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.

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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.

LR launches weekly crossword newsletter called PuzzleMail

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.

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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.

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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.

–Sue

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?

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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

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.

Anagrams

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.

Charades

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)

Homophones

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?

Containers

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.

BONUS

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…..

Abbreviations/symbols

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

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.

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  • 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)

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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!

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Cheers

LR