An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

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An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by nsb2 » Sat Jan 06, 2018 12:50 am

Today, I began writing questions for a widely mirrored college set. I was asked to contribute a small number of questions to the set; I agreed to do so despite a lack of high-level writing experience, as I wanted to contribute more to the quizbowl community.

Shortly after the plan for this tournament was announced, a "playtesting" chat was set up with all the question writers. Other writers had often posted in this chat previously, so I decided to try my hand at the same.

My questions were critiqued by two head editors. For the sake of privacy, let's call them Person A and Person B.

Person A and Person B were both relatively critical of my writing, which I was not surprised by given my inexperience. However, Person B was more critical and argued (as it seemed to me) on more tenuous ground than person A.

Since I was spending up to half an hour writing and polishing each tossup or bonus, Person B's criticism has made it far harder for me to believe the time I am investing is worth it. Of the 10 questions I am scheduled to write, I have only completed half, and I'm already finding it more difficult to finish my quota. What I find most difficult to fathom is that I was approached to write for this set, if my writing abilities are as un-developed as Person B suggests; perhaps not contributing might have been a better option.

I don't usually tend to post about this sort of situation publicly, but I was wondering if people had any advice for someone in my position, or if you would act similarly/differently if in Person B's shoes.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by gyre and gimble » Sat Jan 06, 2018 4:11 am

nsb2 wrote:Since I was spending up to half an hour writing and polishing each tossup or bonus, Person B's criticism has made it far harder for me to believe the time I am investing is worth it. Of the 10 questions I am scheduled to write, I have only completed half, and I'm already finding it more difficult to finish my quota. What I find most difficult to fathom is that I was approached to write for this set, if my writing abilities are as un-developed as Person B suggests; perhaps not contributing might have been a better option.
I'm not sure about the general situation since I don't know what Person B's criticisms actually were (maybe they were valid, maybe not). But I think your expectations of time investment are off-base: "up to half an hour" on a question is actually a really short amount of time. I've written a lot of questions at every difficulty level, and rarely have I spent less than an hour on a question (and that's if I already know the topic pretty well). You should probably be spending a lot more time researching and selecting clues, if you want to improve your writing. If that's time not worth investing, that's fine. Question writing isn't for everyone and there are plenty of other ways to improve as a player or be active in the community.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by 1.82 » Sat Jan 06, 2018 4:33 am

What are you complaining about? Are you upset that someone took the time to provide detailed feedback so that you can improve as a writer? Your post makes no indication that this Person B acted inappropriately or unprofessionally, only that they were critical of your writing and you didn't like that. If you want to get good at writing questions, a good way to do that is to accept the criticism of people with experience. Alternately, if you think that criticism is misguided and that you know better, you can choose to ignore it, and see if people playing the set agree with you.

If, on the other hand, the criticism is so vexatious to you that it leads you to lose interest in writing questions, then you are free to not write questions in the future. Nobody will stop you from not writing questions. Not writing questions is easy; you just don't do it. When I decided not to write for Terrapin, I didn't make a post on it, because there's no need to make a public announcement that you won't write questions. If you don't want to write questions, follow your heart! That news is of interest to approximately zero people in the quizbowl community.

In any case, in the present, you signed up to write questions, and senior members of the community stepped up in consideration of your inexperience to help ensure that your questions were of high quality. Your complaining about this unnamed Person B for having the temerity to do the job that they signed up to do with your knowledge is deeply insulting to the time and effort that they have volunteered of their own accord to help you.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed » Sat Jan 06, 2018 10:10 am

The following two things are real phenomena:

(a) Sometimes people don't realize how mean or hostile their comments sound to others, even if they did not intend their comments to be mean or hostile

(b) Sometimes in chatrooms where questions are being playtested, people over-criticize a question out of a desire to either show off to others ("look how much I know about these obscure clues!") or make it appear as if they are helpful ("I posted a wall of text, I'm so helpful, keep inviting me to your cool kids playtesting club!").

Given the context, I suspect this is (a) rather than (b). I suspect that person B genuinely wants you to improve as a writer so that you can continue to contribute to the quizbowl world, and just doesn't realize that he's coming off as mean spirited. Quizbowl players are not the most socially adept people and I encourage you to not immediately assume bad intentions.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by Deviant Insider » Sat Jan 06, 2018 10:31 am

It's impossible for people who were not part of the original discussion to determine whether Person A or Person B took the more appropriate approach with you, so instead of doing that I'm going to ramble about a few things to think about.

Whenever people communicate, the communication takes place at multiple levels, and miscommunication often takes place when the people communicating focus on different levels. When people are communicating via chat as opposed to in person, such miscommunication is common. I don't know, but what seems to have happened here is that the editor was focused on how to turn your question drafts into good questions, while you were focused on whether writing questions is a productive use of your time. It's not surprising that the two of you would come in with different points of view, and it's not surprising that those different viewpoints would lead to a frustrating conversation. Furthermore, it could be difficult for the editor to pick up on your frustration because the editor was focusing on the actual topic being discussed, while you were focusing on one implication of the topic being discussed. I could be wrong, but that's my impression based on your description.

One thing I'll add is that it is often frustrating being a question editor, and that's one of the reasons the job is difficult. Editors hope that they get a lot of high-quality questions on time, and what they often get falls short of that ideal in three ways (not a lot, not high-quality, and not on time). Ideally, editors should productively encourage their writers to write both more and better questions, but that's hard to do when you're frustrated and when you've already given away a lot of your time.

You probably can contribute to the community by writing questions, but you need to take a long-term view if you are going to do so. You are intelligent, and you have read a lot of questions and have opinions on them, so you are starting from the right spot. If you decided to go in that direction, there are going to be ups and downs. Your plan is going to have to be to take criticism and improve over time. In some of those respects, you are not unique, though if you stick with it your contributions may someday be unique in some ways.

Another thing to keep in mind is that writing questions is only way to contribute to the quizbowl community, and you're the person who should decide whether that's the best way for you to contribute. If it's not but you still want to contribute, you could also look into whether NCQBA could use your help or look into ways of communicating with more California colleges to make sure they are aware of the collegiate quizbowl circuit. Quizbowl always needs more outreach.

Hopefully you'll decide to contribute, because you can have a positive impact. If you want me to look at your questions, send them to me. I don't understand the college canon well enough to give you great feedback, but I can let you know whether or not there is something obviously horrible about your questions.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by Periplus of the Erythraean Sea » Sat Jan 06, 2018 1:33 pm

gyre and gimble wrote:I'm not sure about the general situation since I don't know what Person B's criticisms actually were (maybe they were valid, maybe not). But I think your expectations of time investment are off-base: "up to half an hour" on a question is actually a really short amount of time. I've written a lot of questions at every difficulty level, and rarely have I spent less than an hour on a question (and that's if I already know the topic pretty well). You should probably be spending a lot more time researching and selecting clues, if you want to improve your writing. If that's time not worth investing, that's fine. Question writing isn't for everyone and there are plenty of other ways to improve as a player or be active in the community.
I think this varies depending on your writing style. These days half an hour is usually an upper limit for me (I think I write most of my questions in around 15-20 minutes) because I usually have the clues chosen well in advance of writing on a given answer - but I usually give things a lot of once-overs later. I don't think half an hour an unreasonable amount of time if you've got an idea of what your clues will be in advance.

The fact that someone thought your questions were bad despite your efforts shouldn't discourage you, but rather encourage you to think critically about their perspective. Putting effort into something unfortunately does not always mean it is good in everyone else's perspective. People aren't always great at communicating and I would encourage asking for specific suggestions and feedback - when they're asked to be more precise, I find people are more practical and helpful about how your work could be better.

In retrospect I'm pretty thankful for most people who spent a significant amount of time tearing into my previous work, because it's made me think much more carefully about things such as precision of cluing, alternate answers, different ways of judging difficulty, etc. and taught me to do this more systematically when I write.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by Victor Prieto » Sat Jan 06, 2018 3:46 pm

To answer your two questions in reverse order:

1) I've edited for a tournament before where I edited questions produced by inexperienced writers - some good, some bad. If these writers ask me for feedback, I'm just honest about the quality of the question and explain my thought process to my edits. It sounds like to me you were asking for feedback on your questions, and if the feedback was pretty negative, then it's eminently possible it's because your questions were not up to par. This happens to every single quizbowl writer writing their first questions, especially at collegiate regular difficulty and above. Heck, the first questions I wrote were for Rice's ACF Nationals submission in 2012, and they were not very good. I wrote 14 questions, and not one made it in. I'm not saying that just because this is your first time writing at this level that your questions are guaranteed to be bad, just that you should take their criticism seriously.

2) If I were in your shoes as an inexperienced writer soliciting feedback, and a more senior editor criticized my questions in a belittling manner, don't just take it - stand up for yourself and go yell back at them that the attitude they're showing towards you is not okay. This doesn't mean you should reject comments along the lines of "this will never work," but you can and should take issue with someone saying "this is a stupid idea." Bruce is right that sometimes people don't realize that criticism of quizbowl questions can be received with hostility. If you disagree with a factual point they are making, make your argument for why you think a clue is valid or why you think clue A should be placed earlier than clue B. If you don't understand a point they are making about, say, accessibility of an answerline, ask for clarification.

I guess I'm partly glad that I have the opportunity to tell you these things here, but I would not have recommended taking this issue public. I'm guessing you just damaged (hopefully not irreparably) your relationship with one or more people you're working with on the set.

I want to follow up on points that Naveed made that I do not fully agree with:
1.82 wrote:Your post makes no indication that this Person B acted inappropriately or unprofessionally, only that they were critical of your writing and you didn't like that.
The post also made no indication of the opposite, either.
1.82 wrote:If you want to get good at writing questions, a good way to do that is to accept the criticism of people with experience. Alternately, if you think that criticism is misguided and that you know better, you can choose to ignore it, and see if people playing the set agree with you.
If you (Pranav) want to get good at writing questions, but disagree with the criticism, then start a conversation and make your argument until you reach a consensus. I'm pretty sure the editor (Persons A or B) would have the final say, so I don't think ignoring the criticism would work, and I think this approach Naveed is advocating would not lead to better quality questions.
1.82 wrote:If, on the other hand, the criticism is so vexatious to you that it leads you to lose interest in writing questions, then you are free to not write questions in the future. Nobody will stop you from not writing questions. Not writing questions is easy; you just don't do it.
(again directed at Pranav) Please be a little more perseverant, and recognize that ridicule might be unwarranted, when simple feedback would have been fine. Try to separate the ridicule from the criticism, and in this case, rebuke the person who inserted derision that was not deserved. If there was no ridicule and it was just valid criticism for some not-so-great questions, then remember every quizbowl writer, prolific or otherwise, started from some low point, and kept trying to improve.
1.82 wrote:In any case, in the present, you signed up to write questions, and senior members of the community stepped up in consideration of your inexperience to help ensure that your questions were of high quality. Your complaining about this unnamed Person B for having the temerity to do the job that they signed up to do with your knowledge is deeply insulting to the time and effort that they have volunteered of their own accord to help you.
This situation can easily be flipped. From the perspective of an inexperienced writer: "I just gave time and effort to help you by writing questions, and you repaid me by dragging my questions through the mud, you jackass"
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:In retrospect I'm pretty thankful for most people who spent a significant amount of time tearing into my previous work, because it's made me think much more carefully about things such as precision of cluing, alternate answers, different ways of judging difficulty, etc. and taught me to do this more systematically when I write.
Me too.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by gyre and gimble » Sat Jan 06, 2018 6:33 pm

Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:
gyre and gimble wrote:I'm not sure about the general situation since I don't know what Person B's criticisms actually were (maybe they were valid, maybe not). But I think your expectations of time investment are off-base: "up to half an hour" on a question is actually a really short amount of time. I've written a lot of questions at every difficulty level, and rarely have I spent less than an hour on a question (and that's if I already know the topic pretty well). You should probably be spending a lot more time researching and selecting clues, if you want to improve your writing. If that's time not worth investing, that's fine. Question writing isn't for everyone and there are plenty of other ways to improve as a player or be active in the community.
I think this varies depending on your writing style. These days half an hour is usually an upper limit for me (I think I write most of my questions in around 15-20 minutes) because I usually have the clues chosen well in advance of writing on a given answer - but I usually give things a lot of once-overs later. I don't think half an hour an unreasonable amount of time if you've got an idea of what your clues will be in advance.
I guess when I say "writing a question," I'm including clue selection time. Especially when you're a new writer, you're not going to know enough about a topic to have several clues lined up and ready to go, unless it's a common link or something.

But even if you have a set of clues you think you can use off the top of your head, you have to 1) check to see if they are actually what you think they are, 2) re-research them to make sure there aren't more interesting ways to use or phrase a clue, and 3) cross-reference them with past questions to make sure the clues will play well against recency. I would also encourage writers to 4) read-up on the topic some more to see if there are different clues that might be better than the ones they have already selected.

The problem with picking all your clues before researching the question topic is that chances are a lot of your clues will be stock, somewhat quizbowl-famous, or stale, by virtue of you being a quizbowl player and having been introduced to most quizbowl topics through quizbowl.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by vinteuil » Sun Jan 07, 2018 11:07 am

gyre and gimble wrote:
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:
gyre and gimble wrote:I'm not sure about the general situation since I don't know what Person B's criticisms actually were (maybe they were valid, maybe not). But I think your expectations of time investment are off-base: "up to half an hour" on a question is actually a really short amount of time. I've written a lot of questions at every difficulty level, and rarely have I spent less than an hour on a question (and that's if I already know the topic pretty well). You should probably be spending a lot more time researching and selecting clues, if you want to improve your writing. If that's time not worth investing, that's fine. Question writing isn't for everyone and there are plenty of other ways to improve as a player or be active in the community.
I think this varies depending on your writing style. These days half an hour is usually an upper limit for me (I think I write most of my questions in around 15-20 minutes) because I usually have the clues chosen well in advance of writing on a given answer - but I usually give things a lot of once-overs later. I don't think half an hour an unreasonable amount of time if you've got an idea of what your clues will be in advance.
I guess when I say "writing a question," I'm including clue selection time. Especially when you're a new writer, you're not going to know enough about a topic to have several clues lined up and ready to go, unless it's a common link or something.

But even if you have a set of clues you think you can use off the top of your head, you have to 1) check to see if they are actually what you think they are, 2) re-research them to make sure there aren't more interesting ways to use or phrase a clue, and 3) cross-reference them with past questions to make sure the clues will play well against recency. I would also encourage writers to 4) read-up on the topic some more to see if there are different clues that might be better than the ones they have already selected.

The problem with picking all your clues before researching the question topic is that chances are a lot of your clues will be stock, somewhat quizbowl-famous, or stale, by virtue of you being a quizbowl player and having been introduced to most quizbowl topics through quizbowl.
5) find clear, concise, and accurate ways to word clues, including selecting which aspects of the clue to mention (often the hardest part for me).

I can't say I agree with the last point though—I've often been reading something, come across a quizbowl topic, realized "Oh wow, quizbowl has a somewhat skewed/limited canon of clues on this thing," and then had a decent bevy of fresh clues to work with.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by nsb2 » Sun Jan 07, 2018 2:28 pm

Thank you to everyone for your advice -- I have a lot to think about in the next few days.

Mods, you can FZ this.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by gyre and gimble » Sun Jan 07, 2018 7:49 pm

vinteuil wrote:5) find clear, concise, and accurate ways to word clues, including selecting which aspects of the clue to mention (often the hardest part for me).

I can't say I agree with the last point though—I've often been reading something, come across a quizbowl topic, realized "Oh wow, quizbowl has a somewhat skewed/limited canon of clues on this thing," and then had a decent bevy of fresh clues to work with.
On (5), yes, absolutely.

As for the other point, I'm not denying that what you said never happens or that it happens often, especially for more advanced writers. I just don't think it's the dominant mode of writing. If you're writing questions at volume I don't know if you can really assemble a full set of question ideas from your independent reading or studies, unless your external knowledge is truly expansive and comprehensive. I certainly try to do that at higher difficulty where there's room for expanding the canon or fresh takes on well-known topics (for example, I'd say about 50% of my "stanford housewrite" question ideas, and a super-majority of 2015 CO Visual Arts, were generated mostly from finding new clues that quizbowl hadn't touched on before). But at regular difficulty or lower, where it's more important to adhere to a canon and where more clues need to be widely playable, you're probably not going to be able to rely on your non-quizbowl store of knowledge as much.
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Re: An inexperienced writer among experienced writers

Post by vinteuil » Sun Jan 07, 2018 8:20 pm

gyre and gimble wrote:
vinteuil wrote: I can't say I agree with the last point though—I've often been reading something, come across a quizbowl topic, realized "Oh wow, quizbowl has a somewhat skewed/limited canon of clues on this thing," and then had a decent bevy of fresh clues to work with.
As for the other point, I'm not denying that what you said never happens or that it happens often, especially for more advanced writers. I just don't think it's the dominant mode of writing. If you're writing questions at volume I don't know if you can really assemble a full set of question ideas from your independent reading or studies, unless your external knowledge is truly expansive and comprehensive. I certainly try to do that at higher difficulty where there's room for expanding the canon or fresh takes on well-known topics (for example, I'd say about 50% of my "stanford housewrite" question ideas, and a super-majority of 2015 CO Visual Arts, were generated mostly from finding new clues that quizbowl hadn't touched on before). But at regular difficulty or lower, where it's more important to adhere to a canon and where more clues need to be widely playable, you're probably not going to be able to rely on your non-quizbowl store of knowledge as much.
That's completely fair and reflects my experience too.
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