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Creativity

Creativity – perhaps as overused and meaningless a term these days as “interactive”, “passionate” or “110%”. I remember, for one of the first big question-writing projects I worked on for QuizQuizQuiz, shuffling with my colleague into the imposing offices of a large multinational firm who was our client, and being introduced to the various serious and important people there as “the creative” … I’m the creative, am I? If only I’d known …

It can vary how much creativity this job involves. If I read in the news that Leicester City have won the Premier League (I know, a ridiculous thought, but just as an example …), and then write the question “Who won the English Premier League in 2015-16?”, I accept that is not the very height of creative endeavour. Plenty of question writing is like that. You see simple facts and you package them into questions. In particular, this is the case with high-volume multiple choice, multi-level question writing, against a deadline.

We’ve had to write 20,000 Multiple Choice questions from scratch in a couple of months, with a very tight word limit on each question. There is not much room for anything but the barest form of creativity. But it’s still possible to get some satisfaction and show a little flair, usually in wrong answer options on easy questions. I think my favourite was “What follows this line in the Meredith Brooks song ‘Bitch?’ – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover …”? to which one of the options was “My name’s Mitch, I’m your brother” … Well, you get your fun where you can.

Thus a lot of writing feels just as much reactive as creative. You take something that already exists and just reshape it. I try very hard not to use other people’s quiz questions. I’ve written before about how I get a certain bittersweet tang from seeing a really fine quiz question, knowing that it is not something that I will have the opportunity to think of myself. Indeed, I can’t use it. But I think it is acceptable to bank the facts in the question, and reshape it, a little while later, into something a bit different. If you couldn’t create quiz material from the same sources that other people create it  from, well, we’d all be done for.

We’ve been doing quite a lot of writing for TV in the last few years, and that certainly has plenty of scope for a satisfying creative process, be it trying to put together Hives for Hive Minds,  Only Connect sequences and connections (after 11 series, I sometimes think it’s amazing that we and the other writers are still able to come up with new material and, believe me, this requires digging deep into the well of resourcefulness and creativity) or, on The Code, nice sets of 3 answer/questions. We threw a few Easter eggs into The Code, little rhyming sequences or phrases, I spent a lot of time coming up with little nuggets of joy which only a few people spotted, but that’s part of the fun of it.

A huge amount of work can go into things which are still, at the end of the day, only quiz questions or quiz rounds. They’re not going to win any awards. But there is sometimes, dare I say it, a little of the rigour and discipline of poetry in writing a quiz round.

At our pub quiz, we used to have a round called Follow On (where each answer has one letter more than the previous) and another round called Blitz (30 quickfire questions, some of which were themed). For Christmas, we decided to write a Christmas-themed 30 question round where each answer was one letter longer than the previous answer, from 1 to 30. Frankly, I still consider it my finest hour … well, not hour, actually, but a week of writing … and five minutes of participation.

So, creativity, yes, I suppose this is a creative job. There have been many times down the years when we’ve had the opportunity to use a bit of imagination in our work. Anyone writing or running a quiz can mix it up, try new formats, be clever without being confusing. It should never become boring or a chore. We’re passionate about giving 110% to interactive, creative quizzery …

World of Quiz

Quizzes seem to be everywhere at the moment. There’s a new show I’ve seen advertised on Sky (I haven’t watched it, I confess) called Quiz Nights, which seems to take a structured look at pub quiz nights around the country, there are the ever-intensifying knockout stages of UC and OC on a Monday evening for a small but significant demographic to get excited about, there’s the chap from The Apprentice introducing a larger demographic to the very notion that a quiz company is an actual thing that exists (We briefly considered changing our slogan to ‘QuizQuizQuiz: it’s a thing’ as a consequence – catchy, eh?), and, of course, there’s my day-to-day working existence, which gives me the false impression that everything, everywhere is about quizzes … so maybe quizzes aren’t everywhere at the moment …

But … there is a big and expanding world of quiz, isn’t there? In the nine years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen more and more quiz companies springing up, more and more people who are interested and have some background understanding of what I do, more and more subscribers to the famous QuizQuizQuiz Friday Quiz, and, if I’m not mistaken, more and more TV shows where the quiz itself is the essence, rather than the prize or the catchphrases.

Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we try to stay across the whole world of quiz as best as we can. Obviously, we’ve got our particular areas when it comes to the cold hard business of it all. We run corporate quizzes, event quizzes, quizzes for limited groups. We write questions … for our own quizzes and for people who pay us to do it. Those are our areas of business and so sometimes we’re entirely focused on them, rather than all the other areas of quizzing e.g. standard pub quiz nights, competitive high-level quizzing, ideas for new quiz show formats, TV quizzing (mainly) etc. That’s not to say that members of our team don’t partake of all the above or that we’re against going into those worlds, it’s just that, for the most part, we concentrate on our core business.

It’s nice, though, when we do things which cross over into the wider world of quizzing. Nothing I’ve ever done has elicited as much admiration and interest as the mere mention that we contribute questions to Only Connect (indeed, that my name’s in the credits). It’s nice sometimes to be asked to assist with other people’s ideas for TV quizzes or major quiz events, whether in a small or large way. Over time, we’ve built up a pretty good range of experience and expertise. I think we know pretty well what makes a good quiz, and that knowledge is transferable across a range of contexts.

It is a big world, quizzing. Sometimes I’ll be surprised to hear about companies or events that I never knew existed. Often, I’ll come across new shows, new ideas, new players in the game.

Quizzing occupies a slightly awkward place, though, where it’s not really looked upon seriously by the wider world as a sport, or as an art form, or expected to be a major commercial enterprise. It’s not that far away from being all three. Let it be what it is, many would say – a diversion, a once a month pleasure with a few pints, a once-a-week half hour shouting at the TV. “Trivia?” That’s the word, spoken with gentle contempt by some hard-working professional that wounds me most when I say what I do for a living. Well, not to me, no, quizzing’s not trivial.

Levels of Questions

This week, as most weeks, I was doing some question writing. I tend to have a few concurrent projects to work on, whether writing general stock for our hosted corporate quizzes or specifically for one special event, writing for a game we’ve been hired to provide questions for, or for a TV show.

Down the years, there have been 100s of projects and lots of different styles and target audiences for questions, which require shifts in focus and mindset. Few are more pronounced than one I experienced this week, though, when, on the same day, I went from coming up with the ideas for the fiendishly difficult BBC Quiz Show ‘Only Connect’ to writing short Buzzer questions for a quiz for Year 5 and 6 school pupils.

Every question is its own challenge to be addressed seriously, but it would be a little disingenuous to say that each question is as hard to write as the next. From germination to fruition, an ‘Only Connect’ question might well be several hours of work, might go through several stages, might need some serious research and brain power to get it just right. That  is not true of a question like “What is the capital of Spain?” which may suffice as a buzzer question for children.

Each question ought to have a home for whatever its level of complexity and/or difficulty. It is not quite true that there is no place for banal, facile questions, which is a view some quiz fans/quiz writers have. There is a place for such questions, in quiz machines, in buzzer rounds, as confidence-boosters in quizzes where teams are of a relatively low standard and no one seems all that keen on thinking very hard. In itself, such a question is obviously less satisfying to write than a beautifully constructed gem with a satisfying answer which makes people either go “Yesssss!!” or “Oh, of course. Damn” but putting together a round or sub-category which makes good use of simple questions and ends up being fair and enjoyable for its target audience is not to be sniffed at.

I find now, as I’ve always found, that my natural inclination is to write challenging but not impossible questions. That’s probably how most good question writers see it. So, if I’m charged with writing, say, 500 Multiple Choice questions for a specific project on a specific topic, equally dispersed between Easy, Medium and Hard, the chances are that, when I look back on the first 200 or so and give them a level, I’ll have written too many “Mediums” and I’ll have to consciously weight the next 300 more towards “Easy” and “Hard”.

The right levels can be hard to find sometimes. Both when writing questions for an unseen audience or when delivering a corporate pub quiz night for a particular group in front of you, you can initially find their knowledge base a little obscure and unexpected. I remember doing a quiz for young people where the first question was something like “Conkers come from which tree”? to be met by looks of what I thought was general bafflement. I really had to think on the spot about how to make this quiz work. The same group, I recall, were unusually strong on sport and recent politics.

I can’t always presume I find the level perfectly, but I’ve got pretty good at it, over 8+ years of writing questions for various groups and audiences all over the world. If someone tells me I’ve got the level of a question wrong, I might take a while to persuade, but I can be persuaded. I certainly have weaknesses. I don’t know if other question writers find this, but there are times when I really “want” the quizzers to know more about the subjects which are of particular interest  to me. I want my odd question about Tom Waits or mid-90s indie to go down well (they don’t). I want people to be led towards the correct answer on the slightly obscure classical reference (they sometimes are, hurray!)

But for the most part I’ve learnt to quell that instinct. I’m a pretty good judge of what people know, mainly through practice rather than some great underlying sixth sense, so hopefully those Year 5 pupils will have a good, fair buzzer round, and hopefully there’ll be some good questions of mine coming up on ‘Only Connect’…