running for the hills when they saw the dollar figure. But over the years I’ve learned some tricks that have allowed me to bring my prices down, down, down.

  1. Ditching Symmetry. Professional puzzles are pretty much always symmetrical, which takes way more time to construct. But I’ve realised it really doesn’t matter to the average Joe if their puzzle grid looks the same in a mirror. By foregoing symmetry I’ve been able to make puzzles quicker and cheaper.

  2. Smaller grids. I used to only do 15x15 grids, but then I realised if I offered 13x13 or 11x11 grids, I could provide a more affordable option for buyers. Although as I’ve discovered, sometimes smaller grids doesn’t mean easier to make!

  3. Bring your own grid. Making a themed puzzle is way easier if you know the subject personally. So sometimes I will suggest to the purchaser that they construct the word-fill about their loved one and I’ll write the clues. The finished project is always much more special to the giver, and it’s much much cheaper.

  4. Pay per clue. Tell me how many clues you can afford and I’ll build a puzzle the exact size. This means there’s a puzzle for any budget.

  5. Quick versus cryptic. Quick clues (or “normal” clues) is obviously the budget option, and works well for events, such as puzzles for hen’s party activities where people of all abilities can have a crack at the puzzle. Cryptic clues are suited to recipients with the skills to solve, and these obviously take a lot more time to compose, especially if they are also given the personal touch. I will often include theme words in the clues too. For example: Heading to Oatlands to get married as promised (4) was a clue from a wife’s birthday present. Oatlands was the name of their wedding venue.


One of the most important things about a gift crossword is the design of the finished product. I put my gift puzzles into the same font and layout that the newspaper crossword is published in. I provide a PDF which looks like their puzzle is clipped straight out of the puzzles page.

Do you know someone who might be chuffed by a crossword all about how special they are? Email LRxword@gmail.com and let’s make their day! Check out the gallery of my personalised puzzles here.

If you want to have a go yourself at writing a gift crossword for a special someone, I recommend using the GoCrossword compiling program.

Letters to LR - December 2018


Dear LR,

I have two favourite-ever cryptic clues, both from Araucaria (I think):

First person’s frog, second person’s man (6)

Oppo of Caesar, J (7)

– Lucy, via Twitter

Dear LR,

Just out of interest, roughly how long does it take you to set the cryptic?

– Nick, via Twitter

Dear Nick,
A non-themer takes about 15 minutes per word. So if there are 30 words in the grid, it would take me 7.5 hours. Theme crosswords take me about  30-45 minutes per word, depending on how insane the concept is.

– LR

Dear LR,

Are you concerned about the AFP and ASIO requesting a backdoor to your cryptic crosswords?

   – Vernan, via Reddit

Dear Vernan,

I already work closely with ASIO and the Department of Defence putting subliminal messages into my clues. I did a Battleships theme once and navy enrolments went up 200 per cent.

– LR

Dear LR,

How do you go about striking the right difficulty for your crosswords?

– Dan, via email

Dear Dan,

After a while you start get a feel for which of your clues are hard and easy - although you can never be sure because it’s impossible to truly solve your own clues. To make puzzles as fair as poss, you need to make sure that if a clue is really hard, some of the intersecting clues are easier, to gift people some starter letters. I aim to make PuzzleMail crosswords about 7/10 for difficulty.
– LR

LR launches weekly crossword newsletter

Liam Runnalls (or LR as he is known to his fans) is a Melbourne-based crossword compiler and puzzle creator. Currently the youngest compiler for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, his crosswords have been syndicated since 2012, with his grids published every second Monday, as well as the occasional long-weekend giant. He is known for squeezing secret themes into his puzzles, perhaps most memorably when he planted a subliminal message trying to nab tickets to a sold out music festival.

IMG_1331 (1).jpg

Now LR has decided to go out on his own to launch a weekly e-newsletter called PuzzleMail, delivering his work directly to his fans. It's a business model he hopes will allow his puzzles to outlive newsprint in the era of uncertainty for journalism.

“As a professional crossword writer I sometimes worry about what will happen if newspapers go bankrupt” he said. "Now that Fairfax has been taken over by Nine, there's no guarantee about the future of the puzzle page, or the mastheads themselves. I want to ensure there's a platform for great Australian-made crosswords well into the future."

The four-page weekly is emailed each Thursday morning and contains three crosswords, a sudoku, a 9-letter puzzle and a comic, with the basic package costing $1.99/week. LR has also teamed up with puzzle software developers Amuse Labs, to make PuzzleMail crosswords accessible on any device. "I get told all the time that some people only buy the paper for the puzzles - well PuzzleMail is cheaper than the paper, and the money goes straight to supporting independent creators." LR said. "I thought, if I can get just a handful of fans to sign up to PuzzleMail then it could become self-sustaining quickly, and then hopefully grow into something much bigger."

With a background in newspaper layout and typesetting, LR designed the PuzzleMail pages himself. "Most people wouldn't know this, but I actually designed the entire SMH and Age puzzle page myself. It was a nightmare trying to fit all the required puzzles into the tabloid page shape, but in a way it was a puzzle in itself so I loved it. I'm colour blind, so I generally work best in black and white."

LR's hope is that PuzzleMail will become a vehicle for new Australian puzzle talent to emerge. "There are so many young Australians interested in crossword and puzzle creation, we need our own La Settimana Enigmastica (a famous Italian puzzle magazine)." 

PuzzleMail samples are available here

9 times the crossword editor banned my clues for being inappropriate

Newspaper crossword editors worldwide seem to have unanimously adopted the Breakfast Table Test when vetting puzzles for publication. The idea goes that the conversational boundaries of a typical morning meal in polite company provides a useful analogy as to what’s suitable content in the puzzles pages. There’s always been room for the odd nudge and/or wink in cryptic crosswords, but for the most part, newspapers prefer to play it safe.

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 10.57.04 pm.png

Although no topic is off the table when I myself eat breakfast,  I do respect the rule as it applies to the general populace and I do my best to rein in all urges to be politically incorrect and bawdy. And our crossword editor does a great job keeping us in line, while letting the odd mildly cheeky clue through the gate.

So, you might ask, if I’m supposedly careful and respectful of the breakfast table rule, why do I have such an impressive list of clues banned by the editor?

Well, sometimes I put an inappropriate clue in as a placeholder for my own amusement and accidentally forget to remove before submitting. Sometimes the editor has a slightly different line of inappropriateness. Sometimes it’s just my childish innocence, and I just didn’t realise something was a touchy subject!

But most of the time it’s just that I sketched out the wordplay and put the clue together like a jigsaw - and then didn’t properly read the context of the clue as a sentence. In my head, it remained an abstract riddle, not a sequence of words that had meaning. By my count I’ve had around 10,000 clues published - there was always going to be a few strays in there.

So here are a selection of clues that I had rejected by the crossword editor, and the shocking reasons behind the ban.

Proctologist gets into rectum with instrument from kit? (4,4) BASS DRUM

I expected to encounter some resistance to this clue, but I couldn’t help seeing what the editor thought. She thought it was hilarious, as did I, but still unfortunately suggested it should be changed. I ended up watering it down to: Fish doctor has hesitation with instrument from kit (8)

Child gets currency in return for bodily organ (6) KIDNEY

I must have been so happy that KID and YEN returned resulted in KIDNEY… that I never actually read the clue as being about the evil trade of child organ trafficking. Tip to constructors, always try to read your clues as if you’re seeing them for the first time. New version was: Organ makes terrible din inside locker? (6)

Relate ISIS violence to biblical tribe (10) ISRAELITES

As usual, this rejection caught me unawares. I only mentioned ISIS because I like to be topical, so I worked it into the anagram. But the editor said readers might think I was suggesting a conspiracy that the Jews were financing ISIS. At first I thought “are people really that crazy to read hidden meaning into the crossword clues?” but then I realised, yes they are. And I’m sort of one of them to be honest, when I do other people’s puzzles. I would never be passionate enough to write into the paper about it though, I keep those thoughts to myself. Changed to: Ancient tribe tries ales I brewed (10)

Barbie with detailed buttocks for cash (7) DOLLARS

Oh dear, and this was less than one week after my ISIS clue too. I have to laugh when I re-read this clue, and can clearly see why it was rejected. A child’s toy and detailed buttocks… well done LR!  The silver lining was that I was able to compose a new clue which retained some acceptable ribaldry: Bucks party: two large topless bars (7)

Sinful dance with blind animal in club (8,3) BASEBALL BAT

So… this one got rejected because it apparently sounded like I was depicting bestiality. Hmmm, I guess when I read it back it does sort of give that vibe. I believe I meant “blind” as in drunk and “animal” as in party animal. You know? Anyway, the editor said it had an “ick factor” so it ended up being: Immoral dance with bachelor at club (8,3) still a bit off maybe...

They can't recall a nice mass murder (9) AMNESIACS

What? Don’t people sit around the breakfast table trying to recall any nice massacres they’ve witnessed? Ok, fair enough - how about: They forget sea mist can disorientate, wasting time (9)

Fantasy author of "100 killed Islamic State" (1,1,5) CS LEWIS

This is the second time ISIS has got me in trouble. But this time the clue was about ISIS getting slain… that’s a good thing, right? As it turns out, the editor thinks people would probably rather do the puzzles page without reading about slaughter in general. She may have a point. Fantasy author's captain killed skinning fish (1,1,5)

Sheep almost poisoned, is abandoned and mocked? (9) LAMPOONED

RSPCA regularly took sheep and beat it? (5) SCRAM

Strangely, these two clues above were submitted to the same puzzle as 1 and 2-across. This was when I was just starting out and I had no idea my editor was so passionate about animal welfare and couldn’t tolerate clues which alluded to cruelty. Her compassion has certainly rubbed off on me, and these days I couldn’t see myself writing a clue like this. Interestingly 1-across survived but I was coerced into changing 2-across to: Get lost sheep to follow barrister (5). Much kinder.


Sometimes the clues just write themselves, and you don’t realise they make you look like a bit of a weirdo.

And lastly, from one of my quick crosswords:

“Liam, do you think you could use a different word to “dumbass”? It’s not very appropriate (or even listed in the Macquarie Dictionary)!”

Changed it to:
Dill; dipstick (5)

10 times people wrote to the editor complaining about my crosswords

My friends once took one of my puzzles camping and they hated 8-down so much they burnt it

My friends once took one of my puzzles camping and they hated 8-down so much they burnt it

When I first got a job writing crosswords for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the crosswords editor was very clear about one thing. “Your crosswords will be published on Monday, and therefore should be not too difficult. If solvers find your puzzles too difficult they won’t buy the paper”.

Hmmm, I thought. Personally I like solving and making very hard crosswords - and would happily stare at a blank puzzle for an hour without getting an answer. That’s my idea of mental peace. But I understood what she meant - people do the crossword to feel smart, not to face the very inconvenient possibility that they may be dimmer than they previously thought. On the flip side, if your stuff is too easy then readers may come to hold you in contempt. There had to be a balance, and I had to work hard to recalibrate for this target demographic. The goal is to give Monday readers a sense of accomplishment so they can hold their head up high while they slog through the week. And the wishful theory is that it sells more newspapers.

Once my puzzles started appearing in the paper, I quickly learnt that making crosswords is a lot like cooking porridge for Goldilocks. I got some positive feedback for sure, but there were also plenty of readers who deemed my puzzles either too hard, too soft or just generally NOT quite right. Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the caustic critiques that made their way into the editor’s inbox.

Yesterday's ''crossword'', LR (25/3), was an attenuated number plate general knowledge quiz. Not happy.

– Sue, Prahran

Cruel but fair. Sue has a point here and she’s NOT HAPPY with the “crossword”. I was trying to make a non-cryptic (quick) crossword interesting by making a theme about number plate slogans - but most people want a vocab test not a trivia puzzle. Click here to do the infamous puzzle and share Sue’s rage.

Oh dear LR (Crossword, 18/4). To focus on a target is to "home in".

Jan, Hawthorn

D’oh. I had “Hone in”. One thing I’ve noticed about the smarty-pants that write in to tell the newspaper there’s been a mistake is they love starting their letters with “Oh dear”. But, deservedly patronising in this case. I won’t make that mistake again… for a while.

Sorry, LR (cryptic crossword, 19/12), but the plural of "octopus" is not "octopi". It's "octopuses".

– Wal, Surrey Hills

This was an historically important letter, as it kicked off the great Octopus letter war of late 2017. I wrote a lovely cryptic clue for OCTOPI [Sea creatures and duck caught with best line] but then Wal came barging in to take a sizeable poop on the party. Well thankfully the next day, someone put Wal in his place, even if she was still adding evidence as to my wrongness.

Sorry, Wal (21/12), but the plural of octopus is octopodes.

Phoebe, Ormond

But my basking was short lived. Wal was vindicated somewhat. And I was still wrong.

Either either, either or: octopuses or octopodes (23/12).

– Jim, Sale

The lesson? I will not hesitate to put OCTOPI in a puzzle again, as long as it gets people talking about crosswords in the letters page.

The quick (not the cryptic) crossword on Monday seemed to overtax our use and understanding of the English language. The clue for 15-down was "on the throne, overhearing showering" – and the answer was "electing". Despite my best efforts, I could not relate the clue to the answer and I wondered how many other readers had the same difficulty. LR, please explain.

– Peter, Ringwood North

OK this one makes me laugh a bit, mainly because it’s not my fault. The production team that puts together the puzzles made this inexplicable mistake with a cut ’n’ paste go wrong. A cryptic clue ended up in the quick! Can you imagine his confusion? How many times did he read it. This is such an earnest letter, written from a place of pure exasperation, and I’m sorry to Peter and all the other readers for their suffering on Feb 28, 2017. Can you work out the actual answer?

Yesterday’s (29/10) cryptic crossword by LR was so easy I finished it in less than ten minutes, not really much of a challenge compared to my favourite DA. In fact, my nickname for LR is “Light Run”.

– Barry, Moorabbin

Jeez fair shake of the sauce bottle Barry! Here’s the puzzle he smashed, see if you can beat the smart alec!

Is LR using his position as crossword compiler to carry on a secret romance? The first five across clues in today’s Quick (25/09) are Never, Going to, Give, You, Up.

– Frank, Balmain

To be honest, this isn’t actually a complaint. But I like to imagine it is a complaint, and Frank is actually outraged at the idea of a lovely intellectual romance interfering with the crossword’s integrity. Of course, you readers know I was just trolling.

The following letters were not published, but made their way to me via email.

LR, I always enjoy your inventive and challenging clues, but today your grid block was a disappointment.  The huge black-outs across and down mean that there were four (almost separate) mini crosswords.  And of the 34 clues, no less than 28 were 7 letters long . . . boring!

– Anon

I thought this was fascinating feedback for a puzzle that I personally thought was quite good. Is too many 7-letter words really a problem? I suppose it is…

It was disappointing to find what I take to be a very childish mistake in this puzzle. The 19-down clue was "Lend, then steal back over argument (6)". The meaning was LEND and the required answer was BORROW.

These two words are related but opposite. One lends TO a person but borrows FROM a person. Maybe LR should be told of this. I don't Twitter so I can't tell LR myself. Possibly there is something I don't understand.


Hang on, is this the same Sue from the first letter? Either way, thank you Sue for keeping me on my toes. I will try to banish my inner child, the one that doesn’t know the difference between LEND and BORROW.

One thing I find is that when I make mistakes in my puzzles, my Twitter follower count always goes up! Follow me so you can point out when I’m wrong about something (hint, it’s at least once a month).

How I became a cryptic crossword writer for The Age and SMH

When & how did the cryptic crossword bug begin?


My cryptic tuition was familial, with my grandfather Eric introducing me when I was a tween. At 89, Eric’s still sharp as a tack, probably due in part to his daily dose of Age cryptic. My uncle Richard also spent a fair bit of time teaching me the ropes. And I was lucky enough to have a wonderful high school English teacher, Teresa Walta, who let me solve crosswords instead of doing schoolwork.

How long you been crafting your own stuff?

I was an OCD solver for years before I created my first primitive cryptic way back in 2003. It was a themed puzzle cobbled together as part of a 21st birthday card I made for a friend. Many years of hobby-clueing passed before I dared attempt an authentic 15x15 puzzle, and even then I had much to learn about modern compiler etiquette.

How does having a Monday puzzle slot influence your style, if at all?

I think the best way to structure a crossword roster is to make Mondays easy and get progressively harder throughout the week. The New York Times does this really well, and Fairfax (Nine!) sort of follows this pattern. With this in mind, I’ve tried to make my cryptics gentle, but it goes against my natural instincts. However I have a weekly newsletter called PuzzleMail where I make slightly more difficult puzzles exclusively for subscribers.

It was a long + winding road before your Fairfax debut. Sketch your pilgrimage –

I distinctly remember the moment that I realised cryptic clueing was a high art. I was sitting on my porch in Moonee Ponds and I circled this DA clue: Web novel? He penned it (1,1,5). If you google it, you’ll see that the forums were awash with debate about the clue’s merits at the time. But for mine it was unquestionably gold. I was at university, and it was around this time that I submitted an essay to my English professor earnestly comparing cryptic crosswords to great works of poetry.

Later, I managed to get a job helping to collate the Fairfax puzzles pages, and happened to strike up a friendship (via correspondence) with the man himself! Generously, DA gave up some of his time to show me the deeper secrets of the craft, including the lesser known rules of grid construction and finer points of clue cooking. I was studying, solving and striving for a slot ever since, and was stoked to get the gig at Fairfax.

And what’s been the biggest lesson en route – aside from patience is a virtue?!

“You can’t please everyone”

What was the 1-across clue in your first ever cryptic puzzle?

See if you can work it out:

  • Had a tennis surface sense (Jan 16 being Day 1 of the Oz Open)

  • Was an anagram

  • Solution related to welcoming someone important (hehe)

  • Solution contains LR

You’re a cartoonist too, with LRtoons. Tell us about your drawing bug.

I taught myself to draw by plagiarising Far Side characters. In fact, I was so eager to channel Gary Larson that most of my early cartoons were about ducks and cows. Eventually I realised I needed to develop my own style, so I started drawing the noses differently. Coming up with ideas for cartoons is a very effective way to fight insomnia.

Three things about yourself, one of which is a lie.

  1. I have a metal plate in my face.

  2. I had a small speaking role in The Honourable Wally Norman (2003).

  3. I once witnessed a shooting in Harlem.

Special topic on Einstein Factor?

Futurama or Britpop.

This article originally appeared on DavidAstle.com

10 tips for aspiring crossword compilers

MY love affair with compiling cryptic crosswords was sparked by an encounter with the Greek god of love. It wasn't a one-off encounter, it was an endless series of dull dalliances with this mythological four-letter-word that led me up the cruciverbalist path.

  • Love god hurt back (4) EROS

  • Love god's painful return (4) EROS

  • Painful return for Greek love god (4) EROS

  • Love god has aching back (4) EROS

  • Injured around love god (4) EROS

  • God of love was in pain, retreating (4) EROS

  • Love god reversed hurting (4) EROS

I presume every devoted cryptic solver has a nemesis word - EROS was mine, particularly if the wordplay played out as above. At the height of the conflict, I would routinely abandon a puzzle mid-solve if I met this "classic" reversal trope, ranting ink-fistedly at my bewildered housemates about what I saw as reprehensibly clueing. "I could do so much better" I sobbed into the page shreds.

You'll be happy to know I have mellowed. Now in the clueing game myself, I realise that many solvers find a certain cosiness in well-trodden formulas, but also that there is no harm in a gimme clue here and there. Being able to plug in EROS after seeing Love god blah blah (4) is a blessing and a curse of being a top seed.

So, if your own clue snobbery becomes chronic, perhaps it might be worth trying your hand at a little compilation. No matter how elite your solving skills, there is a steep learning curve ahead for any newbie compiler, as I found out. Here are some lessons I've gleaned:

1. Grids have to look a certain way for some reason

I'm not a very visual person I suppose, because after looking at cryptic grids for 13 years, I still hadn't picked up on all the idiosyncrasies - and I constructed some terribly offbeat grids in my early days. Here's the cryptic grid genome according to LR, (including some wtf for L-platers).

Traditionally 15x15

180° rotational symmetry

If the grid was a maze, you should be able to follow the white squares from one corner to the other

Nearly all words should have more checked squares than "unches" (unchecked squares) (Fig.1)

Double unches should be a rarity or avoided entirely where possible (Fig.2)

Any more than two words on any grid row threatens to make your puzzle too cluey. (Fig.3)


2. Writing clues is easier than solving clues

True? Dunno. But it's a good mantra to adopt as a setter, particularly when you catch yourself stretching a definition just to make a clue seem more elegant. The phenomenon is especially observable when you get a chance to revisit your old puzzles once you don't remember the clues. Without fail, there will be a couple of clues that will now seem wanky or desperate with the benefit of hindsight. More on "compiler's hindsight" later.

3. Don't paint yourself into a corner

There are two upsetting scenarios an inexperienced cryptic compiler will face.

NIGHTMARE FODDER 1: You have difficulty filling the grid, and therefore are forced to include (a) very obscure word(s) that no-one will ever have heard of!

Some obscure words I tried to sneak into my early work:

  • PATACA: the basic monetary unit of Macao, equivalent to 100 avos

  • ATARAXY: a state of serene calmness

  • UNTERSEE: the smaller of the two lakes that together form Lake Constance

  • SCHWICK: I still to this day don't know what this word means.

One or two obscure words is ok now and then, but if you get in the habit, solvers will tire of it and you will be fired humiliatingly by the powers that be.

NIGHTMARE FODDER 2: You mindlessly fill the grid. Later you find that it's impossible to come up with good clues for some of the words you've selected.

Basically, before you commit to having a word in your grid, be sure you can come up with a decent clue for it. Trying to clue BIRTH CONTROL still haunts me to this day.

4. Don't have too many anagram clues

They're the easiest type of clue to compose, so don't use them unless you have to. Think of them as your get-out-of-jail-free card. If a word just cries out (icers?) for an anagram clue, then of course go for it. I'm chuffed when I only use four anagram clues in a whole puzzle, plus maybe a handful of partial anagrams. And while I'm at it...

5. Always use a nice spread of different cryptic clue species in every puzzle

As you're constructing the puzzle, keep tabs on which type of clues you've used and which you haven't. By the puzzle's completion, you should have used nearly every clueing device: containers, initialisms, charades, homophones etc etc. It depends on the level of difficulty you're going for. I'm not supposed to throw too many curveballs at the Monday audience. For that very reason I tend to avoid those diabolical "reverse hiddens". As for Spoonerisms, I still don't know how I feel about them - but I try to use them only every second week.

6. Make sure your clues and answers aren't offensive

I often write shockingly rude clues in my drafts, and afterwards dab sadly at the delete key while I rejig my moral compass. Fair enough, I work for a family paper and not Viz Magazine (NSFW).

Occasionally my editor will refuse clues because they are gory or make light of a serious subject. Recently Child gets currency in return for bodily organ (6) was rejected, and in hindsight I guess it could have been controversial. The Age letters page occasionally runs brief comments by aghast readers, lamenting a sexist or off-colour clue. My most regularly received complaints are "too hard" or "too easy"! (see Tip 10)

Generally avoid references to diseases and sex (and definitely don't combine the two!). Remember that even clues that might be 100 per cent innocent may be misread as innuendo by a sick-headed subscriber, so try to be preemptive of that.

7. Be mindful of the solvers' experience

In section two I wrote about about being fair in your clueing, but being fair goes beyond that. When putting yourself in the footwear of your solvers, you need to take a holistic view of your puzzle.

Say 2-down a really tough clue. You might, then, make sure that 1-across is easy, so that the solver has a better chance at 2-down.

Also be aware of unwitting misdirection. Model can mean T or it can be an anagram indicator. And of course, it's fine if you're deliberately trying to throw off your adversaries. But if you unknowingly add such a layer of confusion to an already-challenging clue, it can morph into a real clanger.

If you're making a theme crossword, where the theme rests on 2-down, think hard about how difficult you're going to make 2-down.

Sometimes I've written a clue which accidentally has two legitimate answers.

Snoop's vocal award (5) could be MEDAL or PRIZE. This is a bit of a fluke, really - but if I had a choice, my clues would only ever give one answer. This is why when I do homophone clues I try my best to make it very clear what the definition is.

8. Maintain an obsessively thorough list of cryptic abbreviations and ideas

Here's a brief excerpt from my abbreviations list, Chapter Y.


y: military base

y: chromosome

y: unknown

y: why

y: yard

y: year

y: yen

y: yttrium


9. Software tips

Confession time: I have never compiled a crossword using IRL apparati. Perhaps that's normal for compilers who computed their way into adulthood. I do use a pen to jot down clue ideas sometimes, but other than that, my puzzles are kilobytes.

I use a program called Crossword Studio and it is the stuff dreams are made of in my opinion. Just look at this screenshot and tell me it doesn't look like heaven on a (usb) stick.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 12.14.53 am.png

Basically, the program tells you what words will fit, and it also channels Deep Blue by telling you which words will give you the most options for the rest of the puzzle. It is not a substitute for creativity, and there is still grunt work involved in a good puzzle - but it sure is preferable to the abject hell of eraser residue, pencil shavings and papers cuts.

There's also a great browser-based compiling software called Go Crossword

10. Remember you can't please everyone.

...but you can try. I make my puzzles mostly easy with a few deliberately tough clues to sort the champs from the chumps. This way the chumps can feel happy that they've got most of the clues, but champs can feel satisfied that they completed the grid. Chimps, meanwhile, have yet to get a single one of my clues - no matter how clever their zoologists claim them to be.

When I'm solving other people's crosswords, the harder the better. See, I wouldn't even please myself!


Follow me on Twitter: @LRxword