Houghton Mifflin HarcourtHistory Channel

By Brad Fischer,
NHBB, Director of Question Production

Writing questions serves as an excellent way to improve as a player, as a writer in general, and as a scholar. It exercises all the mental muscles involved in scholarship, especially some that don’t get used in other forms of quizbowl study.

Why write?
You get practice doing research and using (and judging!) source material. Wikipedia may have all the basic information you need to start understanding a topic, but that’s where its benefits stop and its faults begin. Articles will usually skimp on important analysis of the topic, and often have biased or flat-out incorrect analysis. Articles often prize brevity over completeness and ignore important aspects of the topic. The work that goes into a good question involves real scholarly research; going through the work of finding interesting discussion of a topic is great practice for you as both a writer and a scholar.

You also get practice as a writer; the simple act of crafting sentences, paragraphs, essays, arguments, speeches, is something that you should be doing every day. I’m a former math teacher, and even I made my students practice their writing every day!

Finally, you get quizbowl studying done – and not just any studying. You aren’t simply making and studying flash cards, which can teach you that X means Y or A caused B – you’re also caring about how clues work with each other, in the historical sense and the quizbowl sense. It’s one thing to write “This President signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” which a flashcard would teach you; it’s another thing to write “This President’s signing of the Fair Housing Act continued his predecessor’s fight for civil rights,” or something more elaborate than that. Flashcards usually don’t dive into that much detail; in writing a question, you can show how the Civil Rights Act fit into history, not just name it.
There’s more! It’s one thing to know that a clue is going to be in your tossup, but writing a tossup requires more clues than that AND knowing how they interact with each other. You want your tossup’s clues to go from hardest to easiest, which means you have to critically think about how well known your clues are, relative to each other. Writing flash cards can’t do all that. Reading books can’t do all that. Question writing is the synthesis of all your other studying, and it pays off accordingly.

What to focus on?
There are so many aspects to consider while writing. Are my clues unique? Interesting? Ordered from hard to easy? Do the clues gradually get easier, or do I ramble about impossible stuff the whole way until the giveaway? Do my sentences make sense as a lesson on the topic, or do they just throw different things together? Do my sentences make sense as written English?
That’s all before I, as a professional writer, start caring about how that finished tossup fits in the larger set of questions I’m writing for a tournament. Is the answer line too hard? Is the lead-in not too hard but not too easy? Does it fit in the category distribution? Did we write too many tossups like that already?

Beginning writers shouldn’t worry about that second set of meta-aspects of writing for a specific tournament; focus instead on the first set of criteria. You’re writing to learn more clues, so you should focus on finding and picking good clues that make sense together and on getting them in the right order. You should also focus on choosing worthwhile answer lines; things that you already know something about but want to learn more, things that you know come up in quizbowl. There’s room enough for going crazy difficult later; you’ve got basic lessons to learn.

And how do you learn those lessons (other than reading the essays here)? Read your questions to your friends, your teammates, players from other schools, etc. There’s never a shortage of people who want to listen to questions. Read and listen to their advice.

Share