Writing for ‘Only Connect’

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about how, as a professional quiz question writer, I have to adapt to writing for vastly different levels. I gave examples of setting I did for everything from buzzer quiz questions for school children right up to writing for that most thinky-puzzly-quizzy of TV quizzes, ‘Only Connect’.

Since last year, my colleague Jack and I have been writing a significant percentage of questions for the first two rounds of the show (Connections and Sequences), with a looser remit to write Connecting Walls (which we haven’t done yet, though are building our brains up to it!) and Missing Vowels (of which we’ve done a handful). We had both been on the show: Jack in the first ever series back in 2008 [including the first ever episode], and David in series 5 in 2011.

It’s just possible that someone who reads this blog has never watched ‘Only Connect’ so, in brief, it’s a BBC4 show that built up a strong following (among the most watched shows on the channel) before moving to BBC2 for series 10, starting on September 1st 2014. It is a quiz requiring general knowledge but also teamwork, lateral thinking and the ability to apply knowledge in interesting ways. My reaction on first watching it, years ago, was quite similar to the reactions of many others on first seeing it: a few minutes of mild confusion and wondering if I was quite smart enough for it, followed by “Aah, I like this, this is good”, building up over a few episodes to “Ooh, this is very good, very good indeed.”. At its best it is, in my opinion, simply the most satisfying quiz show to watch on television.

All the above reflects the experience of writing for it as well – general knowledge, lateral thinking and teamwork are all part of the process, then, when we feel like we’ve formulated a top quality question, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had in quiz question writing.

For Jack and I, having been both contestants and fans of the show has been really helpful in coming up with questions. We know the types of questions we like and the ones we like less. By its nature, ‘Only Connect’ is eclectic and the best questions often incorporate several different subject areas. In that sense, our collaborative approach has worked really well – if it was just me, I might come with a bit too much on film, pop music and sport, and if it were just Jack, well, far be it from me to suggest there are any gaps in his knowledge, but let’s just say there might not be enough on film, pop music and sport! Our areas of expertise dovetail nicely.

Our questions have been well received, as far as we know, both by the show’s producers (we were asked to carry on writing after our first series at least!) and by the teams on Series 9 that’s recently concluded. It was very pleasing to see most of our questions going down successfully – quite a few went exactly as I’d “planned” them – for it’s important to have a plan as to how a team will, ideally, answer a question in ‘Only Connect’.

So what is our process? Firstly, we come up with ideas for questions independently. Sometimes an idea will be close to fully formed, sometimes it will be the bare bones – perhaps a couple of possible clues but another two missing, or sometimes just a very shard of an idea that feels like it just ought to be an ‘Only Connect’ question. The other person will take a look at the ideas and see if they can make any positive changes and additions or indeed spot any fatal flaws. Then, every few weeks, we go through all the ideas together – often discarding, thinking of improvements, ways to “ramp” the difficulty of the question better, plant subtle hints and indicators in how the clues are presented to help point contestants in the right direction., etc. So many things can be important to a good ‘OC’ question  – order of clues, red herrings, variety, fairness, clarity, even humour.

Once we’ve been through all of them, we pitch those we feel are “ready” to the question editor from the show (the excellent Alan Connor). He will look at them and let us know if we should submit them or not. Sometimes Alan will be aware of a very similar question already being worked on for the series, or indeed he’ll identify something that doesn’t quite feel right in which case it is back to the drawing board (though inevitably with helpful suggestions as to how to tweak or refine the question to make it work better).

Finally, then, I have the important (though sometimes arduous!) task of putting the question into the submission format, which includes finding multiple good sources for every question and clue. Of course we’ve already made sure that all the facts are ok, but at the submission stage, a question might still fall by the wayside: we might find with further digging that it’s not quite verifiable enough, and we can’t find a way to fix it with alternative clues or revised wording. (And this is our own verification process, the show itself has its own very rigorous verification process before the questions makes it onto the show).

So, it’s a long process, A question idea that I come up with might go through several stages before it appears on the show. Sometimes, it can be a little tricky to recall if the germ of an idea was mine or Jack’s.

Seeing them on the show is great. My mother’s an avid fan of ‘Only Connect’,  so each Tuesday, after it was broadcast the previous evening, I’d ask her to guess which of the questions were mine. I think she developed a pretty good idea of my style!

The new series is about to start on BBC2 (on Monday September 1st, 2014), and we’re really pleased with several of the questions we’ve submitted. I hope they go down well.

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