Writing Good Quizbowl Questions: A Quick Primer
Paul Lujan and Seth Teitler
October 23, 2003 (revised September 20, 2005)
The basic principles in writing a good question
A question should consist of a large number of clues. These clues should progress in a pyramidal fashion; that is, the hardest clues should be at the beginning of a question and progress to the easiest clues at the end. Clues should be uniquely identifying; if, after part of a question, the clues allow for multiple possible answers, then the question is a bad one. Clues should also be substantial; that is, they should have genuine importance to the subject. Saying “This author had a favorite dog named 'Wuffles'” may fit the first three criteria, but unless the dog was somehow important to his life, it is not a useful clue.
Here is an sample question which adheres to the guidelines above:
This battle began when General Harry Heth's troops, who had been sent into the city in search of new shoes, encountered Union cavalry outside the city. After three days of fighting in locations such as McPherson's Ridge and Devil's Den, the battle ended when the Union center on Cemetary Hill held against Pickett's Charge. The Confederates retreated out of Pennsylvania and never threatened the North again. For ten points, name this July 1863 battle where George Meade defeated Robert E. Lee.
Note how this question fulfills the principles above: there are about ten pieces of useful information in this clue, progressing from the most obscure facts (Heth and the shoes) through better-known facts (Pickett's Charge) to the giveaway at the end. At no time do the clues admit an answer other than Gettysburg, and all clues are useful.
The “giveaway,” the last clue in a question, should be, in general, the easiest clue you can think of for that subject. It should be preceded by “for ten points”. Don't be afraid of making the giveaway too easy; in general, you should aim for nearly all of the tossups you write to be answered at some point in the question. Typical giveaways include:
“...For ten points, name this J.D. Salinger work featuring Holden Caulfield.”
“...For ten points, name this state with capital at Boise.”
“...For ten points, name this wielder of Mjolnir, the Norse god of thunder.”
If the giveaway is too obscure, perhaps you shouldn't be writing a tossup on this subject. Try to avoid giveaways which involve “sounds like” or (even worse) “rhymes with”; these do not reflect any actual knowledge of the subject.
The following are not acceptable giveaways:
“...For ten points, name this writer, who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature.”
If the fact that someone won a Nobel Prize is really the best-known thing about them, then you shouldn't be writing a tossup about them. Don't reward people who memorize lists of Nobel Prizes.
“...For ten points, name this element with atomic number 72.”
Name-the-element questions are still too common in quizbowl. It is possible to write a good question whose answer is an element. It is not possible to pick a random element and write a good question about it if the best clue you can give about it is its atomic number.
The opposite of a giveaway is a lead-in, the beginning of a clue. The information in a lead-in should be obscure (following the pyramidality rule), but it should still be gettable by someone – if no one is going to be able to get it from the lead-in, then there's no point in having it there. The lead-in should identify as quickly as possible exactly what is being asked for -- “this book,” “this author,” “this character,” and so forth, to avoid confusion on this issue. Make sure that your lead-in is uniquely identifying! If your lead-in actually has multiple answers, you've created a “hose,” where a person buzzes in with an answer they think is correct (and is, from the information you've given them), but which is not the answer you're aiming for.
Knowing your subject
You should try to write questions on subjects you know as well as possible. Essentially, you need to know what is obscure and what is not obscure information. If you don't know this, then you run the risk of inadvertently putting a clue that is far too easy too early in the question. Another problem that can occur is putting a clue that you think is uniquely identifying, but actually can apply to more than one answer, thus creating a hose.
Other clues should move smoothly from the beginning to the end. A couple of points to be aware of:
- Beware of clues like “this Finnish composer”. There is really only one Finnish composer – Jean Sibelius – so a clue like that will almost certainly get immediately pounced on by someone who knows only that there's only one Finnish composer. Conversely, you might use “this Finnish architect” thinking that there's only one – but in fact, there are three (Alvar Aalto, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen).
- Avoid excessive biographical information. It's one thing if a person's parents, or year of birth, or place of birth actually had a significant influence on his life, but most of the time it's pretty useless. For example, “This author was born in 1840 in Dorset” is not a particularly useful clue. “This author grew up in Dorset, which provided the background to all of his novels” is an acceptable clue.
- Avoid vague clues. When reading an encylopedia article on someone, you might be tempted to use a sentence like “His works reflect the societal conditions of his time” or “His use of color was based on his own observations of the natural landscape.” These are awful clues. Think about how you would feel if you heard these clues – they would be useless to you.
- Move gradually in difficulty. A question that goes hard clue-hard clue-hard clue-hard clue-easy clue will be frustrating to everyone who hears it, since everyone will just wait through the hard clues and then there will be a big buzzer race on the easy clue.
- Try to keep all of your clues in the appropriate subject. For example, if you're writing a question for the “science” category, it's probably not appropriate to begin with “Lisa Simpson invents one of these when she is home because of the teachers' strike,” since that's not a scientific clue. It is okay to bridge categories with questions, of course, but just make sure to place the resulting question in a more general category.
A bad question
This question embodies many features of bad question-writing:
Born in 1865 in Ohio, this man studied from 1879 to 1882 at Ohio Central College, and then moved to Marion, Ohio, where he purchased the local newspaper, the Marion Star, and entered politics. A member of the state legislature from 1899 to 1903, he won many friends with his likeable personality and his excellent public speaking ability. In 1914 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but his time in the Senate was not distinguished. For ten points, name this man who, in 1920, succeeded Woodrow Wilson as president.
Answer: Warren G. Harding
This question contains a large amount of biographical information (does anyone care where he went to college?), vague fluff (he had a likeable personality), and outright useless clues (his time in the Senate was not distinguished – well, that could be 99% of Senators!) If this question were read, no one would get it off of the large quantity of unhelpful information at the beginning, and then the giveaway would create a buzzer race and annoy everyone.
Typically, a question for an untimed tournament should be no more than six or seven lines of 12-point Times New Roman, or about the length of both of these tossups here (this being the HTML version, they may appear to be a different length, but that is what they should look like in Word). Shorter questions are certainly acceptable; a minimum length is about 4 lines, assuming that there are still a reasonable number of clues in those 4 lines. For timed tournaments, questions should be somewhat shorter, probably in the range of 3-5 lines. Most tournaments will usually have their own say on this issue, so heed their words.
Tournaments will specify the subject distribution that they want people to write. However, you should try to make sure that your questions cover different sub-areas in these topics. For example, if I'm going to write 3/3 history, they probably shouldn't all be military history. Similarly, having 1/1 of your literature be Chinese literature is okay, but having 1/1 Chinese literature, 2/1 Chinese history, 1/1 Chinese geography, and 1/0 Chinese current events is overkill and won't be looked kindly on. [For people unfamiliar with this notation: 2/1 history means 2 history tossups, 1 history bonus.]
Unfortunately, the nature of this distribution means that, from time to time, you'll have to write questions on things you don't know all that well. This is not ideal, and is generally the most common source of bad questions being written (see “Knowing your subject” above). However, it is unavoidable. Try to pick something that you at least know something about, and try to learn as much as possible about the subject so as to avoid the most common pitfalls when this does happen.
Bonuses are much simpler to write than tossups, and hence get much less room here. In general, remember that the goal is to have not too many teams get 0 points, and not too many teams get 30 points, but both of these should be attainable. Don't make it impossible to get 30 points, or give teams a free 5 or 10 points just for getting the bonus.
Common bonus formats include: three parts of 10, two parts of 5 and two of 10, a 30-20-10 progressive bonus, two 15-10 or 15-5 progressive questions, five parts of 5 with a 5-point bonus for all correct, and six parts of 5. The last should only be used if the individual parts are very, very short, since otherwise it makes the bonus too long. The 5-10-15 bonus is controversial; some people like it, but most tend to discourage it because it places too much weight (15 points) on the most difficult part. Remember, there's no harm in making a 10-10-10 bonus with one easier part and one harder part.
Deprecated Question Formats
In older packets, you will occasionally see some question formats which have fallen into disuse due to general opprobrium. Here are a few, so you know not to use them:
Spelling tossups. Spelling tossups used to be relatively prevalent in the circuit, but are now widely reviled. Do not write them.
Computation tossups. Computation tossups are popular with writers who don’t know any math beyond what they learned in high school. They are generally not appropriate for a college quiz bowl event, except perhaps at the very lowest levels.
Ordering bonuses. Ordering bonuses (e.g. “Place these six historical events in order by the year in which they happened”, or “Place these six countries in order by population”) used to be widespread but are now disfavored, for reasons both practical (they’re a pain for both teams and moderators to keep track of) and theoretical (the knowledge they test, the ability to memorize a bunch of dates, is not very important).
Yes/no bonuses. A bonus in which every answer is either “yes” or “no” (or has only two possibilities in general) is a bonus in which a dart-throwing monkey can get half the possible points. This is not good.
Match bonuses. In a match bonus, a team is given two lists and asked to match them. (“Given six opera characters and the means of their death, match them for five points each.”) These are also a pain for both teams and moderators to deal with, so avoid them if possible. Sometimes these are written slightly differently (“Here’s six means of death. Now, we’ll ask you an opera character, and for five each, match them to the means of death. First, Aida…”). This eases the bookkeeping load somewhat, but has the problem that in order to avoid making the last couple of parts ridiculously easy, you have to instruct the moderator to not read answers until the end of the question, which is also a pain. Just keep it simple and avoid this format.
Common Pitfalls and How To Avoid Them
The Canon Expansion Bonus
This is probably the most common trap into which new question writers fall. Let’s say you’re a big fan of Alexander the Great, but you’re tired of all of the answers being Arbela/Gaugamela and Issus. So you produce this bonus, determined to ask some less-frequently-asked battles of Alexander’s career:
Name these battles that Alexander the Great fought in for ten points each.
10) Alexander led the decisive left-wing cavalry charge at this 338 BCE battle where his father Philip defeated an Athenian and Theban coalition.
10) This 326 BCE battle, the last major battle of Alexander’s career, saw him pitted against the Indian rajah Porus and his war elephants.
Answer: Hydaspes River or Jhelum
10) Alexander married the princess Roxana after capturing this mountain fortress in 327 BC, supposedly vulnerable only to flying men.
Answer: Sogdian Rock
This bonus is, to not put too fine a point on it, terrible. Not that there’s anything wrong with the three parts individually – each would be a fine third part to a bonus where the first two parts are Arbela/Gaugamela and Issus – but by putting all three of them in the same bonus, you’ve created a bonus where a team needs to have expert-level knowledge of Alexander just to get even ten points. This is not a desirable goal for a bonus.
The Inadvertant Hose (This example is taken from a packet by Nick, Larissa, and Jeff)
Suppose I decide to write a tossup on Lakshmi, a perfectly fine goddess to write a tossup on. I look up some facts, and I start my question:
In one account, she springs fully formed from the body of her father...
I've just created a terrible hose, because that clue is much better known to apply to someone else (Athena). The simplest way to deal with this problem is to state upfront it's not Athena:
She's not Athena, but in one acount, she springs fully formed from the body of her father.
Now the big problem is solved. This is something you need to be especially careful with when dealing with writers, since a writer occasionally will have a little-known early work which has the same name as a much-better-known work by someone else, so putting that early work in the beginning will create a problem.
The Binary Tossup
Consider this tossup:
This University of Chicago student hoped that issuing the family a $10,000 ransom demand would help to conceal his crime, but the body was discovered by Tony Minke before the ransom was paid, its face burned with acid to hinder identification of the victim. He believed that he would be able to commit “the perfect crime” in killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks. For ten points, name this man, who, along with Nathan Leopold, Jr., was saved from a death sentence by the defense of Clarence Darrow.
Answer: Richard Loeb
The problem with this tossup is that people will be able to identify that the answer is one of Leopold and Loeb relatively early on, but not be able to tell which one until the other one is mentioned in the question, leading to a huge buzzer race when Leopold’s name is mentioned. This is poor.
People occasionally try to solve this dilemma by adding biographical information at the beginning of the question:
Born June 11, 1905, this University of Chicago student…
It’s true that we’ve now uniquely identified Loeb, but this is nearly useless except to people who happen to know the exact birthdates of the two criminals. By far the best approach is to write the question so that it asks for both of them to begin with.
The 2nd Finnish Composer
As mentioned above, a question which mentions a Finnish composer is almost always Sibelius. Suppose you decide to write a question about a Finnish composer who isn’t Sibelius. Well, there are several ways this question could be written. Let’s have a look at them and how they will actually play out in practice.
- You put “this Finnish composer” early in the question. People buzz and say “Sibelius”, and are annoyed when it turns out to be incorrect. People are also annoyed when it reaches the end of the question and no one has any idea who it is.
- You use the “He’s not Sibelius, but this Finnish composer…” trick mentioned above. This will eliminate the first source of annoyance, which is nice, but not the second. It also has another weakness: if people know only two Finnish composers, they can get an easy buzz and the points.
99.9% of the time, the appropriate thing to do is not write the tossup. The precise reason that Sibelius is synonymous with “Finnish composer” is because all other Finnish composers are far too obscure. If you’re writing for a really, really hard tournament – and have thought really carefully about whether this question is appropriate even for that tournament – the best thing to do is not mention his nationality at all, or at least not until near the end of the tossup.
Nuts and Bolts
In general, you are best off writing your questions in Microsoft Word (or something else that can save in .doc format) unless explicitly requested otherwise. Regardless of what you think of Microsoft, the .doc format is widely-used and (in my experience) much less likely to experience mangling of accented characters, smart quotes, etc. when crossing platforms than RTF or plain text.
Formatting questions is also important. The most common way to format questions is as illustrated in this guide (with the bonus parts marked by number of points). Also widely-used are the ACF guidelines at Please be nice to your packet editor and follow the formatting guidelines that accompany every tournament question distribution announcement. Packet editors, help your teammates help you by including these when you assign them categories.
When writing questions, it helps to have some good references at hand. Here are a few:
Encyclopedias are good sources of information on all topics. It's very easy to write bad questions out of an encyclopedia, however, since it's easy to overuse things like biographical information and underuse a person's actual accomplishments. With that said:
- Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/) is a free, collaborative encyclopedia. Wikipedia has been been steadily gaining in popularity as a quizbowl reference source thanks to its completeness and convenience. So be careful not to overuse it, take too many clues from it, or trust it completely.
- Encyclopedia Britannica (http://www.eb.com/) is free from UCB computers, and is guaranteed reliable.
- Encyclopedia.com (http://www.encyclopedia.com/) is occasionally useful.
- Bartleby.com (http://www.bartleby.com/) is a good literature reference, though it can be difficult to find specific information.
- ScienceWorld (http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/) is the best science source I know of. However, it only covers physics, math, astronomy, and chemistry, and its coverage of the last two is incomplete.
Less convenient than websites, but often used, are:
- Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia: The standard source for pretty much anything in literature. Beware of overuse, however: “straight out of Benet's” has become a common quizbowl complaint about overly asked literature questions.
- Masterplots: Plot summaries of a whole bunch of great works of literature.
- Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature: Pretty much what it says.
- The Berkeley Library (http://library.berkeley.edu/) has a very large collection of electronic resources. Probably most useful are the electronic encyclopedias available: choose “Encyclopedias & Gateway Sites” from the “Electronic Resources” menu.
- Dwight Kidder's Reference Desk (http://users.stargate.net/~kidder/refdesk/) has a list of sites that quizbowl people have found useful in some capacity or another.
For Further Reading
The Maize Pages at Michigan have a list of question-writing guidelines at http://www.umich.edu/~uac/mac/rules.html, the most complete and up-to-date of which is the Michigan Memorandum at http://www.umich.edu/~uac/mac/rules/memorandum2002.html.