Only Connect Series 13: a Question Editor’s Perspective

Having written Only Connect questions for a few years, my colleague Jack Waley-Cohen and I (I being David McGaughey) took over from Alan Connor as Question Editors in 2016. Halfway through the broadcast of our first series in the role (and as the show moves back to its natural home on Mondays), I thought it would be worthwhile to write a little about the experience, both in terms of the months of preparation and how it feels when the show is on TV.

Jack and I have always worked together on questions – the precise role each of us takes has varied on different shows, and on Only Connect, I am (for now at least) very much the Phil Neal to his Graham Taylor, the Jazzy Jeff to his Fresh Prince (I now think so often in sets of four that it’s tempting to extend to four glib analogies, but I’ll resist). He seemed to hit the ground running when it came to the job, whereas I feel I have been learning the finer details as we’ve gone along.

Writing questions for Only Connect has always been a joy, both in the process and in the satisfaction of seeing them on air, so you can imagine how much more fun being a Question Editor is. We take submissions from a team of around 20 writers, and gradually whittle the questions down to what is used on the show.

As a fan of the show myself, what a joy it is to pore through 100s and 100s of Only Connect questions, most of them of a very high standard. Many excellent questions don’t make the show, whether because they’re too similar to something else, because we’ve already got enough questions in that subject area, sometimes because we’re slightly unsure how it will go down, or even because we haven’t understood some nuance (in which case writers are welcome to resubmit for the next series, making their case for a question favourite more strongly).

It was quite an experience going through everyone else’s questions for the first time, often in wonder at the ingenuity, often thinking “aah, why didn’t I think of that?”, often with an incipient thrill at imagining how the question would go down on TV, in some cases well over a year later … There’s a question in the later rounds of this series which is my favourite OC question of all time, and I’m quite sure, so thoroughly does it fall within my interests, that friends of mine watching will think I’ve written it – but I didn’t, it’s better than anything I’ve ever written, but as Question Editor, I get just as much delight from it as anything I’ve written myself.

I think people would be fascinated by how much care goes into getting each Only Connect question to screen. One thing I realised in our first year as editors is that pretty much everyone who works on the show is an expert in it. It’s not just a job, they know every aspect of it inside out. So, the thing is, there are several people who might, at some stage, have a valuable suggestion for a question before its final version, from writer to editor to executive producer, series producer and director, question verifier, picture editor and graphics team, up to, and very much including, the show’s host.

Jack and I were glad to be welcomed into a finely tuned and close-knit team. The job of Question Editor has been done by one person in the past, but we have worked as a unit for over ten years, and our skills and knowledge bases complement each other’s – mine being pretty much Ovid, David Gower, Jay-Z, Scorsese, his being everything else (at least to some degree)… as well as a fine eye for the details and connections that usually fall between the cracks.

A great thing about Only Connect is that every question can potentially be an “event”, and every single detail matters. Presentation can matter as much as content – we debate clue order, punctuation, font size and colour, each precise word and image, how you see it, where you see it, when you see it.

We try really hard to get it right. One of the experiences of watching our first series in charge, however, is that handful of occasions where we maybe didn’t get it right – we made a question too simple or too complicated, we put it in the wrong place or the wrong order. It is even more frustrating when we recognise that, at some point, the question went through an iteration that would have worked better. It’s going to happen, it’s rather a fine art, and a matter of judgements. Hopefully, the more we do the job, the less it will happen.

We usually know long before broadcast if we didn’t get a question quite right – because it falls flat in studio, or something doesn’t play out in a particularly satisfying way –  though sometimes social media will let us know of things we missed at recording time. It’s an odd but useful experience trying to gauge reaction to each show by following what people are saying online.

Overwhelmingly (as I’ll get to in more detail) it’s about the contestants, as it should be. People love the contestants on Only Connect. Every week or two you seem to get people saying that these latest contestants are more attractive and charismatic than the usual Only Connect contestants, which rather makes you think that it’s time people changed their perception of the kind of people that go on Only Connect!

And, as a writer, you’re not always going to get much feedback from social media responses. Usually, a question just doing its job, just being answered how you hoped it would be, is the reward in itself. I had a question on a couple of weeks ago which I was very pleased with, which took a tried and trusted subject (kings and queens) and used the fact that someone had come to the throne in 1100, 1901, 1702, 1603 to make a nice little sequence. It couldn’t have gone better. I came up with the idea, it had a small but pertinent change suggested by the host during her review to make it more accessible, and the team, without total certainty, were pleased with themselves to get the right answer for 1 point. It could have played out in several different ways – but this felt close to perfect.

But you don’t then tend to see a flood of “what a delightfully constructed question!” tweets. That would take OC fandom a little far. The questions I’ve written which have created a little stir have usually been on pop culture, whether snippets of songs, musical husbands of Patsy Kensit, or the lyrical habits of the likes of Craig David and Shaggy. Only Connect is a broad church.

Not every question can be about Shabba Ranks, though, at least not until the BBC commissions its long-promised quiz show ‘The Peccadilloes of the Turn-of-the-Century Pop Lotharios”. We can take pride in Only Connect not being straightforwardly “highbrow” but it is just as important that it is not weighted too heavily towards pop culture and sport, that there is plenty of the heavy stuff, plenty of everyday life, and, most importantly, lots of questions that contain a bit of everything.

Likewise, there needs to be a wide variety of styles – wordplays and numbers, straightforward and obscure. Our host is funny, our contestants are funny, the questions can be funny, but we cannot be a show of constant megalolz. It’s a very delicate balance in the questions, which has been superbly honed down the years by the previous Question Editors David Bodycombe and Alan Connor. Jack and I are very conscious that we’ve been entrusted with something that is precious to a lot of people.

Over the 13 series, Only Connect has, we think, become an extremely effective marriage of question and contestant. In compiling the questions for our first series in charge, we had to trust that the casting team would do the great job they’d done in the past and that the teams who appeared would be right for Only Connect, right for our questions. What could be worse than getting the sense that teams were thinking “This is not what we signed up for. What the hell have we got ourselves into?” Well, we think the contestants in Series 13 are marvellous, and in almost every case, they couldn’t have served the questions better, and we hope the questions have served them. That’s what it’s all about.

That can mean different things. On Round 1 and Round 2, the show is at its best with a decent balance of 1-pointers 2-pointers, 3-pointers and the very occasional 5-pointer (if so, we hope that it is a real feat of knowledge and daring … a 5-pointer should never be a gimme). Fairness is of the utmost importance – but it would be impossible to make the “rhythm” of every R1 and R2 question the same – some will give a tiny bit more away in the first couple of clues than others – we just hope that each team gets a fair crack of the whip.

Likewise, getting an equally balanced pair of walls is such an important task – an awful lot of discussion goes into it, not to mention the expertise of master wall-builder Mike Turner. My understanding of walls has improved hugely in the last year, and I think I’ll be even more aware of how we can get that right for next series.

I know from when I first watched it, that Only Connect has that magical thing where a viewer might initially think “gosh, what is this madness” then “these people are so clever, how on earth do they get these answers” then suddenly “I know that one!”. There has to be something for everyone, every player, every viewer.

If quiz shows can be broadly divided into ones where you have to know a lot and ones where you have to think well (though, in practice, all the best shows, from University Challenge to Pointless, need a large dose of both), Only Connect, I think, is further towards “thinking well”. A lot of the questions require only a modicum of general knowledge, a lot of logic, and good technique. Team dynamics are also very important, perhaps more important than viewers realise. It’s fascinating seeing teams that don’t start all that impressively (and scrape through to Round 2) who then gradually pull together into a fearsome unit over the course of the series.

The players are everything. Our role is to help them show off how clever they are while enjoying themselves in the process. Jack has done several statistical breakdowns on average scores, gaps between teams and what kind of questions teams do well on (we’ll publish some of these stats over time in some form). Over the series there will be whuppings and nailbiters, but we do hope everyone feels they’ve been treated fairly.

This series is out of our hands now – let it play out, and we hope you enjoy it. There are  great contests, great questions and phenomenal individual and team performances still to be seen. We’re well on our way with preparing the next series, learning from what’s gone right and what’s not been quite right. As well as Series 13, Jack and I also had the privilege in our first year of compiling The (first?) Official Only Connect Quiz Book, most of whose questions were assembled from the first 10 series. If we ever needed reminding of the daunting standard we have been charged with maintaining, that was it.

Only Connect Quiz Book

Only Connect: The Official Quiz Book has just been published. As you may know, Jack and David from QuizQuizQuiz are the Question Editors for Only Connect, and have put together the book, complete with brilliant introductions from Victoria Coren Mitchell.

It’s packed full of question from the show, and includes plenty of brand new material as well. There’s even a special Connecting Wall on the back cover so you don’t even have to open the book!

For every question that has been on the show, we tell you how the teams managed, so you can compare yourself to them.

There’s also a sample “audition quiz” in the book, with a website that you can visit to submit your answers and find out whether you have what it takes to be in the show.

You can buy the book from Amazon, and of course from all good book shops.


First Hand Experience of Question Difficulty

This is a follow-up to the last post – I want to expand on how the different aspects of our work fit together. (These two strands are hosted quiz nights and quiz question writing for TV shows, games, iPhone apps etc.)

Those have always been the two main areas of our business – over the years the hosted quizzes have taken the lead, certainly they’ve been more consistent. The question writing side obviously depends a little more on what comes along. I mean, we’re always writing questions, but we’re not always working on a major commission – more like bits and bobs here and there.

In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of really good question writing work, so much so that there has been less time for our main question writers to run quizzes.

Yet, the experience of hosting quizzes is vital, I think, to our writing questions successfully.

I’ve run over 400 quizzes for people all over this country and occasionally overseas, for people of all ages, in different industries, for different purposes. I’ve asked questions on every topic that makes a good quiz question and a few that don’t.

And I get to see, first hand, how those questions go down. I get to see what people know and don’t know, what they’re proud to know and what they don’t care about knowing, what’s workoutable and what’s not.

And because our quizzes are for different clients, we get to re-use questions, so we know whether a response, positive or negative, is a one-off or not.

And that’s just me – between us, as a company, we’ve run over 3000 quizzes, and we ask our clients and our quiz masters to feed back on every event. So, we know very well if a question is a big hit or not.

This gives us a vital edge when it comes to question writing for TV, we think. To us, calibration, alongside entertainment, is more than guesswork. We have evidence to back up the fact that we know how to set quizzes, to write questions that people want to participate in and puzzle over.

It’s not just the hosted quizzes, either. There’s also the Friday Quiz, which started in 2008 and now goes out to thousands of people a week. Every week, I look at how people have done, how many people have bothered trying to answer each question, how many have got it right. This is vital information to understanding what people do and don’t know.

Anyone can reasonably think they’re an expert in quizzes, anyone who writes questions, participates in a lot, watches a lot, but we think our combined experience puts us in a privileged position. You’re left with egg on your face if you think you always know exactly how a question is going to be answered, but the numbers work themselves out.

We see hundreds, if not thousands, of people answering our questions. Most question writers only ever see one or two people answering questions they write, so they get very skewed calibration feedback.

We tell our quiz masters, when they run quizzes, that the right level involves the worst team not slipping much below 50% and the best team not getting above 90% – an ideal spread is between about 60% and 85%. And that’s what happens. Almost every time.

It’s not a naturally easy thing – the first round I ever set, which I was terribly proud of, the scores ranged between 6 and 11 out of 20. It was a disaster. The questions, in and of themselves, were mainly interesting enough, but they were all at the harder end of the scale, some of them weren’t possible to work out. Despite my love for quizzes and my concern for getting it right, I didn’t yet have the first-hand experience of getting the overall level right.

So, this is what we do. We host quizzes and we write questions. They feed into each other. Every question I’ve ever written and every question I’ve ever asked and seen answered feeds into how I write now.

Questions about Ed Balls

When a blog falls silent, it’s usually either a good or bad sign. Thankfully, in this case, it’s the former. We’ve been BusyBusyBusy rather than QuietQuietQuiet (sorry, that’s terrible …).

I’ve been writing, rather than hosting, a lot – almost exclusively. in fact. This blog has had three main purposes since it began – 1. (being honest) to help bring traffic to our website 2. to provide specific information on our quiz nights for our clients and 3. to just be informative and a bit of fun while being a bit of an authority on all things quiz.

A lot of my posts over the last few years have been about the joys and pitfalls of running quiz nights, and, as I say, they’ve served as places to point a client about the way our quizzes work. Until last week, though, I hadn’t run a quiz for about 9 months, so I just didn’t feel inspired to be writing all that much about quiz nights (as well as the fact I’ve written over 100 previous posts and I’d run the risk of repeating myself).

The writing work has been good – interesting, creative, exactly the kind of work we want to be doing. For me, it’s also often quite solitary, and a world away from the quiz nights. The atmosphere at quiz nights varies, but they do very often turn into loud and raucous mass participation events, which appear to be barely on the edge of control (though in reality we are always in control!). The best ones do, anyway.

For the last year, though, I’ve more often been in my special sound-proof QuizQuizQuiz shed trying to construct quiz questions/rounds/shows as if they’re haikus hewn from the very core of language and knowledge. Who knows, maybe sometimes they are …

Anyway, what’s my point? (I’m out of practice at writing blogs with a point.) Just that it’s a big quiz world and getting bigger. Gosh, some of those quizzers are turning into rock stars, as this rather good  documentary claimed. Even our own director, Jack, has been on the radio talking about the whole quiz thing (among other things) on ‘The Museum of Curiosity‘. It’s a broad church.

For me, as a quiz writer, the essence is now boiled down to knowing what people know. I’m good at that now. Whichever people, in whatever setting, whether online, on a TV show, in a room, in a pub, that’s a skill I’ve got. It’s far from faultless, though. There’s as much joy in someone unexpectedly knowing something you thought would stump them, as there is despair in people using neither knowledge nor knowhow, and failing miserably when you least expect it.

Quizzes should always reward knowledge and knowhow – it’s a bit of a shame when people apply good reasoning to a question and still get it wrong. That applies to any quiz situation.

For some reason, this year, I’ve written a lot of questions, often in completely different contexts, about Ed Balls. Currently no man alive lends themselves better to slightly comical quiz questions. Thank you Ed Balls. And as my own little tribute to Ed Balls Day … Ed Balls.

I ran a quiz last week – a big old quiz for 200 people in a bar in London – an old routine I’d fallen out of but thankfully fell back into pretty quickly. My joy for the last year has been applying a fair bit of science and a little bit of art to question writing, initially on my own, then in close, limited collaboration. However, last week I remembered the joy of playing ‘Sound of da Police’ at high volume to a room full of tipsy but fiercely competitive business-folk, and, of course, I remembered the age-old rush of saying “And the year when they were all Number 1 is Nineteen …. ninety ……………. nine”


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 …

The Code – Trailer

Earlier this year we worked on the questions for ‘The Code’, a new BBC1 quiz show hosted by Matt Allwright, along with our own Lesley-Anne Brewis as the resident quiz expert. It starts on Monday 18th April, and is on every weekday at 2:15pm (and of course on iPlayer) until May 20th. We’ll post links to iPlayer on the blog once the series is underway. We hope you enjoy the show!