The Stanford Question Writing Guidelines
Written by Doug Bone, David Frazee, and Chris Golde, all associated at the time with Stanford.
(Edited by Pat Matthews, who merely modified the work of the above so that these guidelines will fit the requirements of just about any tournament.)
At invitational tournaments, participants traditionally complain about poor question quality and the need for question improvement and consistency. Complaints cite misleading, wordy, obscure, grammatically faulty, and factually incorrect questions. Poor question quality is a persistent problem at invitational tournaments partly because of the lack of guidance for question writers. This guide includes instructions for question formats and packet composition. In addition, some sample questions are attached. Whether you are a novice or experienced question writer, we hope this guide provides useful information and reasonable question expectations.
Though editors will attempt to remove all duplicate and problem questions, they cannot verify the accuracy of every questions submitted, nor rewrite entire packets. Question writers are responsible for the accuracy and quality of their questions, and team captains should verify that all questions are carefully edited and conform to packet guidelines.
A. Question Quality and Accuracy
We recommend that teams read their questions aloud in a simulated regulation (i.e. timed) match and that all information be verified in reputable reference sources. For example, books by Fred L. Worth (e.g. SuperTrivia) and Wallechinsky/Wallace (e.g. The Book of Lists, The People’s Almanac) are notoriously error-filled and should not be used without verification. Writers should not use copyrighted questions or questions previously used in any competition. Questions do not need to be footnoted, though you may do so.
B. Question Security
If your school is sending more than one team, it is critical that each team write its packet blind of the other teams, as they may hear each other’s packets during the competition. Separate disks for each team may be mailed should no neutral person be available to place all the teams’ questions on one disk.
Each packet should have at least 32 toss-up and 30 bonus questions. Toss-ups are all worth 10 points apiece and bonuses are worth 20-30 points each. Written for timed play, the packet should provide enough material for 14 minutes of play. If a quick moderator can read only 20 or so toss-ups with bonuses in 14 minutes, the questions are too long.
Packets should be reasonably uniform in difficulty.
Every packet should be balanced across the various topic areas. These goals are approximations, but try to keep the distribution balanced since there will be many different users of the packet.
B. Question Distribution
The target number of questions are as follows:
[Ed.: These numbers in the above chart can vary slightly, but be very careful to maintain a balance in categories!]
C. Topic Areas
Introductory college courses, perusal of periodicals such as Science News, Scientific American, Discover, or the Science section of The New York Times should provide adequate background for science toss-ups and most boni. Science includes, but is not limited to, biology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and earth science. Questions may come from the history of science, but should also reflect important recent developments or fundamental principles of relevance to contemporary science and society.
Literature questions can span the gamut within the history of literature, and span the continents, though American and British literature is usually emphasized. Questions can cover authors, works, and content. Bonus questions should more often cover the contents of works rather than the mere identification of authors and works since the former requires more detailed knowledge. Norton Anthologies and Ben & eacute’s Reader’s Encyclopedia should provide an adequate background for most questions.
American and European history tend to be more strongly represented than the history of the other continents. Half the questions should cover pre-1945 events and half the post-1945 era.
4. Current Events
To some it seems that this category is the most represented category. However, it is important to separate a question which is in its essence a science or history question, and has a current events lead-in to make it interesting and topical, from a question which is truly about the recent news. For example, a question about Alger Hiss is essentially a history question, even if the announcement by a Russian general that Hiss was not a Soviet spy is a current event.
5. General Knowledge
This category sweeps up the questions which are not subsumed in any other. Word origins, spelling, calculation, and other miscellaneous information fall under this category.
Emphasizes North American, European, and African geography.
7. Popular culture
This includes television, film, popular music and other cultural icons.
Sports includes the sports of and athletes in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and tennis, the Olympics, as well as a variety of lesser-known sports.
9. Fine Arts
Includes classical music, dance, theater, visual arts, and architecture.
This includes the Bible, world religions, Greek, Roman, and Norse Mythology, and the classics of ancient literature.
11. Social Sciences
This includes primarily psychology, law, sociology, and economics.
A. General (Toss-Ups AND Boni)
The question itself should be no more than 2 or 3 sentences, maximum. All difficult words should have a pronunciation guide following them, with the stressed syllables in capital letters. For example, Mogadishu would be listed as Mogadishu (mo-gah-DEE-shoo).
2. Say how much *every* question is worth.
Just before the final key request, the phrase for xx points should appear. This is especially important in toss-up questions to help identify the targeted answer.
3. Format for the answer.
The answer appears below the question, following the word ANSWER: .
Answers are customarily written with the minimum information needed to answer the question underlined:
(a) A person’s name would only have the last name underlined unless it were ambiguous,
(b) Alternate answers should also be indicated,
(c) Always include enough information to judge the acceptability of alternate or overly-complete answers,
(d) If the answer is a foreign phrase, a contestant might give the response in the foreign language. This can cause considerable problems when moderating if this alternate foreign-language answer is not specified. We recommend that foreign language answers be included when appropriate to avoid problems.
ANSWER: _B_ANK OF _C_REDIT AND _C_OMMERCE _I_NTERNATIONAL
ANSWER: _F_RANKLIN DELANO _ROOSEVELT_ OR _FDR_
ANSWER: GREAT _BRITAIN_ OR _U_NITED _K_INGDOM
ANSWER: _EUROPEAN CENTER FOR NUCLEAR RESEARCH_ OR _CERN_
ANSWER: GEORGE HERBERT WALKER _BUSH_
ANSWER: _WINGS OF DESIRE_ OR _HIMMEL ÜBER BERLIN_
ANSWER: _THE REBEL_ OR _L’HOMME REVOLT_
ANSWER: _L’ÉTRANGE_R OR _THE OUTSIDER_ OR _THE STRANGER_
B. Toss-Up Questions
1. Spelling Tossups.
If you choose to write spelling tossups, phrase the question as directly as possible to avoid tricking contestants into mis-answering the question. Always include a pronunciation guide for the word to be spelled and separate letters in the answer by dashes to assist moderators in judging responses. For example:
IF PRE-GAME NERVES HAVE MADE YOU UNABLE TO SPELL CORRECTLY, THEN YOU’RE EXHIBITING INAPPETENCE (IN-AP-PE-TENTS). FOR TEN POINTS, SPELL INAPPETENCE.
90% of toss-up questions should be answerable by one of the eight players if read in their entirety. This is not the same as having 90% of the toss-ups answered correctly in a match situation.
Two aggressive teams should interrupt at least 80% of toss-ups.
Be terse. No toss-up question should be longer than two sentences (three if they are short).
4. How to Order the Clues.
Order clues from most obscure to least obscure. Two bad examples with the answer of Otto von Bismarck follow:
KNOWN AS THE IRON CHANCELLOR, HE RECEIVED A FAMOUS TELEGRAM ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1862 FROM WAR MINISTER VON ROON RECALLING HIM TO BERLIN TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE GOVERNMENT. FOR 10 POINTS, NAME THIS STATESMAN, WHO RULED PRUSSIA FROM 1862 TO 1890.
In a real match, this question will likely be over in 5 words. It could be rewritten as:
HE RECEIVED A FAMOUS TELEGRAM ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1862 FROM WAR MINISTER VON ROON RECALLING HIM TO BERLIN TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE GOVERNMENT. FOR 10 POINTS, NAME THIS POLITICIAN WHO RULED PRUSSIA FROM 1862 TO 1890, EARNING THE NICKNAME “THE IRON CHANCELLOR.”
Another example of a poorly written question:
THE CAPITAL OF NORTH DAKOTA AND THE 19TH CENTURY DUKE OF LAUENBERG WHO EPITOMIZED THE JUNKER CLASS SHARE, FOR 10 POINTS, WHAT NAME?
This could be rewritten as:
THE 19TH CENTURY DUKE OF LAUENBERG WHO EPITOMIZED THE JUNKER CLASS AND THE CAPITAL OF NORTH DAKOTA SHARE, FOR 10 POINTS, WHAT NAME?
5. No Misleading Questions.
Avoid misleading questions which penalize knowledge and speed. These questions are supremely evil in competition and are to be avoided. Since each tossup potentially means a swing in the game score of 85 points, it is crucial that toss-ups be written clearly and fairly. Neither of the following is an acceptable question:
A GERMAN CHANCELLOR, A U.S. STATE CAPITAL, AN ARCHIPELAGO NORTHEAST OF NEW GUINEA, THE SEA ENCLOSED BY THAT ARCHIPELAGO, AND THE LARGEST CITY IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA. FOR 10 POINTS, WHICH IS NOT NAMED BISMARCK?
HE SERVED AS GERMAN CHANCELLOR FROM 1871 TO 1890 AND WAS KNOWN FOR HIS POLICY OF BLOOD AND IRON. FOR 10 POINTS, SPELL HIS LAST NAME.
6. Watch Pronouns and Antecedents.
Pronouns almost always must refer to the answer. Use pronouns carefully so as not to mislead the players. Poor antecedent usage is most often the culprit in poorly-written questions. This example is poorly constructed:
VOWING THAT HE WOULD NEVER GO TO CANOSSA, THE CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY ANNOUNCED A CULTURAL STRUGGLE AGAINST ROMAN CATHOLICISM IN THE 1870’S. FOR 10 POINTS, WHAT THREE-SYLLABLE GERMAN NOUN NAMED THIS ANTI-CATHOLIC CAMPAIGN?
This question tricks a player into answering Bismarck early. It could be rewritten as:
GERMAN CHANCELLOR BISMARCK, VOWING NEVER TO GO TO CANOSSA, ANNOUNCED A CULTURAL STRUGGLE AGAINST ROMAN CATHOLICISM IN THE 1870’S KNOWN, FOR TEN POINTS, BY WHAT THREE-SYLLABLE GERMAN NOUN?
7. Minimize Ambiguous Introductions.
Some questions have several possible answers after a few words have been read.
FACING LEGAL DIFFICULTIES BECAUSE OF ALLEGED FINANCIAL CHICANERY, HE RESIGNED AS VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES…
Agnew is not the only answer. Calhoun had similar, if less widely known, difficulties in his time. Some players will interrupt the question at this point. Players who are waiting to differentiate between Agnew and Calhoun will be at a disadvantage to other players who are thinking of only Agnew. Or, a player who is aware of Calhoun may bet the odds and incorrectly answer Agnew. Either way, this question might trap a better player, penalizing knowledge.
One might choose to add additional information at the start of the question to minimize this ambiguity and precisely target the desired answer as soon as possible, as in:
THIS FORMER GOVERNOR, FACING LEGAL DIFFICULTIES BECAUSE OF ALLEGED FINANCIAL CHICANERY,…
There is nothing wrong with questions in which the answer is not the immediately obvious one. Further, there is nothing wrong with more general introductions (This U.S. President…). However, you should strive to minimize question ambiguity as much as possible, especially when the introduction narrows the possible answers to just a few probable answers (This Polish pianist…).
C. Bonus Questions
A good team should get 50%-70% of possible bonus points.
2. Point Values
The total points available must be either 20, 25, or 30 points. A bonus may be subdivided into partial credit in multiples of 5 or 10 points.
[Ed.: some invitationals will allow for bonus questions worth more than 30 points, but this is unusual and at the discretion of the host.]
3. Question Themes
Eschew cuteness. Pick a theme, either within one category, or a variety of them. Introduce the theme and ask the question(s). Remember that the question will be read in its entirety so it is not necessary to put more obscure facts preceding more obvious facts (unless it is a multiple-part question).
4. Don’t Reward Random Guessing.
Avoid Binary questions (Yes/No, Higher/Lower, Before/After) since no one should be able to get 50% of the points with no knowledge whatsoever. Similarly, questions that involve ordering a list or matching two lists tend to reward guessing and luck rather than actual knowledge. If you use this format, please use it sparingly.
In general, if a question doesn’t call for recall of specific information, or if a team could get the answer with no knowledge of the area whatsoever, then the question doesn’t belong in a match situation.
D. Bonus Formats
1. One part, one answer.
These are difficult questions scored all-or-nothing. Each is worth twenty, twenty-five, or thirty points depending upon its difficulty.
25 POINT BONUS
ONE OF THE LAST GIANTS OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, THIS PAINTER OF “ELEGIES TO THE SPANISH REPUBLIC” DIED JULY 17, 1991 ON CAPE COD. FOR 25 POINTS, NAME HIM.
ANSWER: ROBERT _MOTHERWELL_
2. Multiple parts related by a common theme.
The parts of the question should be of varying difficulty to insure a partial score but make a perfect score difficult to realize. There should be no more than three parts as each part can take 10-15 seconds of game time to read and answer. If the questions are exceedingly short and easy, one might use four five-point parts. Example:
30 POINT BONUS
NAME, FOR TEN POINTS EACH, THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS OF THE EMERGENCY COMMITTEE ON STATE SECURITY, GIVEN THEIR PRE-COUP POSITIONS:
1. INTERIOR MINISTER:
ANSWER: BORIS K. _PUGO_
2. KGB CHIEF:
ANSWER: VLADIMIR A. _KRYUCHKOV_ (KROOSH-KOV)
3. VICE PRESIDENT:
ANSWER: GENNADI _YANAYEV_
3. One question, multiple answers.
You ask for a list of things, and give points for each correct answer. Be sure to specify clearly the number of items for which you are looking, especially if the question will accept any three of the four. Asking teams to generate long lists with many possible answers (“Name any six OPEC nations”, or “Name 8 Common Market Nations for 15 points, 9 for 20 points…,” for example) tends to be difficult to moderate and should be avoided. A precise and manageable list should be used. Example:
25 POINT BONUS
ONLY 5 MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHERS HAVE EVER THROWN MORE THAN 45 CONSECUTIVE SCORELESS INNINGS. FOR 5 POINTS APIECE, NAME THEM.
ANSWER: CARL _HUBBELL_, _BOB GIBSON_, _WALTER JOHNSON_, DON _DRYSDALE_, OREL _HERSHISER_
In some cases, an incorrect answer ends the bonus. In this case, which should not be overused, include the phrase “but be careful, a miss will stop you” in the question.
4. Progressive (30-20-10)questions.
These questions are asked in three parts. Each part is an additional clue to the same answer. The general category is always given in the original question. Example:
30 POINT BONUS
IDENTIFY THIS PERSON AFTER THE FIRST CLUE TO EARN 30 POINTS, AFTER TWO CLUES FOR 20 POINTS, OR AFTER ALL THREE CLUES FOR 10 POINTS:
1. HE WAS ELECTED TO CONGRESS IN 1978 TO FILL THE SEAT VACATED BY BARBARA JORDAN.
2. HE FOUNDED AND CHAIRED THE HOUSE SELECT COMMITTEE ON WORLD HUNGER AND TWICE SERVED AS CHAIR OF THE CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS.
3. HE DIED IN AN AIRPLANE CRASH EN ROUTE TO A REFUGEE CAMP IN ETHIOPIA IN 1989.
ANSWER: MICKEY _LELAND_