In this lesson, we begin discussing what makes a clue good or bad. This lesson can only serve to start the discussion; it takes an immense amount of experience and writing practice to internalize this lesson. If you’ve only played quizbowl for a year or so, you will struggle with this in your early writing. If you’ve played quizbowl for a long time, you might be used to judging tossups for their clue quality and think you know what you’re doing, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that makes you completely immune to writing bad clues. It happens to us all at times!
A good clue is academically important, interesting, and directly specific. If your clue lacks one of those qualities, you need to fix it. If your clue lacks two or all three of those qualities, you need to cut it. A good clue is also concise; tossups are of a finite length, so don’t waste words. You can ruin a good clue by making it run on too long. There are some facts that simply can’t be condensed into quizbowl-appropriate clues. This lesson focuses on just the first three qualities; brevity is a lesson best learned through self-examination.
Academically important means that it tells a story or fact that has historical merit; it’s something that is worth knowing as a historian. This is a judgment call that you as a writer have to make for each clue. Most of the time it’s a pretty easy call to make; the important thing is to be constantly making that judgment call.
Let’s do some practice judgment calls on a hypothetical tossup on Franklin Roosevelt. Each of the following facts is true; pretend that each appeared in a tossup, and disregard what would hypothetically go before or after that sentence. After you read each one, decide if it is academically important. My responses follow after each list. (We’ll use these same clues to judge “interesting” and “directly specific” next.)
“This man was born in 1882.”
“This man attended Groton School.”
“This man was paralyzed due to polio.”
“While on vacation at Campobello Island, this man contracted polio and was paralyzed.”
“This man’s public appearances were carefully managed to avoid exposing his wheelchair, which he needed due to paralysis caused by polio.”
“This man served as Governor of New York from 1929 until 1932.”
“This man supported Al Smith’s Presidential campaign by campaigning for, and succeeding him as, Governor of New York.”
“This man’s governorship was plagued by Tammany Hall corruption.”
“This man was nearly shot in Miami.”
“Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot this man.”
“Anton Cermak died after an assassination attempt on this man.”
“Mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak was killed when anti-capitalist Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot this man.”
“This President gave the ‘Infamy’ speech on December 8th, 1941.”
“This President called December 7th, 1941 a ‘date which will live in infamy’ when asking Congress to declare war against Japan.”
“This President noted that ‘the facts of yesterday speak for themselves’ in one speech to Congress.”
First up, the early biography clues.
*Being born in 1882 is not academically important; there is no need to study the birthdates of famous people. Similarly, birthplaces aren’t important. Death dates and places are only important if their death is academically important, and in those situations the clue isn’t “when,” it’s the “how” or “why.”
*Attending Groton is not academically important. I can see one argument in favor of it: Groton is an exceptionally exclusive boarding school, and you could do historical study on how Groton affected Roosevelt’s upbringing. Unfortunately, this clue is making no effort to incorporate that sort of thesis into the tossup; it’s just naming the school. This is an example of a context-free namedrop; these are, by-and-large, to be avoided for early and middle clues. About the only time it’s OK is when it’s something famous enough that the name itself is a clue; in those cases, the clue would be late in the tossup.
Next, his polio.
*FDR’s polio and paralysis is academically important. It’s a very important aspect of his private and political life, and it’s a fact worth learning in a classroom setting.
*This clue adds the place where he contracted polio. The Campobello clue is pulling some weight by adding context for the polio clue, but it’s not pulling a ton of weight. If the rest of your tossup is great, this clue probably survives. If the rest of your tossup needs editing (especially if it’s a bit too long), it might be cut for not being academically important. It is academically neutral; you should strive for clues that help more than this does, but it’s not bad.
*This clue adds a description of how the polio affected FDR; it adds academically important context to an academically important thing, and is therefore exceptionally important.
Next, stuff about his governorship.
*The fact that FDR was Governor of NY is academically important; knowing the exact years themselves are less so. (Would history have been different if New York held their elections a year earlier, and FDR served 1928-1931? Maybe, but that’s not a particularly interesting counterfactual.) Therefore, this clue is, on the whole, not good.
*This clue tells why he ran for Governor and, in the process, gives the player context on the timeframe. This is academically important information about FDR’s political career, and a better example than the dates themselves.
*Not much to debate here; FDR’s struggles with Tammany Hall are academically important.
Next, the assassination attempt.
*All this tossup tells you is “something happened in Miami;” you don’t technically know it’s the assassination attempt. Just like the date, the location is not highly relevant to the story. This is not academically important.
*This one only tells you the name of the assassin which is, in general, academically important. Assassins are studied, and knowing their identities is generally accepted as important.
*The death of Anton Cermak is academically important.
*This one just elaborates on the last one, and therefore is still academically important.
Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*This clue sounds very much like it would be academically unimportant — it’s a namedrop and a date! We just spent a full paragraph talking about how those things are bad! — but the name dropped is “Infamy” and the date is “the day after Pearl Harbor.” It is academically important that FDR gave the speech so soon after the attack, and the name is academically important because it comes from the most famous and important line of a famous and important speech. In this case, history cares enough about the facts in play that almost anything we do with it would count as “academically important.”
*Yep, this is academically important.
*Here’s where we draw the line. That quote is from the Infamy speech (which is important!), but the clue does nothing to help us know why that particular line would be important. So, we’ve got an arguments for “yes” and “no” here; that’s an editor’s dilemma. As written, on its own, I vote no. (But if the tossup were on the speech itself, instead of FDR — what would you think then?)
Next, interesting clues. This is the most subjective part of writing; what’s interesting to you might not be interesting to me, and what’s interesting to a college professor might not be interesting to a middle schooler. The good news is that our clues don’t have to be interesting to everyone; the primary goal for practicing writers is to avoid boring clues, so that’s what we’ll focus on here. Return to the list of sentences above, and decide whether each of the clues is interesting.
First, the early biography clues.
*No one should care about knowing the exact year that FDR was born. Similarly, no one should care where he was born. Definitely not interesting.
*The fact that he went to Groton is surely interesting to people who go to Groton, but that’s about it, and even then, it’s a context-free namedrop, so I’m bored.
Next, the polio.
*FDR’s paralysis due to polio is interesting; this clue doesn’t do a good job of making me interested in that fact. I feel it’s a little on the boring side.
*The added context of “where” makes this a little more interesting than the previous one.
*This one gives an interesting story about how the polio affected his life; definitely the most interesting of this group of three clues.
Next, the governorship.
*So boring! As a player, I don’t want to memorize dates, and especially not of “when people were in some political office!”
*Much better — we’re told why he ran for Governor, and it ties it in with another political figure.
*Ooh, scandal! This is a little interesting; it would definitely be more interesting with an example of the corruption, but it’s a start.
Next, the assassination attempt.
*Pretty boring, for the same reason it’s not academically important; nobody cares about just the “where,” I want to know the “how” or the “why.”
*I suppose I’ll settle for the “who,” for the same reasons described earlier in the academic importance section. Not great, though.
*Somebody else died when this guy was attacked? That’s definitely worth hearing more about; this is interesting.
*Wait — the Mayor of Chicago died when this guy was attacked? By a guy with political motive? Quite obviously, the most interesting of the bunch.
Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*With just the name of the speech and the date, I’m not as interested as I could be.
*A bold, famous quote and a declaration of war; this is interesting.
*This quote isn’t as bold, and he’s talking to Congress for…we don’t know why he’s talking to Congress. I think this is actually less interesting than namedropping “Infamy;” at least that one gives you something that’ll hopefully stick in your head so you can look it up later.
Finally, specificity. I use the word specific here to mean that a clue could apply to the answer; a directly specific clue gives a strong indication that it only applies to that one answer. The lead-in, of course, must be completely directly specific; for middle clues, the more direct, the better. To judge a clue’s direct specificity, consider it alone; if you had perfect knowledge of FDR, how confidently could you buzz on it? Perfect confidence means you know that it actually describes FDR and FDR alone, so it’s completely directly specific; no confidence means it describes many, many people, and so it’s not specific. This concept runs on a spectrum, so a clue might be “somewhat directly specific.” Decide whether the above clues are directly specific to FDR, then read on for my responses.
First, the early biographical clues.
*Neither of these clues even qualify as specific; so many people were born in 1882 or went to Groton that it’s impossible to have narrowed it down to FDR. Anyone buzzing here is believed to be cheating rather than smart.
Next, the polio clues.
*Here’s a dilemma; many people were paralyzed due to polio, but FDR’s is particularly famous. As written, this clue is context-free, so you don’t have any real confidence that the answer is FDR; if you buzz in on this sentence alone, you’re just assuming that “it’s famous!” is going to earn you points. Therefore, it obviously can’t be a lead-in – it’s very far away from “completely directly specific.” This clue would have to rely on the clues before it to make it clear that it’s a prominent American politician; if it does so, then the combination of earlier context with “paralyzed by polio” make this acceptable.
*The additional context of “vacationing at Campobello Island” makes this sentence completely directly specific and therefore a potential lead-in. It is a bad lead-in because the drop in difficulty from “Campobello Island” to “paralyzed with polio” is extremely sharp, so you don’t have enough context to make this acceptable (like I described in the last clue).
*This adds context that is definitely true about FDR, but is also true about many other people. This clue is just as non-direct as the first polio clue was; the real problem here is that the writer added that context in an attempt to make it more direct, and it failed. Read your clues out loud; test each of them as a stand-alone question. If it can’t stand alone, you should improve them.
So what can be done to fix this clue? Add a specific example! Say “His public speeches, including the “Four Freedoms” speech, were delivered while leaning against the lectern, even though he was paralyzed from the waist down due to polio.” The Four Freedoms clue (which is completely directly specific) is tied to the polio clue in a way that transfers the uniqueness; meanwhile, the context of the polio helps distract from the fact that we used Four Freedoms as a context-free namedrop. (Now, imagine that we described the Four Freedoms speech earlier in the question, and that problem is fixed, too!)
Next, the governor clues.
*This is a textbook example of completely directly specific. Hey, it got one out of three qualities right!
*Taken as a whole, this is also completely directly specific. Woohoo!
Worth noting: if you buzz at “This man supported Al Smith’s Presidential campaign,” it’s somewhat vague because the sentence hasn’t finished delivering the clue. Therefore, it’s not concise enough to be an ideal leadin. Most players would say “it’s obvious that there’s more coming,” and most players wouldn’t be offended by having to wait more than seven words to get to the point (as long as the point is actually coming), but we, as writers, should strive to avoid the problem altogether.
*Not specific at all; every governor of New York for eighty years dealt with Tammany Hall.
Next, the assassination attempt clues.
*Not specific at all. Even the “Governor for 1929 to 1932” clue had one quality right; this “clue” is awful for quizbowl purposes, and you hopefully noted it the first time you saw it.
*Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot FDR; he did shoot Cermak, and some believe that Cermak actually was his target; there were four other definitely-accidental victims. This clue is probably pointing to FDR, but possibly pointing to Cermak. For that reason, I must call it “not specific at all,” but it’s an easy re-wording away from being OK.
*The phrasing of this clue makes it clear that it’s FDR; after all, answering “Anton Cermak” to this clue just sounds stupid. Completely directly specific.
*Again, Cermak is named so there’s no question; this is completely directly specific.
Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*Completely directly specific.
*Completely directly specific.
*Almost completely directly specific; technically speaking, all you need is one person re-enacting the speech in Congress, and this becomes not specific. (And Congress does speech re-enactments all the time.) It lacks the concrete specifiers that the first two clues had; this isn’t a problem if previous clues give you that context, so basically I’m just saying “this would need a re-wording if it was going to be a lead-in.” But combine that very minor issue with the “I’m not terribly interested” issue and the “it’s not good enough to be academically important,” and you have, as presented here, a bad clue.
Having studied these clues intensely, it’s worth remembering that a quizbowl tossup isn’t just a series of independent clues, one after the other. The clues work with each other, building off of each other, to tell the broad story. But, for beginning writers, it’s important to focus in at the level of an individual clue — and focusing on the three qualities of academic importance, interest, and specificity is the way to start.