Introducing a Question Writer

My rather grand title at QuizQuizQuiz is Director of Question Writing. It’s grand but it is essentially accurate. I look after our quiz question writing – I do a fair bit of it myself, and I marshal the troops for the rest of it, using other QuizQuizQuiz staff and trusted freelancers where required. One way or another, I make sure our question writing commitments are fulfilled. I do writing, delegating, fact-checking, collating, editing, proof-reading, adapting, sometimes even translating – whatever the project requires.

I run lots of quizzes too, but the question writing is my main thing. It is, if you will, my profession. There are other professional question writers around, but, I suppose, not all that many. Amateur and semi-professional question writers – well, there are thousands and thousands. I imagine most people reading this blog have had a go at writing questions for a quiz at some point or another. So if I share a few thoughts about the process, hopefully there’ll be plenty there that people will recognise and some which will be new.

I enjoy writing quiz questions. Which is lucky, as I’ve written 10s of 1000s, perhaps as many as 100,000 in all forms. Not all of those are world-beaters. Questions I write can be split into two basic categories – “pub” questions with no answer choices and “machine” questions which are multiple choice (though there can be crossover). In general, the latter are mass-produced and a lot quicker to write, though this is not always true. The most I’ve ever written in a day was 350, which I think is quite a lot. They were all on golf. I also wrote a similar amount in one day on Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Conversely, the fewest quiz questions I’ve ever written on a day where I’ve given myself over whole-heartedly to question-writing is about 15. Conclusion: some questions are harder to write than others.

Obviously, there are more memorable questions to be written in the “open” pub quiz format than the multiple choice format, but both can be extremely satisfactory in their own way and present enormous challenges in their own way. I’ve had to write large numbers of questions on subjects where I’m (to quote Adam on ‘The Apprentice’) out of my comfort zone – having good prior knowledge of a subject beforehand does make a big difference. I won’t give too much away, but let’s just say I’ll be quicker writing questions on Football for an 18-30 British demographic than questions on Business for 16-18 year old Indian students. But I have done both and, I think, done both well.

Generally, I’ve got better and better at it as I’ve gone on. Precision, uniformity, clarity and knowing the likelihood of people getting the right answer have all come more and more naturally to me. The down side may be that being a bit more watchful means I take fewer risks on questions and write in a more methodical way than I did at the start. I’m more likely to think about what might be interesting to other people than to write something that I myself find interesting.

I occasionally see or hear other people’s questions and think “gosh, that’s clever” and think my own questions a little dry by comparison, but that’s pretty rare and just a symptom of occasional overkill. On “pub” questions, I take real care in the phrasing of the question, in making the answer the part of the interesting fact that people will recognise, on dropping in clues which people won’t realise are clues, on not leaving people high and dry. I’ve moved further and further away from “know it or don’t” questions, which is a shame in a way, as, of course, what distinguishes a good quizzer is knowing things that other people don’t. A good quiz question is different, though. It’s about giving everyone some kind of chance.

For mass multiple choice quiz question projects, the skills are very different, but one that remains, is being able to judge what people know. We usually write these questions with difficulty levels, so it’s all rather scientific (30-50% of people should know these 100 questions, that kind of thing). The more I do this, the better I get at it. Sometimes i’ll look at old projects, see a question and think “What made me put that in Easy, that’s Hard?”, but less and less, and also, what is Easy for one intended audience is Hard for another.

What makes me suitable to be a professional question writer? Well, I like quizzes, always have. I used to look forward to the end of term quizzes at school, I’d pour through Wisden Almanack, Halliwell’s Film Guide and the Guinness Book of Hit Singles when I was younger, not just reading but carrying out my own surveys. I’ve watched almost every minute of every Olympics since 1988. I devised my own formula to work out that Shakin’ Stevens was the most successful singles artist in the UK in the 80s, I made list of my favourite 500 songs, all that kind of stuff. I like the facts, there’s no way round it.

What else? I’m good at spelling, and can write reasonably well and quite fast, I’m a bit stubborn but just about prepared to take feedback, care about accuracy and truth, but choose my moments to be pedantic. Most importantly, I don’t have many friends, and will happily sit in front of a computer thinking of stuff all day!

The above paragraph may be an idealised version of myself, that’s what a question writer should be, and hopefully what I am most of the time (definitely the bit about not having friends). I’ve been doing it for over 6 years and it’s still enjoyable – yesterday, amongst other things, I wrote 30 questions which we’ll hopefully use for our corporate events in the future, and I’m pretty pleased with about 10 of them. That’s good enough for me.

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