Subash Maddipoti’s Tips on Question Writing

Editor’s note: Quizbowl luminary and ACF member emeritus Subash Maddipoti wrote this guideline in the early 2000s as a quick guideline for writers. Most of it remains excellent advice, but ACF has given it a modern gloss to reflect developments since its writing. Where the substance of content was changed, editor’s remarks are indicated in [brackets].

I’d like to just point to some recurring problems I’ve seen in questions – problems that I hope to help teams address before they submit their packets.

1. Extended and vague stylistic references to a writer, painter, musician, philosopher, or other figures in the humanities are unnecessary and often frustrating to those listening to the question, particularly when they come early in the question.

Example: “His intermittent surrealist depictions and use of vivid color belied the realism and monochromatic pigments that the public associated with him.”

Why this is bad: Unless you have incredible art knowledge, you have no way of knowing that this is uniquely identifying (and even then you can’t be sure). These sentences cause many players to drone the question out, slow down the flow of the packet, and are usually a clear indication that the information was plagiarized from a reference source (paraphrase to your heart’s content). Even if you can determine with confidence that it is a unique description, you should never begin the question with it, as you’ve most likely created an immediate buzzer race.

What you can do about it: Keep stylistic descriptions succinct and use them only if you’re sure that they bring important and unique information to the question.

2. Beginning a tossup on a person with a quote about that person is often a bad idea.

Example: When Emerson asked this man, “How many men possessed of your views, who will remain after you, are going to put them in practice?” he candidly replied, “Not one.”

Why this is bad: These quotes usually exemplify the frequent problems of vague clues and unnecessary filler alluded to above. If it’s a good quote, then it’s probably a well-known quote and makes a bad lead-in. If it’s a quote that you know is not well-known, then what’s the point – use something more concrete. [Quotes are sometimes appropriate clues, but typically only if they are notable enough to comprise a clue in the middle of the question that more players will be buzzing off of. Testing for knowledge of random Bartlett’s reading in the lead-in is almost never appropriate, and ACF editors will almost certainly delete such clues.]

Note that your use of a clue with a quote that also dicusses stylistic details is anathema and will result in the wrath of both [diminutive former Nuggets point guard] Earl Boykins and myself.

What you can do about it: Don’t use quotes as lead-ins.

3. Beginning a tossup on an individual with [titles, including] that individual’s first or last work should be done with caution and should be avoided in the majority of [questions on people].

Example: “His first novel Cup of Gold . . . ”

Why this is bad: Players with no knowledge of John Steinbeck’s body of work will be able to buzz in right away with simple list knowledge. [First works are particularly familiar to many players because old packets often mention them, so they should be avoided especially. But in general, starting with a title before describing a work rewards title-author binary knowledge over more in-depth knowledge of important works, so don’t do it.]

What you can do about it: [Follow this simple rule: describe before you name. The more buzzable the name is, the more detailed the description should be. Your descriptions should always be specific, concrete, and buzzable. For very famous works that many players are sure to be familiar with, it’s of paramount importance to describe the work well before naming it, because the name will likely end the question in most rooms.]

4. Reorder your clues when describing characters in a work and their occupation or significance, i.e. when you’re using appositives.

Example: “Its protagonist Clym Yeobright, a former diamond merchant in Paris, loses his eyesight.”

Why this is bad: The use of appositives, however grammatically correct and appropriate to the smooth flow of a tossup, often damages the pyramidality of a tossup. Someone who only has quizbowl knowledge about Return of the Native is just as likely to buzz after the first four words of that clue as someone who has read the novel. [This is analogous to the above problem with titles; just like you shouldn’t say Cup of Gold without telling players what Cup of Gold is, you shouldn’t say “Clym Yeobright” without first describing him to players so that the person with the best Yeobright knowledge wins out over someone who simply knows the name.]

What you can do about it: Reorder your clues – Begin with your noun phrase or noun instead of the noun it renames. For example: “The former diamond merchant in Paris who is now losing his eyesight is this novel’s protagonist, Clym Yeobright.” [In other words, describe before you name.

Also keep in mind that descriptions need not come right before the names of the things they describe; you can always put the sentence “This novel’s protagonist is a former diamond merchant who is losing his eyesight.” ahead of the sentence “This novel’s protagonist is Clym Yeobright.” if the two pieces of information diverge in notability or don’t flow well together.]

5. Beginning science tossups with the inventors or formulators of the apparatus or concept being asked about is almost always not a good idea. On a related note, a tossup on a concept that primarily discusses its formulator is not really a substantive tossup.

Examples: “Cornell, Ketterle, and Wieman won a Nobel for achieving it . . .” or “Its formulator, younger brother of physicist Karl, became head of the physics department at Washington University in St. Louis in 1920.”

Why these are bad: Someone who knows nothing about the Bose-Einstein condensate (and I mean nothing) would be able to buzz on that first lead-in. The second lead-in, purportedly a tossup on the Compton effect, tells us nothing about the effect and only gives us some data on Arthur Compton.

What you can do about it: Get facts on the Bose-Einstein condensate and Compton effect and try to organize them to the best of your ability from most obscure to most well-known. [With the exception of a handful of science biography questions that appear in the “other science” distribution, quizbowl in general has moved away from asking about the lives of scientists and instead focuses on meaty descriptions of the science itself. While there are occasionally tossups on people, such as Compton, these questions focus on the science and leave the biography out.]

6. When trying to assess the appropriate difficulty level for a tossup answer, consult [old packets at the difficulty level for which you are writing]. If your answer has not come up AT LEAST twice as a prior tossup or [easy] bonus answer, then you should almost certainly not be writing a tossup with said answer.

Examples: It [may be difficult for someone who has] read Balzac in an freshman or sophomore class but [is] new to the game to discern that a tossup on Pere Goriot or Cousine Bette is greatly preferable to a tossup on Lost Illusions or The Wild Ass’s Skin [at the Regionals level. At the Fall level, a tossup on Balzac is appropriate, but any tossup on a work (except perhaps The Human Comedy in general) is likely too hard. At Nationals, all of these answers may be appropriate.]

[Why this is bad: All ACF tournaments have different difficulties and answerability goals. New writers often write tossups that are too hard for the level that’s appropriate.

What you can do about it: Go to the archive and look for your answer in similar-difficulty packets. If you’re not sure how to do this, consult an experienced teammate (make sure they’re not playing the tournament you’re writing for on another team, though). If all else fails, write on something you know is easy enough for the level, using harder clues if you want (for example, if you’re just dying to write a tossup on a work, but you’re not sure if the work is too hard for the level, why not write it on the creator of the work, using mostly clues about that work in the tossup?).

Finally, there are official resources you can turn to, such as ACF question-writing guidelines. Second, you should have no qualms consulting the tournament’s head editor with questions (about difficulty or anything else) before submitting your packet. They’re glad to help, especially if it results in more good questions.]

7. [N]ever write a tossup on a subject that is only gettable by a “cutesy” or “sounds like” or [an unrelated] “shares its name with” type giveaway.

Example: “After ordination as an Anglican priest in 1883, this historian moved to Europe to pursue another profession. As an Alpinist he made 1,750 ascents by 1900, including the first winter ascent of the Jungfrau. For 10 points, name this American mountaineer, who shares his surname with our 30th president”

Why this is bad: This question is bad for many reasons, but illustrates the fundamental point I am trying to make. I don’t mean to belittle the historical importance of William Coolidge, but I would suspect that 99% of the players would not be able to answer this question until the last two words. These questions simply make players angry, create the wrong kind of buzzer race, and, in my opinion, show a total lack of regard on the part of the question writer. [Additionally, the knowledge of “who the 30th president is” has nothing to do with the knowledge of “who William Coolidge is,” which is what this question purports to test. If the answer is too hard for players to get without an unrelated or cutesy giveaway, don’t write on it.]

What to do about it: Don’t write questions like this. If the only clue you can find about an individual or thing is its similarity to another more well-known thing, then it’s not tossup-worthy. If you still feel the need to include it in a question, then use it as a lead-in.

A good example: A tossup on the English architect John Nash would be a bad idea, but [using John Nash as a clue, perhaps in an architecture tossup on “London,” or as the hard part to a bonus, might be more appropriate. Additionally, ACF’s “other academic” distribution might be the place for a cross-disciplinary question on various people named “Nash” or “John Nash” (for example, the mathematician and the architect). These questions are hard to do well, but they can be interesting.

Additionally, the use of related giveaways may sometimes be a good idea. For example, a tossup on Purkinje cells might mention that their namesake also discovered electricity-conducting fibers in the heart. This still requires substantial biology knowledge to receive ten points, so it may be appropriate to increase conversion. A tossup on Purkinje whose first half is about the cells and whose second half is about the fibers is probably preferable at most difficulty levels, however.]

8. [Don’t ignore the fact that] distribution diversity requirements apply over every aspect of your packet.

Why this is bad: A packet with tossups on King Lear, Waiting for Godot, Travesties, Heartbreak House, and The Alchemist (all British drama) is as equally bad as a packet with tossups on the Vichy government, treaty of Verdun, Francis I, and the Estates-General (all French history). For the same reason, a packet with a science tossup on Eratosthenes (science biography is bad), a philosophy tossup on Thales, a history tossup on Philip of Macedon, and a literature tossup on The Thebaid is unacceptable. Just because you don’t repeat genre, convention, race, nationality, or format within a category, you do not have license to repeat them across categories.

[What to do about it: Adhere to ACF’s subdistribution breakdowns, but also make sure to maintain cross-category diversity. Stuffing your packet with avant-garde 20th century lit, music, and painting is just as problematic for editors as writing three British history tossups, so don’t do it!]

9. Don’t write your questions with the purpose of having them read for the benefit or any individual player.

Example: I know that Team X is obsessed with the work of David Hockney, so I’m going to write this wonderful tossup on A Bigger Splash, or I know that Bill Williamson is a big fan of Schumann, so I’ll write this tossup on Kreisleriana.

Why this is bad: (I’m sure I don’t have to say, but . . .) Most importantly, these questions, even if they are written with the strictest pyramidality, show a fundamental favoritism that should absolutely be avoided. As a consequence, they also end up being way too difficult, as both of the above two examples would be for Regionals (and Nationals as well). I don’t know how frequently this happens, but I know that I have been guilty of it in the past. If you catch yourself doing this, please correct it right away, as it’s completely unfair to the other teams.

10. If you’re unsure about difficulty or characterization of a subject within categories (or anything about packets), consult [an experienced teammate or the editors of the tournament].

Generally, these decisions are pretty subjective and will vary depending on the editor, but for each year the head editor’s say is final. So for example if you’re wondering whether your tossup on The Chocolate War, or Flatland, or The Time Machine is considered literature (for the purposes of your packet), then please ask. I would tell you the latter two are, but the The Chocolate War is not. If you asked me why, then I would respond: in general sci-fi and children’s lit do not satisfy your literature quota, but certain novels can transcend their genre. I would argue that Flatland and The Time Machine do and The Chocolate War does not. Feel free to debate this point to your heart’s content, but if you are unsure please ask and save me the trouble of possibly having to replace a question and give you the luxury of possibly having another one of your questions heard.