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.


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 …