So You Want to Write a Housewrite

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So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Mewto55555 » Sat Jun 23, 2012 11:05 pm

It’s that time of year again, as we begin formulating rough ideas of our plans for next season: what tournaments to play, what tournaments to host, and most importantly, what sets will be used for these things. Like every year in recent memory, this summer we’ll surely see the announcement of a large number of house-written sets; discussion has already begun in the relevant forums.

At first glance, a plethora of housewrites appears to be a great boon to the quizbowl community -- more sets means more tournaments can be run in each circuit and tournament directors have more options to select what’s right for their area. However, this must be taken with a grain of salt. With an HSAPQ or NAQT set, you know what you’re getting. With the first mirror of any housewrite though, it may not end too well, as we saw in some cases this year. (TD pro-tip: If the writers of a set are untested, keep regularly in contact with them and ask to see samples of their work. Don’t just trust that they’ll do a great job!)

But, the blame for running a bad set can’t fall at the feet of the TD -- it lies squarely with the head editors, and to a lesser degree, the writers, who are ultimately responsible for its ill-guided creation and deceptive marketing.

And so, those of you posting in the collaboration thread and announcing your tournaments, this post is made for you, and the scores who have contemplated being like you. It’s mostly an outpouring of my thoughts, gleaned from my experience head-editing high school sets in the past two years, and the wisdom imparted to me by others, who helped and encouraged me in the making of this post. Ideally it will be a brief guide to housewriting (there are plenty of guides on question-writing itself out there, I’m writing about the other stuff) and a cautionary note for those contemplating writing a set. I don’t pretend to know everything, so if you read this and have any additional thoughts/questions/comments, please post them!

====================================================================

So you want to write a housewrite. You’ve seen the announcements of others on the forums, and now you’ve decided it’s time for you to do so yourself. So what do you do?

If your school typically writes a tournament (so if you go to like Hunter or Maggie Walker or something) ask your elders. Otherwise:

The first, and most important thing to keep in mind is that right now you suck at writing. You might be really good at the game of quizbowl itself, but if you’ve never written before, you are not that great at it. (Fun experiment: write three tossups today, save them in a word document, then look at them months or years from now when you have a lot more writing experience. You will cringe.) Your questions might be OK, and could be polished up by a good editor into something which would play very nicely, but if you’ve never done this before there’s no way you can head-edit a well-written tournament. I’m not insulting you, it’s a fact -- I was the same, as was just about everyone else.

So how do you get good enough to write a full tournament? Like everything else, it can only be accomplished with practice. Start small: write a few of the best tossups you can (and spend time on it!) and read them to experienced people on the quizbowl irc, submit your questions to people who know what they’re doing (like the feedback program), or even venture into packet-submission college tournaments (ACF Fall is a thing that happens -- writing a packet will get you a discount, practice, and I’m sure feedback on the quality of your questions if you ask for it). Work on projects under experienced people. The list goes on and on; the most important thing is simply to have practice writing questions before you attempt to write a full tournament.

Flash-forward a few months: you’ve written some questions, gotten some feedback, and think you’re ready to tackle a tournament. Now’s when you open that word document, and see if your initial questions would have been up to snuff! :) The best thing to do now is to send out some feelers within your team. Are you up for hosting and writing a tournament? Is your coach cool with the idea? Most importantly, will your teammates support you? Much of LIST I was done by a teammate of mine and I by ourselves over spring break; had I known the rest would write so little, I may not have tried to tackle the project. Make sure your friends are on board and understand what will be demanded of them!

A much easier solution may be to collaborate with another school or two, especially if they have more writing experience than you. Perhaps, after a year of working as the second-in-command under someone more experienced on a set, you’ll be more likely to do a good job in the lead position the year after. Or, you mostly know what you’re doing, but no one on your team is any good at science or fine arts, and another school has a good science and fine arts writer. One must be very careful with collaboration though -- I highly recommend in collaborative (and all other housewrites) someone be firmly designated as the in-charge head editor. Two of the less fantastically written tournaments of the past year (RM/TP/Bellarmine and FNT) were both collaborations, and the cause of FNT’s problems were six equal “head editors,” none of which took responsibility for the set as a whole, leading to some gross oversights.

Now you need to figure out the difficulty you’re shooting for. In your case, this is quite simple! It’s your first time writing, so you’re shooting for regular difficulty. It’s much better to wind up easier than harder, if you err slightly, so do your best to restrain yourself, and call out your co-writers whenever you think they’re writing too hard of questions.

So now, you’ve made it through all this. You know what you’re doing, you’ve got a corps of mostly dedicated people who mostly know what they’re doing to back you up, and you’re ready to write. I assume you can figure out distributional stuff on your own (you have a little freedom but don’t be too wacky or stupid with it -- just look at other sets’ distributions as models). You now need to set up spreadsheets and the like to organize your writing progress. When I work, I sort it so the columns are the categories, the rows are the packets, and in the boxes go the answerline, color-coded by how done it is (like white for nothing, red for written, yellow for edited, green for packeted/playtested/powermarked, or something similar). Do whatever works for you, and if someone reading this has a different system, I’d love to hear.

While the number of columns is easy to figure out (21 or 22 questions per packet works quite nicely), the number of rows should be selected with greater caution. Frankly put, some sets do not have enough packets to allow the flexibility needed. If you want to be writing a good set, which will allow other hosts the ability to set up a fair, good schedule, 14 packets is the minimum. A tournament in Missouri this year had rooms and moderators enough to expand beyond 24 teams, but GSAC only had 12 packets -- this led to a smaller field cap and an extraordinarily contrived schedule which ultimately ended up messed up. Had GSAC had 14 packets, they could have just easily done preliminary brackets of 6 then rebracketed to 8 or vice versa, and the tournament would have been a much nicer experience for all. I don’t say this to impugn GSAC specifically, many other tournaments had too few packets, but rather to provide an example of how this does indeed cause problems. Hosts should keep this in mind when deciding what to mirror: if you choose to use a set which asininely only 12 packets, not only are you unable to adapt to changing field sizes, but you encourage the writing institution to continue writing too few packets in future years, harming many tournaments to come.

This leads me to one of my two main points in this post, which I won’t claim to have come up with myself (can’t remember who said it though, sorry!): Writing a quizbowl set is a very easy thing to “barely finish.” It’s really really tempting to look at twelve complete packets and have no desire to start on a thirteenth. It’s really really easy to skim a complete set and send it out rather than spend a day proofreading to catch as much as possible. Realize when you post in that forum, writing a good set will be a lot of work. Writing a great set will be even more. If you don’t want to put in the requisite time to turn out a fantastic product, then head-editing is not the right job for you.

So now you’ve written 14+ packets of good questions, and have edited them to the best of your ability. If this is your first tournament head-editing, play-test all your questions. Read the questions out loud to yourself, or a group of people who know what they’re doing, to catch wording errors. More importantly, find someone experienced and get them to look over the set for you. When I say experienced, I don’t mean a college freshman or two who haven’t head-edited anything but worked for Fall Novice once, I mean EXPERIENCED: someone who has edited multiple high school tournaments and can instantly tell a good question from a bad one. A great place to do this is the quizbowl irc channel -- usually it’s just a bunch of semi-busy college people sitting around who are almost always more than happy to be read a packet and provide feedback if you ask them nicely and politely. In fact, it might even be a good idea to playtest the first packet of completed questions, so that you can nip any problems you have in the bud. No one will write your set for you, but people will gladly spend a little time finding weaknesses in the set.

This leads me to my second major point: The best writer/editors are those who listen to the feedback that they’re given. If the people playtesting know what they’re doing, heed their advice! If they tell you clues are bad, replace them. If they tell you a question is not workable, replace it (or figure out why they think it’s unworkable, suggest a fix, and see what they say). It’s really easy to be lazy and not do this, but remember what I said earlier!

So now you’re (mostly) done. Put the questions in packets, powermark them if you’re using powers and you haven’t done so yet (have one person do this near the end, so it’s uniform -- I recommend doing so right before play-testing), and send it out to the people hosting. If this is occurring the Thursday or Friday before the first running of the set, you’re doing it too late. Shoot to have your set done a week early, and don’t let yourself fall behind -- question quality drops massively if you have less time to work, and you should allot the last few weeks to the proofreading/playtesting, as they take a non-negligible amount of time.

Congrats, if you did all this, you wrote a very good tournament, and you can look forward to hearing nice things in forum posts. Remind people not to discuss until all mirrors are done, and if you get specific feedback, fix the relevant questions.


OK THIS PART IS IMPORTANT SO READ IT

Writing a tournament is hard. If you do it, you are making a commitment to do your utmost to make it a fine set of questions for everyone who plays them. If you fail to do this, you are doing a terrible disservice to yourself, the rest of your team, everyone involved in writing the set, the people who host mirrors, and, very importantly, the pyramidal quizbowl community as a whole. Your questions will leave an impression on every team which plays them; for some, it may be the first exposure they have to the notion of pyramidal quizbowl, and if you screw up, you turn them away from the game for a long time, if not forever. Even experienced teams and their coaches may be soured by a poorly produced set of questions. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and give it your all for the next few months to do a good job.

I understand that many of you want to write questions because you want to improve. From time to time, everyone gets the itch to write quizbowl questions. This does not mean, however, that you are ready to produce a tournament, unless you take in and internalize the sober reality that many sets today are subpar and fail to meet the acceptable standards detailed above. It is far far better to be a seemingly insignificant part of a project than start a project on your own that you won’t do properly. If all you’re in it for is improvement, then just write the questions and read them to friends.


tl;dr summary of this entire post (read the whole thing though!): Remember, ask advice and take it to heart. Do not be lazy or bite off more than you can chew. Doing a bad job is a terrible terrible thing, so do a good job. Don't be ashamed to realize that a housewrite is in fact a lot of work, and not for everyone!

If you have any questions/comments/concerns, please post! Good luck writing!



EDIT (6/24/12): It should be noted (since someone has had extensive private discussion with me on this manner) that in the 14-packet example, GSAC wasn't the only culpable set, as the originally-intended-to-be-mirrored VCU/OSU set also had too few packets, and GSAC was chosen to replace it at the last minute; my point still stands that 14 is the minimum acceptable number.
Last edited by Mewto55555 on Sun Jun 24, 2012 2:26 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Auroni » Sun Jun 24, 2012 2:19 pm

I will get the ball rolling on discussing this, then. This was a sorely needed post, given the declining quality and increasing difficulty of many housewrites over the past year or two. I would say that this is mandatory reading not just for people looking to write tournaments in the future, but for hosts that want to choose a set to mirror with a discerning eye and writers in general.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Deviant Insider » Sun Jun 24, 2012 4:34 pm

I agree that this is a great post. I'm going to add a few things and disagree with another thing.

Max's experience with LIST I, during which several people let him down, is not unusual. A set needs at least one central person who has decided that it is going to work even when other people are irresponsible, and that person needs to be prepared to go above and beyond. (If things really get out of hand, that person needs to announce that it just isn't working at least a few weeks before the set is supposed to be used so that hosts can find other sets.) If you are in charge of a set, you need to give intermediate deadlines to contributors, such as 10 questions by a certain date and half their questions by another certain date, etc. The contributors who miss the first deadline will claim that it was because they were very busy, but they will continue to miss their deadlines because the actual reason is that they are irresponsible.

If you go back more than two or three years, the reasons people wrote good sets was that they realized that most sets were bad, and they wanted to change that. The situation has actually improved overall, and it is now not a problem for somebody to think that a handful of sets are good and they want to produce a set along the lines of the good sets they see. Two things, however, are still the same:
* People who produce good sets are people who hear a lot of sets and notice good and bad things about them. They are connoisseurs of sets.
* Trying to produce an average set is a bad idea. If you think it is acceptable for a set to have bad grammar because some other sets have bad grammar, just stop now. Take the idea that you should be a head editor and remove it from your head.

You should try to have drafts of all the questions long before the set is going to be used. It is good to have them a month ahead of time so that your focus, and the focus of everybody involved in the set, can be on editing the questions. It takes several hours to read through a set and do very basic editing. The first time or two through, the stuff that gets edited is the stuff that is obviously horrible. (You might be able to do all the editing necessary without going through it more than twice, but that's only the case if you can spend a lot of time on those run throughs.) You need to get to the point where you can turn the mediocre stuff into good stuff. Few writers/editors actually do this, but you want your set to be thoroughly edited rather than hastily edited, so don't do what other people do.

As to my point of disagreement--I do not think it's a crime to produce a set that has 12 packets. Just be clear about the number of packets you are producing, and TDs have to work with that or find another set. As the number of circuits with several teams interested in good quizbowl and several good moderators increases, there will be more and more of a market for sets that have more than 12 packets, so it's something to keep in mind. However, the standard procedure as far as I know is for a head editor to produce a set that meet the needs of their own tournament and to attempt to explain accurately what they are doing to potential mirror hosts, and I think that is what is important.

When it's all said and done, however, the most important thing I can say is go read Max's post again. It's good.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Auroni » Sun Jun 24, 2012 4:50 pm

Well, as Max explained, the problem with 12 packet sets is that they lead to a lot of inflexibility of tournament formats. You don't really know what kind of field you or anyone else using your set will have on tournament day, so it's better to just prepare to write that extra packet or two (long in advance) so that nobody has a subpar experience with your tournament.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Matt Weiner » Sun Jun 24, 2012 5:06 pm

My opinion is that the average HS-produced set is declining in quality due to the mistaken belief that "pyramidality" is the only thing that matters, and a consequent lack of regard for solid clue selection, rewarding of real knowledge, proper English, and difficulty control. Expect more in this summer's hottest manifesto.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Cheynem » Sun Jun 24, 2012 5:10 pm

Hsquizbowl's hottest manifesto has everything!
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Mewto55555 » Sun Jun 24, 2012 5:41 pm

Leucippe and Clitophon wrote: As to my point of disagreement--I do not think it's a crime to produce a set that has 12 packets. Just be clear about the number of packets you are producing, and TDs have to work with that or find another set. As the number of circuits with several teams interested in good quizbowl and several good moderators increases, there will be more and more of a market for sets that have more than 12 packets, so it's something to keep in mind. However, the standard procedure as far as I know is for a head editor to produce a set that meet the needs of their own tournament and to attempt to explain accurately what they are doing to potential mirror hosts, and I think that is what is important.
The thing is though, there's not a dearth of packets out there. By my count, last year the following sets were available (parenthetical is number of packets):

RM/TP, FKT (??)
ATTACK, GSAC, DAFT, RAVE, BDAT (12)
OLEFIN, VCU/OSU, BHSAT, IMSANITY, Maryland Spring? (13)
6? IS-sets, WUHSAC? (14)
2 HSAPQ sets, Prison Bowl (15)
LIST, HFT (16)

So there were 24 sets out there, not counting novice sets, nationals, and any college tournaments high school teams might elect to play. A lot of the problems with sets that were had this year would be solved if those sets which were on the lower end of quality or quantity merged together. It's not like that means teams would get to play less tournaments, since I don't think any region used all 24 of these sets (though Illinois got close?)

If you have only 12 packets, you have to set aside 2 for finals, and there are very few formats that can be done with larger tournaments on only 10 usable prelim/playoff packets. You also can't break prelim-to-playoff ties by playing them off. If a bunch of teams want to add or drop right before the tournament, then the TD might have to come up with a far-too-contorted schedule to make it work out. This really just goes back to what I said earlier about laziness: writers don't want to put in the extra effort to write two more packets, but the extra packets need to be there in case something goes wrong at the last minute.

To be clear, I'm advocating that all sets have at least 14 packets, and if people think they can't write that much, they should find another ongoing project and merge with them.

EDIT: Whoops forgot HFT! And had a wrong number for IMSANITY.
Last edited by Mewto55555 on Mon Jun 25, 2012 9:54 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by AKKOLADE » Sun Jun 24, 2012 5:48 pm

FKT had 9 packets in 2010.

Edit: I believe that it was stated on the Ohio forum that in 2011, 10 packets were provided.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) » Sun Jun 24, 2012 5:58 pm

So, I want to paraphrase something I suggested to a local team that wanted to housewrite a tournament this year. For background, this comment is directed at teams which may be newer, or don't have a lot of writing experience, but have a lot of newfound vigor to improve and want to write a tournament so they can learn a lot and contribute to the community like an established program. Please, do not decide this year to housewrite something. If you want to write a bunch of questions to improve, go nuts. That's a very viable strategy to improve your writing and playing. Sit on what your team has written for a year and then go back. If you have enough good questions to make the skeleton of a tournament, fill the rest of the set out with new questions that you (ideally) will now be good at writing because you have a whole year of experience. This should let you do all the efficient studying work that writing a tournament provides, without all the stress of having to make it a great experience for your audience.

Another benefit to this is that your team could probably use experience hosting a tournament, and if you want to housewrite a set, it's really ideal that you already have an event or two under your belt before you try to go about writing and directing, because the latter makes your week before a tournament INSANELY stressful.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Adventure Temple Trail » Sun Jun 24, 2012 7:56 pm

Mewto55555 wrote: The thing is though, there's not a dearth of packets out there. By my count, last year the following sets were available (parenthetical is number of packets):...
Nitpick: If that was meant as a list of all the sets, you forgot all of NAQT's A-sets, which are all 12 packets long by default, and HFT, which had 16 packets this past year. How many did ATTACK have?

My experiences with NNT, Ben Cooper, and BHSAT basically lead me to complete agreement with Max and Charlie. Max did a lot of the post I was planning to make, so I just want to encourage people to read it - it's one of the best posts I've seen - and add or emphasize a few things.

I want to underline the following point again, but in clearer terms: ALL sets with a first-time head editor should be extensively supervised or assisted by editors with real credentials and experience. This can consist of seeking out two or three people here to really comb through your files and leave commentary/make suggestions, working personally with someone with real credentials and experience in your area (such as a current college player or an alumnus of your school with whom you're on good terms), or, as Max alluded to, playtesting all of questions, one by one, in every category, for a (chat)room of college players so you can see for yourself how they play and what prospective players would say to you. It's VERY rare for a new set with brand-new writers to get positive acclaim without this, and in recent memory this method has worked very well for such good sets as GSAC, OLEFIN, and LIST. More personally, I don't think my Ben Cooper set from 2010 would have been a success if I hadn't had advice and question-writing aid from previous editors who I respected at the time. In looking for people with this experience, make sure (if you're looking for advice) that the person/people looking your stuff over has been involved in editing at least one well-received tournament in the past. Otherwise there's not much guarantee they'll be actually helping. If you're reading to the usual IRC-oriented chatroom, you'll probably find at least one or two people who fit that bill in the crowd, which is probably sufficient - know who they are and to value what they say a bit more.

Another point of emphasis: Tournament hosts should be looking to host the best sets they can, and should look for red flags that the set they're looking at might not be good. If it's a new set, and the writing team/head editor isn't able to speak for their own experience writing previous well-received sets, they should be able to state clearly what their method is for seeking out help and supervision. If they can't or won't do so, it's probably a sign that TDs should hold up and look for other available options before mirroring that set. We live in an age where lots of people can say "I assure you this will be high-quality" in their opening post, even with good intentions, but turn out a set that's mediocre or worse - make sure on the TDing end that people aren't just saying stuff about their capabilities and a lot of worse sets won't be widely mirrored.

Mr. Reinstein: As I'm sure you know, there are reasons why 12 packets used to be an acceptable minimum - by then most good tournaments wanted to guarantee a minimum 10 rounds plus 2 finals rounds, as college tournaments were doing, and it required a concerted effort to tell people to stop writing sets with only 10 or 11 packets as recently as 2008. As Max points out, a lot of tournaments are trying to move past that to do things like play tiebreakers rather than sort by PPG, or run crossover playoffs which require 11 packets before the finals, or retain an emergency packet in case of error, and 12 really is just too small a number for many events right now. Given all this, 14 seems like a much safer minimum number. This isn't to say events can't run only 12 rounds when they have more packets available to them. (I am aware that the latest BHSAT set was only able to produce 13 packets, and that this impacted finals placement at the Illinois site. Though I'm not happy we were only able to provide 13 packets - I don't think more were possible given the writing process we were using, unfortunately - I am taking note of this for future high school sets I work on.)

EDIT: highlighted what real credentials actually means, to hammer that further
Last edited by Adventure Temple Trail on Mon Jun 25, 2012 12:17 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Mewto55555 » Sun Jun 24, 2012 8:17 pm

RyuAqua wrote:
Mewto55555 wrote: Nitpick: If that was meant as a list of all the sets, you forgot all of NAQT's A-sets, which are all 12 packets long by default, and HFT, which had 16 packets this past year. How many did ATTACK have?
I intentionally left out A-sets and the other three novice sets (FNT, SCOP, Minnesota), and accidentally left out HFT; it's been edited back in, thanks! ATTACK has 12 according to this.

I think its OK for novice/A-sets to have fewer packets, since novice tournaments typically are better off being slightly shorter.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Unicolored Jay » Mon Jun 25, 2012 1:34 am

Fred wrote:FKT had 9 packets in 2010.

Edit: I believe that it was stated on the Ohio forum that in 2011, 10 packets were provided.
FKT had 10 packets. The reason there were only 10 was due to the tournament format of each mirror being arranged way in advance (which added up to only 9 rounds) so the number of packets needed could be planned out easily. That being said, FKT is meant to be a novice-type set anyways, so having less than the ideal number of packets is okay. We're planning on having more than 10 for the 2012 incarnation.

I really like this guide, as it addresses pretty much everything that attention should be paid to when writing a set.
Leucippe and Clitophon wrote:If you are in charge of a set, you need to give intermediate deadlines to contributors, such as 10 questions by a certain date and half their questions by another certain date, etc. The contributors who miss the first deadline will claim that it was because they were very busy, but they will continue to miss their deadlines because the actual reason is that they are irresponsible.
I'm not sure if deadlines are a surefire way to get contributors to write questions. In my experience, since there's no immediate consequence to them for not submitting them on time, writers may tend to get lazy and let other, more dedicated people do most of the work. Are there better ways of preventing this?

(Did the OSU/VCU set ever get feedback by the way? I don't think I ever heard anything about it aside from those who attended our tournament in March. Also I'm curious as to how GSAC got used over it even though OSU/VCU had one more packet; although to be fair having only 13 wasn't something I was very satisfied with)
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Irreligion in Bangladesh » Mon Jun 25, 2012 9:13 am

Alliance in the Alps wrote:I'm not sure if deadlines are a surefire way to get contributors to write questions.
They are a surefire way to make the "I, editor, need questions from you, writer(s)" conversation easier to start. Also, if you're editing a category, it's easy to say "Writers have three weeks to write questions before I binge and finish the category myself; if you want to claim something in the category, speak now." With three days to go, remind anyone who hasn't finished what they claimed about their deadline. When the deadline hits, wipe away the claims and write the rest of the category yourself.
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Re: So You Want to Write a Housewrite

Post by Charles Martel » Mon Jun 25, 2012 9:43 pm

IMSANITY had 13 packets, not 12.

Also, you need at least 15 packets if for some reason you decided that your tournament should not have tiebreakers or replacement questions in the packets.
Adam Kalinich
MIT 2012-
Illinois Math and Science Academy 2009-2012

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