A Quizbowl Style Guide

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A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Sir Thopas » Sun Feb 27, 2011 3:11 pm

A lot of tournaments I’ve seen lately commit manifold offenses against what, to me, at least, represents good question-writing style. The primary purpose of a quizbowl question is to be immediately understood as heard, and I feel like there are constructions that can be avoided—and often aren’t—that impede this goal. That is, the meat of quizbowl questions is, of course, the clues being conveyed in them. The relationship between the clues of a question and the question itself is akin to that between a text and the printed page. Much as typography should facilitate legibility without drawing attention to itself, question style should house its clues as smoothly and inconspicuously as possible.

As such, I would like to proffer some suggestions which I believe make a question a better home for its clues. Ideally, most of these should be all but second nature for the experience question writer; few are of my own devising. There has already been some discussion of this topic here, but I am aiming to create a more compact and effective reference. I would be interested in hearing disagreements and revisions to work into later versions, if necessary. Of course, these are merely suggestions, which any good writer knows when to ignore; however, the artistic value to be gained from breaking stylistic traditions is nonexistent in quizbowl, so you’d better have a good reason for ignoring them. With that in mind:

Don’t write sentences that are ungrammatical. This should be an obvious one, but I’ve seen plenty of questions that play fast and loose with syntax, presumably because it’s difficult to get the right clue ordering otherwise. This is bad. Use your problem solving skills to figure out how to finesse your sentence structure to fit the desired clue order. The most common offenders here are dependent clauses in places where they shouldn’t be. I have less of a problem with dangling modifiers than some others do, just because these tend to be fairly unambiguous. However, if a construction makes a listener have to stop and parse the sentence due to ambiguity or inventive structure, even for a split second, it has failed in its role of conveying clues.

Don’t let your sentences run away from you. Even when grammatical, sentences advancing deep into a second line of text are often vexatious to reader and player alike. Reading is clearer as a series of cadences, and if you prolong unnaturally the distance between two cadences, whether by conjunctions or complicated sentence structure, the reader has a higher chance of stopping unnaturally or using confused, and therefore distracting, intonation. This is especially the case if you’re sticking together two largely unrelated clues in a sentence that can’t fit them happily together. After all, periods allow a natural point for the reader to take a breath; not granting your moderator this luxury could backfire as you see your lovely, clue-packed sentence cloven at a comma.

Don’t use florid language, especially in your modifiers. Adjectives are useful descriptors in quizbowl to a certain extent. Calling a literary character German or elderly conveys valuable information—if not directly buzzable, then certainly good for providing context—to the player; calling him irascible, not necessarily so. If you’re going to hide important clues, or clues that sound important, in recondite vocabulary, you run the risk of failing to effectively convey your information. I should add that this rule is somewhat less hard and fast than the previous ones. Since quizbowl is (arguably, I suppose) for entertainment, it’s certainly not horrible to amuse your audience with a flourish of writing prowess.

An example might be instructive here. While playing Chicago Open two years ago, I noticed a preponderance of the word “slatternly”. I started to find it funny whenever it came up, and that word is not going to make anyone buzz or prevent anyone from doing so. The choice of words slightly impeded the goal of delivering the clues with as little fanfare outside of the clues as possible, but if you, as a writer, deem that that is a worthwhile sacrifice for some amusement, that’s fine. On the other hand, I remember reading an art tossup a couple of years ago that described some clothing in a painting as “diaphanous”. Since these tossups are ecphrastic, it is vital to couch a description which is directly intended to be buzzable in accessible language. The question would have greatly profited by the use of “thin” or “transparent” or some (near-)synonym instead.

A specific case of the above—and I admit that this may be merely a pet peeve, although it seems to me a justified one—is the profligate use of the word “identify” in giveaways and bonus lead-ins. This is a four-syllable word which has a much shorter equivalent, “name”, that can carry the exact same signifying load. You want to spare your reader extra hardship whenever possible, and cutting out three syllables from meaningless but necessary words peppering your packet is a fantastic, easy way of achieving this.

Read over your questions before and after you make editorial changes. This isn’t even a stylistic thing, but it’s not that hard to stop your questions from having two articles in a row; or a missing preposition or, worse, noun; or a clause right next to its putative replacement. If you don’t have time to spend fifteen seconds giving each question a final glance, finish your tournament earlier.

That’s all I have for now, but hopefully the style of suggestions I’m making lends itself well to a better editing outlook on the whole that can extend them to constructions I didn’t mention. If I think of anything else concrete that I feel should be added, I’ll throw it in later.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Susan » Sun Feb 27, 2011 3:18 pm

Guy wrote:Read over your questions before and after you make editorial changes. This isn’t even a stylistic thing, but it’s not that hard to stop your questions from having two articles in a row; or a missing preposition or, worse, noun; or a clause right next to its putative replacement. If you don’t have time to spend fifteen seconds giving each question a final glance, finish your tournament earlier.
This is fine advice on its own, but I'll add that if you read them out loud instead of just rereading them on the page, you'll probably catch a few more mistakes or infelicitous phrasings than you otherwise would.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Important Bird Area » Sun Feb 27, 2011 3:21 pm

Sir Thopas wrote:A specific case of the above—and I admit that this may be merely a pet peeve, although it seems to me a justified one—is the profligate use of the word “identify” in giveaways and bonus lead-ins. This is a four-syllable word which has a much shorter equivalent, “name”, that can carry the exact same signifying load. You want to spare your reader extra hardship whenever possible, and cutting out three syllables from meaningless but necessary words peppering your packet is a fantastic, easy way of achieving this.
fifteeeeeeen

I've tried to stamp out needless use of "identify" throughout NAQT's packets. The only good reason to use "identify" is for variety when "name" appears in close proximity (of the form "identify these effects named for German physicists").
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by kayli » Sun Feb 27, 2011 4:51 pm

Susan wrote:
Guy wrote:Read over your questions before and after you make editorial changes. This isn’t even a stylistic thing, but it’s not that hard to stop your questions from having two articles in a row; or a missing preposition or, worse, noun; or a clause right next to its putative replacement. If you don’t have time to spend fifteen seconds giving each question a final glance, finish your tournament earlier.
This is fine advice on its own, but I'll add that if you read them out loud instead of just rereading them on the page, you'll probably catch a few more mistakes or infelicitous phrasings than you otherwise would.
This. You might even want to get someone else to read it for you. Although I don't read for tournaments, it's extremely aggravating trying to figure out how certain sentences are supposed to sound because they have been converted from plain English to some crazy appositive-laden quizbowl English. Try to make things both grammatical and easy to read. It's not only good for the reader, it's good for the players because then the reader doesn't have to stumble through crazy syntax.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Auks Ran Ova » Sun Feb 27, 2011 7:19 pm

Sir Thopas wrote:A specific case of the above—and I admit that this may be merely a pet peeve, although it seems to me a justified one—is the profligate use of the word “identify” in giveaways and bonus lead-ins. This is a four-syllable word which has a much shorter equivalent, “name”, that can carry the exact same signifying load. You want to spare your reader extra hardship whenever possible, and cutting out three syllables from meaningless but necessary words peppering your packet is a fantastic, easy way of achieving this.
I don't wish to take away from this point, since it's entirely correct, but I unashamedly love using "identify" because it always felt more aesthetically and semantically pleasing to me (plus, it avoids the aforementioned "name this thing named for this thing" awkwardness). People who use "identify" get a pass from me.

If you're using it in a timed and/or character-limited format, though, what in the world are you thinking?
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Feb 27, 2011 7:38 pm

I like the word "identify," and I don't like the word "name." I feel the latter is unnecessarily succinct and don't use it. These sorts of things are difference of flavor rather than substance.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Sir Thopas » Sun Feb 27, 2011 7:54 pm

grapesmoker wrote:I like the word "identify," and I don't like the word "name." I feel the latter is unnecessarily succinct and don't use it. These sorts of things are difference of flavor rather than substance.
Well, yes and no. If you think the stylistic advantage gained by using "identify" over "name" outweighs the hindrance to your readers (I personally replace instances of "identify" with "name" when moderating unless there's a very good reason not to), then go ahead. If you're saying that "identify" and "name" are equivalent from a reader's perspective, then I'd take exception with that.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Auroni » Sun Feb 27, 2011 8:19 pm

Those two words are interchangeable. In fact, the remedy for any situation where you pretty much have to frequently use one instead of another, such as character-capped and time-limited NAQT questions, is not to save three characters or three syllables but to call for the abolition of the hard character cap and the timed round.

If you personally don't like either one, just feel free to replace the one you don't like with the one you like when moderating.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Feb 27, 2011 8:51 pm

Sir Thopas wrote:Well, yes and no. If you think the stylistic advantage gained by using "identify" over "name" outweighs the hindrance to your readers (I personally replace instances of "identify" with "name" when moderating unless there's a very good reason not to), then go ahead. If you're saying that "identify" and "name" are equivalent from a reader's perspective, then I'd take exception with that.
Your exception is noted. I tend to assume my readers are sufficiently well versed in English to not need coddling from such complex words as "identify." It's not a hindrance and I like the little extra beat it gives players to think.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by theMoMA » Sun Feb 27, 2011 9:02 pm

I really have no idea what advantages there are to using "identify" over "name." Jerry mentions that it gives players an extra beat, but you're almost always using it the form "For 10 points, name/identify this [category of person or thing] that [giveaway clue]." The words right after name/identify aren't typically things that players should be buzzing on (they're usually stuff like "this novel" or "this thinker"), so I don't think that there's much of an advantage to slowing down the pace of the question right before that segment; it's not like you're slamming straight into the giveaway without giving players any notice. When I'm reading, I almost always substitute "name" when "identify" is written (unless the word "name" is used again in the giveaway, in which case I both use and read "identify," or perhaps "give"). I used to use "identify" a lot, but I noticed that it annoyed me as a reader, so I stopped.

I don't think that the name/identify issue is worth wrangling over much but I do personally use "name" about 90% of the time, if not more.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Sir Thopas » Sun Feb 27, 2011 9:12 pm

theMoMA wrote:I really have no idea what advantages there are to using "identify" over "name." Jerry mentions that it gives players an extra beat, but you're almost always using it the form "For 10 points, name/identify this [category of person or thing] that [giveaway clue]." The words right after name/identify aren't typically things that players should be buzzing on (they're usually stuff like "this novel" or "this thinker"), so I don't think that there's much of an advantage to slowing down the pace of the question right before that segment; it's not like you're slamming straight into the giveaway without giving players any notice. When I'm reading, I almost always substitute "name" when "identify" is written (unless the word "name" is used again in the giveaway, in which case I both use and read "identify," or perhaps "give"). I used to use "identify" a lot, but I noticed that it annoyed me as a reader, so I stopped.

I don't think that the name/identify issue is worth wrangling over much but I do personally use "name" about 90% of the time, if not more.
Yeah, this sums up my thoughts on the issue. It's not that readers need coddling to avoid encountering complex words; it's because it's more annoying to say a 4-syllable word over and over again than a 1-syllable word.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Auroni » Sun Feb 27, 2011 9:17 pm

Maybe I'm just used to blurring syllables together when reading common words in questions, but the time I personally save reading "name" instead of "identify" is quite negligible.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:06 pm

Hey let's spend infinity time arguing about pointless bullshit which is how these threads always progress because apparently people can't live with someone using one synonym rather than another synonym.

Here's a piece of metacritique: stop passing off your preferences as objective fact. You like this word, I like that word, as long as it doesn't break the question, just do what you like and move on.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by theMoMA » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:12 pm

Actually, I think it's pretty useful to talk about stuff like this. Someone new to question writing probably isn't aware of the phrasing options they have. The reasoning behind the use of "name" or "identify" might seem dumb, but it actually parallels a lot of the thought patterns that go into the stylistic decisions we make when we write.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Sir Thopas » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:18 pm

grapesmoker wrote:Hey let's spend infinity time arguing about pointless bullshit which is how these threads always progress because apparently people can't live with someone using one synonym rather than another synonym.

Here's a piece of metacritique: stop passing off your preferences as objective fact. You like this word, I like that word, as long as it doesn't break the question, just do what you like and move on.
me, upthread wrote:Of course, these are merely suggestions, which any good writer knows when to ignore; however, the artistic value to be gained from breaking stylistic traditions is nonexistent in quizbowl, so you’d better have a good reason for ignoring them.
me, upthread wrote:A specific case of the above—and I admit that this may be merely a pet peeve, although it seems to me a justified one—is the profligate use of the word “identify” in giveaways and bonus lead-ins.
Who's talking about objective fact here? The whole point of a style guide is that it's a (well, ideally, anyway) agreed-upon set of subjective conventions.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:19 pm

theMoMA wrote:Actually, I think it's pretty useful to talk about stuff like this. Someone new to question writing probably isn't aware of the phrasing options they have. The reasoning behind the use of "name" or "identify" might seem dumb, but it actually parallels a lot of the thought patterns that go into the stylistic decisions we make when we write.
No, it really doesn't. It has nothing to do with teaching people to write questions well. The question of which of those words to use doesn't even rank on the list of "issues with quizbowl writing." There were questions at EFT that were incomprehensible; those are the problems you need to fix before you worry about innocent things like word choices that don't even affect the content of the question. In fact, I actually think these dicta are harmful because they create the impression that there's some one ideal writing style that must be adhered to. That's just not true; as long as you write in such a way that's comprehensible and gets the job done, you should pick the arrangement that works best for you.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:24 pm

me, upthread wrote:Of course, these are merely suggestions, which any good writer knows when to ignore; however, the artistic value to be gained from breaking stylistic traditions is nonexistent in quizbowl, so you’d better have a good reason for ignoring them.
Of course these are merely suggestions but you should do what I say because there's no benefit from breaking from the suggestions I make. Ok then.
Who's talking about objective fact here? The whole point of a style guide is that it's a (well, ideally, anyway) agreed-upon set of subjective conventions.
That's just the point: I don't agree with one of your suggestions. I don't think your point has any stylistic benefit or that there's any particular reason to follow your lead on this rather than doing something else. In light of your previous statement, this however becomes something like "This is my pet peeve but you still should do what I say because there's no benefit to doing it otherwise."
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by theMoMA » Sun Feb 27, 2011 10:46 pm

The choices you're confronted with as a writer are things like "do I use the shorter word, or do I want to give players more time to think?" or "do I break this sentence into two sentences because it's too unwieldy?" or "will this construction maintain pyramidality without confusing the players?" Discussing the things we're discussing in this thread brings these kinds of questions to the forefront. Even if where you come down on the great "name/identify" question doesn't really matter, talking about it brings into focus the reasons we write the way we write.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Matt Weiner » Sun Feb 27, 2011 11:58 pm

I tend to use "identify" to signal "hey, this is not a thing with a capitalized proper name, I'm looking for an answer like 'converting to Judaism'."
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Sun Devil Student » Mon Feb 28, 2011 12:03 am

It just struck me that I've never once seen/heard a tossup that says, "For 10 points, indicate..."

In my experience, "indicate" is a lot faster to say than "identify" even though it only shaves 1 syllable. So there's an alternative if you don't want to "name" or especially if you're looking for a "nameless" answer.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Cheynem » Mon Feb 28, 2011 12:14 am

What's the frequency, Kenneth, of "indicate" being used in packets? Probably quite low. I think you would just confuse people.
Last edited by Cheynem on Mon Feb 28, 2011 12:16 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by Auks Ran Ova » Mon Feb 28, 2011 12:16 am

Sun Devil Student wrote:It just struck me that I've never once seen/heard a tossup that says, "For 10 points, indicate..."

In my experience, "indicate" is a lot faster to say than "identify" even though it only shaves 1 syllable. So there's an alternative if you don't want to "name" or especially if you're looking for a "nameless" answer.
You've probably never seen that because that's not really how that word works. It sounds odd, plus it's not really what you want the player to do.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by alexdz » Mon Feb 28, 2011 12:47 am

Cheynem wrote:What's the frequency, Kenneth ...
:) Subtle. Nice.
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Re: A Quizbowl Style Guide

Post by youngster68 » Thu Mar 03, 2011 11:28 am

I liked the use of the word 'ecphrastic' in the section about avoiding florid language. Dictionary.com came up short for me on that one...I had to ask a Latin student...

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