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Only Connect 15: Question Editor’s Thoughts

So there goes another series of ‘Only Connect’. Series 15.

I hope people have enjoyed it. Hearty congratulations to the 007s, who, I think you’ll agree, were extremely worthy of their crown. They went unbeaten throughout the series and showed an incredible breadth of knowledge and calm under pressure. One of the enjoyable things about this series was the number of teams we felt, from the start, were in with a shout – there were several strong contenders, and the line-up of the later rounds was never a foregone conclusion.

This has been the third series on which Mr Waley-Cohen (if he exists) and I have been the question editors and it took us past the 100-episode mark in charge (having been writers on the show for four series before that, and, separately, contestants earlier on). It was a joy to make at every stage, from the writing to the editing to the filming.

I wrote a blog about being question editor in the middle of our first series at the helm, and thought it might be a nice time to revisit. My intention is to focus less on the actual process of question editing and more on how the show is received. Inevitably, though, there’ll be a bit of both.

I tend to follow each episode when it’s being transmitted via the #onlyconnect hashtag on twitter, either live or retrospectively, and also check in on any comments on Facebook’s Quiz Discussion Group.

Though there’s a danger of being a glutton for punishment, and it’s also important to avoid getting into any kind of disagreement, tempting as it sometimes is, I’ve found it, on balance, a pretty reasonable way to judge how a show is going down, what questions worked well, what less well.

If people refer to the questions and the question setters at all, it is usually in the context of us being evil geniuses, setting out to bamboozle the teams and make the viewers at home feel stupid with the weight of our intricacies and obscurities. Of course, the show plays up to that a bit and it is all part of the fun and, in most cases, affectionately meant.

But, as it happens, my perspective as both a question setter and a question editor is different, in fact it’s almost the exact opposite.

First of all, I’m not a genius, nor am I unambiguously evil. Other question setters may well be, I can only speak for myself. I’m not a puzzler, a crossworder, a world-class quizzer. I’m a question writer by profession and have been for a long time.

Along with the writing, I ran a lot of quizzes for a long time, and one of my main aims when I ran quizzes was to leave no participant behind, to make sure the team finishing last had (almost) as much fun as the team finishing first, and to try to pitch the quiz so that the top score was not too high and the bottom score was not too low.

Mr Waley-Cohen and I bring the same approach to Only Connect. An occasional complaint I see is along the lines of “what’s the point in asking questions which no one can get?”. And I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why, in Only Connect, we try to have questions that teams do get (yes, yes, I know, this week’s final may not be the best example of that, but, come on, it was the final!)

 A quick look at the average scores over the 15 series bears this out. We hope that the average for each episode, over the course of a series, will be steady, at around 40 points, and that’s pretty much exactly where it is (currently 40.1) – some series, it’s more like 38-39, some 41-42, but generally 40 is a good mark. That’s 20 per team, which, when you think about it, is plenty – a point for each of your R1 and R2 questions, full marks on the wall, 4 points on the vowels – it might break down like that.

Teams are generally getting questions right, and we want them to. If two questions in a row go past without either time scoring a point, we feel a bit sad.

So, why does it sometimes look/feel like the quiz is really hard? I simply think that’s built into the format – at home and in the studio, you do spend a lot of time being at a loss, before suddenly the answer is worked out.

I suppose that the complaint that we’re evil geniuses trying to bamboozle the teams is a bit like complaining that detective fiction writers spend too long concealing the identity of the killer, and why can’t they just cut to the chase and make it explicit whodunnit a bit earlier (not that Columbo isn’t one of the greatest shows of all time, but you get my point …)

 Also, for those watching, the fact is, you’re at home, perhaps on your own, perhaps you’ve had a glass of wine, while the teams are with two other people, both almost certainly sober, and the value of their each throwing in ideas is incalculable. If you’re a step behind them, no wonder.

They’re also all very good at it, they’re not there by chance, they’ve passed auditions and (usually) been practising for ages.

And, most importantly and simply, we aim the questions at the teams, not the audience. It is a miraculous joy that so many viewers join the teams on the journey to each answer, but for us, as writers and editors, if we started worrying unduly about how people at home were doing, the show would fall apart.

It is a fine balance – in my head, when writing my own and when looking at other people’s questions, I’m always thinking that there shouldn’t be (with very very few exceptions) enough in Clue 1 to confidently guess (though it is lovely when teams can look back and work out in hindsight how Clue 1 fits in), and there never should be too little by Clue 4 (or Clue 3 in Round 2).

So we have to plot the journey very carefully in each question. It’s not always exactly the same, it couldn’t be – some questions get easier more quickly and some stay pretty hard all the way to the end. There are different types of question, and some are more “high-risk” than others.

There are some questions which we’re entirely confident fall into the sphere of General Knowledge, and the answer will pretty much have presented itself to any alert team by the end. Some, particularly sequences, are more specific – good examples in Series 15 were, if you recall, the ‘Panic’ maps sequence, and the ‘Inside Number 9’ series opening episode locations. The risk is that these questions fall completely flat, that no one on either team gets the cultural reference, and you end up looking like you’re dealing in wanton obscurity.

So as writer/editor, you are staking something on the kind of things people who go on Only Connect might know, and hoping for the best. These kind of questions are important to the show, whether they’re about cult TV shows or the small details of everyday life.

 If I may wax a little philosophical … I feel like everyone closely involved with the show sees it as a little more than just a quiz show – we really hope it lives up to its title. It has to be a show about absolutely everything, where everything feels connected, and that is a big part of mine and Jack’s job (a part that he is particularly good at), making sure that as many topics as possible are covered.

Think of it this way; there are quizzing sweet spots – Beatles, Popes, Scrabble, Snooker, 80s films etc – they lend themselves well to Only Connect and to quizzing in general.

But it’s our duty as question editors to veer away from the sweet spots, to take risks, to have questions about everything and everything else (sometimes all within one question, sometimes not). The unique structure allows us to cover everything from spark plugs to Sparks, Ludacris to Lucretius, Iris Murdoch to Unsolved murders, Cat’s Eyes to catfish, Dora Maar to Moons of Mars (you can tell I’m quite enjoying this, but I’ll stop now …) and, most importantly, we can be obscure without being off-putting, because the obscurity can go early in a question, and the clarity can come later.

That’s why I take mild exception to the suggestion that Only Connect is forbidding or highbrow. In some ways, it’s anything but highbrow. Yes, there is the odd question in a hundred that asks you to know about Leonhard Euler or Latin conjugations, but there are plenty more on the likes of Back to the Future or Beyoncé. Nothing is too popular or populist. Nothing is off limits.

Our duty is to make it varied, fun, accurate and most of all, fair. I think we manage this pretty well – for the first two rounds, of course, some pot luck comes into it – sometimes teams just don’t get the run of the questions, but usually it evens itself out over the two rounds.

With Round 4 (Missing Vowels), it’s on the buzzer, so the only way that can look unfair is that there is a very specific topic on something one player on one team happens to be an expert in. That’s rare, but can happen.

The greatest focus on fairness is, of course, with Round 3, the walls. Two unmatched walls can make a fair difference. Again, I think we do a pretty good job, we look at the subject matters and the mechanisms, and the numbers of red herrings, and match them closely. Viewers’ perceptions are heavily influenced by how the teams do – I know there was one pair of walls this series, in particular, where a few people online were suggesting one was harder than the other, but actually, they had the same mechanisms, balance of wordplay and knowledge, it just happened that one team identified a (for some) tricky knowledge group early and that unlocked their wall, whereas that didn’t quite happen for the other team.

Funnily enough, when I myself was on Only Connect, many years ago, we blew a commanding position after R2 by floundering on a tricky wall. The other team scored 10 on their wall, and I was quite convinced we’d had a rough bit of luck. It was only looking back at the episode several years later, I examined the opposition’s wall and thought “you know, that was pretty tough too, I’m not sure we’d have done any better with that”.

Anyway, I hope that’s provided some insight. It’s such a joy to work on the show and it’s amazing that so many people have found their way to enjoying it. I hope it comes across what a kind and good-natured atmosphere there is on set, that the contestants are mainly having a great time, and I hope you’ll carry on watching.

Meanwhile, we’re waiting for Series 16 to be allowed out of isolation. Hope to see you all on the other side later in the year.

What makes a quizzer?

I wrote a few months ago about the issue of gender bias in quizzes from a writer’s point of view. The question has reared its head again recently in a somewhat blunt and unhelpful way. I have little to add to what I wrote then, beyond saying there would be a few more things I might amend slightly, a few further issues I could take into consideration, but that the more valuable perspective at this stage is being expressed by women who are describing the particular treatment they receive when they go on quiz shows, and that the main responsibility as a writer and editor is to write and put together shows with interesting and entertaining questions which are fair to all participants. Quite simply there is value to the likes of me, as a male writer, putting conscious thought into whether we’ve got this right in the past and whether we can do more to make quizzes balanced going forward. That’s all really.

So what I’d like to write now is a little tangential, and more about the nature of what it takes to be a good quizzer generally. When people express the view that quizzing is a more “male” thing because men are more likely to make lists and remember facts, I think that shows a significant misunderstanding and underestimation (misunderestimation, as Dubya might say) of what it takes to be an all-round good quizzer.

The idea that doing well at quizzes is all about factual recall has always bothered me. There is so much more to it than that. Of course, there is a scale. As far as I can see, University Challenge and competitive quiz leagues (both of which, I should say, I have never participated in) do ask of people that they have excellent general knowledge and can recall what they know under competitive pressure and time pressure, but even within those settings, other skills are required. I think of that old joke about University Challenge: if you’re not a scientist, and a complex science or maths question comes up, you’ve got a pretty good shot if you buzz in and answer “Zero” or “One”. What would that require? Bravery? Chutzpah? Common sense?

I’ve run and written for a lot of corporate quizzes and pub quizzes. I’ve also written for a fair few TV shows. In all of these, there are a range of different assets which mean it is far from a given that the one who “knows” the most will always win.

A good pub quiz will demand of a winning team a combination of knowledge, lateral thinking, numerical ability, common sense, facial recognition, puzzle solving, humility (i.e. knowing when you’re not right and bowing to a team member talking sense), teamwork, strategy, and an often overlooked empathy with the quiz writer.

Of the shows I’ve written for, the one I had the most control of, and whose format I loved, was ‘The Code’. It required players to choose one of three answers as the correct one, while the other two answers were wrong. Without going into the nuances of the format, while knowledge was, of course, helpful, it was possible to win through a combination of luck and good judgement while actually knowing very few of the correct answers.

Furthermore, I pondered, as I watched the recordings in the studio, that it was possible for smart players to try to get inside my (the writer’s) head, to constantly ask themselves, “What are they trying to do here?” “How is this question structured?” “What is most likely from these options, based on the scraps of knowledge I have?”. I envisaged, as the show progressed, a real battle of wits between writers and participants.

A pretty good rule of thumb for writing pub quizzes, corporate quizzes and TV quizzes for the mass market (i.e. that won’t leave people feeling disinterested and excluded, and that aren’t intended as a pure test of who knows the most) is that the actual answers should be something that, when read out, they’ve heard of, and not something obscure or arcane. I mean, there is certainly a place for the obscure and the arcane, but, mostly, a great question might give people the feeling they’ve dredged up a bit of knowledge they didn’t know they had, or something that, though they didn’t get, they really might have if they’d thought a little more.

And, you know, that’s a massive part of ‘Only Connect’ too. Sometimes I hear people saying it’s meant to bamboozle people, and it’s really not, certainly not all the way through. It may be a forest, but it’s a forest with a clearing, and we (we being me, one of the ‘Only Connect’ Question Editors, along with everyone involved in the show) hope anyone can get to that clearing if they keep their wits about them.

We want people to get the answers. That means the people playing in the studio, and also people at home. We want people to feel clever, to have worked out something that seemed impenetrable to start with and then suddenly became apparent. That’s the essence of the show. We’re happy that the scores achieved by the teams nearly always reflect that. Teams score well.  They get most of the answers eventually, one way or another. And, on twitter, you can see the joy of people at home saying “I got that one” or “That one was easy, can’t believe the teams didn’t get that”. Sure, it’s a clever show, but we really do hope it’s inclusive, and doesn’t shut out people who don’t have massive general knowledge.

Overwhelmingly, my experience is that successful quizzers are not merely people who can learn, remember and recall (under pressure) lots of stuff, but all round clever people. Lots of people probably don’t think they’re good quizzers because they don’t know which battle took place in which year, but when it came to it, they’d be a far more valuable asset to a quiz team than they think.

So, relating it back to the gender issue, I’m not overly concerned with the hornet’s nest of whether men are “better” than women at knowing trivia and memorising stuff. I certainly don’t think so, for what it’s worth. But more importantly, for me, doing well at quizzes is about so much more than that, and is something that different kinds of brains can achieve. A good quiz team might well contain a memorizer, but it should also contain a puzzler, a calm head, a celeb spotter, a mathematician, a strategist, a newspaper reader, a twitter follower, an academic, a music fan, a psychologist –  a veritable breakfast club of talents and personality types.

Too True?

Just a quick thought.

Can you put too much effort into making sure a question satisfies everyone in its lack of ambiguity?

People want quiz questions to be perfectly clear with perfectly unambiguous answers, and rightly so, but it can sometimes be a little muddier than that.

Just as an example, if you watch Only Connect, you’ll notice that sometimes when teams give an answer Victoria Coren Mitchell asks them to explain why they’ve given their answer, and either accepts or doesn’t. They haven’t given the expected answer, but they have found a valid sequence or connection or at leas their own way to explain it (sometimes more specific or less so than envisaged). It doesn’t happen very often, but OC is perhaps more likely to have that issue than a standard quiz, perhaps, and requires everyone involved to be very much on their toes to keep up with the quick minds of the contestants.

But even in a standard quiz, whether hosted by a quiz master or on the page of a book or magazine or on a website or in an app, a question can be technically sound but people might still find what they think is reasonable cause for alternative answers.

I’m not talking about faulty questions really, or those which are poorly phrased.

There are different cases –

1. a question where the participant has a slightly different understanding of what the terms on the question mean, and by their terms, they have a different answer … an example might be something like the use of World Cup Finals or World Cup in a question – people might misunderstand what those terms mean.

2. a question might be technically correct but actually be too complex, so that most of what is in the question points to a certain answer, but there is a little detail which means that is not the right answer. It might be deemed a little unfair or tricksy – an example might be: “What film did this actor make with this director, in which he played this superhero opposite this actress, in 2002?” … when every detail might point to one answer except the year (there being two such films made in different years).

So, in each case the quiz master can reasonably enough say “No, sorry, your answer is wrong, the question is right and you’ve misunderstood it or not listened closely enough …”

Of course it always ought to be possible to add in plenty of wording and definitions – but where do you stop? Where do you draw the line? Is it worth the effort not to cover any eventuality, not to have to deal with a query?

It would seem that the obvious answer is “Yes” in most cases, but as a question writer, brevity, clarity and the form of the question are also very important, and sometimes you can get bogged down with caveats. So sometimes you take a judgement call to go for brevity and be armed with the facts for clarification. Or sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and bin a question because you can’t narrow it down sensibly enough. The key is to be aware of what you are doing.

It is always helpful for the quiz host (whether at a pub quiz or at a corporate quiz night or on a TV show) to have the facts at hand to put anyone straight if they are a little befuddled. It often actually enhances the host’s authority (as it does, for example, that of Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect) to be able to say e.g. Interesting, but in fact THIS was in THIS COUNTRY, not THAT COUNTRY, so close but no cigar …”

So, for what it’s worth, I think the answer is “be fair and be armed with the facts”.

Reads like a rather good slogan …

 

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’…