Improving productivity as a writer

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Improving productivity as a writer

Post by I'm a goff (in case you couldn't tell) » Sun Mar 13, 2011 4:48 pm

One of the things that I've noticed from writing in the past is that I'm a terribly slow writer when it comes to putting questions together, especially tossups. It's part of the reason that I haven't done a lot of writing up to this point. Obviously I'll get better as I write more questions, but what are some other ways to be more productive with my writing time?
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Sima Guang Hater » Mon Mar 14, 2011 8:06 am

Pick your answer lines early. Often, trying to think of a tossup answer is one of the hardest things.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Not That Kind of Christian!! » Mon Mar 14, 2011 9:14 am

Not that I'm at the apogee of question-writing, but I can churn them out pretty quickly. After I pick my answer line, I write ideas for clues on separate lines so that I have a clear plan that I just have to flesh out, e.g.:

Clue about an aria from Idomeneo
Musical clue from Cosi fan tutte
Less obvious plot point from Don Giovanni
More obvious plot points from Don Giovanni, Magic Flute
Giveaway: Don Giovanni, Magic Flute
answer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This also makes it easy to assess pyramidality and so on before I actually begin writing.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed » Mon Mar 14, 2011 9:38 am

I have to imagine that question writing speed correlates very closely with reading speed: the most time-intensive part of writing a tossup is doing research to find clues, and the faster you can read your sources, the faster you can finish your tossups. In elementary school, I was often a much faster reader than the other kids, and I find today in quizbowl that I am a much faster writer than most of my peers. There are ways to improve reading speed and they will probably help you outside of quizbowl too.

Another problem could be tabbed browsing. This is considered a wonder of the modern world, but I think it slows down writing, because you can't see multiple tabs at the same time. Instead of tabbed browsing, do the old-fashioned thing and open up multiple windows, with one source in each. Say, one window will be the Wikipedia article, one window will be a google books search for the answer line, and two windows will be quizbowl question archives (qbdb/acfdb/gyaankoosh). You can read two or three of these at a time depending on your monitor size/resolution.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Mike Bentley » Mon Mar 14, 2011 12:32 pm

Some tips I've found:

1. Focus on writing a few questions every day (or at least nearly every day). I've found that I can only really operate at peak efficiency for maybe 2 hours during a day. If I try to cram all of my question writing into one day, I become markedly less productive as the day goes on.
2. Know where to find good sources. Often the most difficult part of writing questions is finding good sources, especially for early clues. There are a few aspects to consider when collecting sources. First, make sure that they're easy to read--you ideally don't want to get bogged down reading several pages just to get one or two clues out of an article. Next, make sure they're comprehensive--for tossups this is especially important, as this helps you get many of your clues. Finally, make sure they're reliable.
--Here are some academic sources I find very useful: Britannica (especially for geography and history), Stanford Philosophy, Masterplots, Oxford Art Online, Art Stor, Google Books, Oxford Companion to American and British history (books), AllMusic Guide to Classical Music (book), Catholic Encyclopedia. If you're writing trash questions, the following sources are also very useful: AllMusic, AllMovies, any of the billion baseball encylopedias (a Game of Inches I found very fascinating), various music encylopedias like ones published by Rolling Stone.
3. Physical encyclopedias can be great ways to come up with answer lines. Rather than having to come up with answers out of the blue or by looking at old packets or something, you can pretty much just browse to random pages and find some topics that would be interested to write on. Additionally, these can serve as a good source for the first few clues on a topic. Your local library probably has a bunch of these works, but you can also purchase them on Amazon for a few cents + shipping.
4. For me, I've done some customizations to my web browser (Opera) to make it easier to get to the information I need while question writing. For instance, I can search or at least get to virtually all of the useful sources by just entering something simple in the address bar (e.g. "books george washington" does a Google Books search on George Washington, "brit" loads up Britannica, "art" loads up ArtStor, "acf George Washington" searches the acfdb for George Washington questions). Opera also lets you cycle between your most recently used tabs with Control + Tab which is very helpful (this works the same way as Alt + Tab does for windows on a PC. All other browsers don't do this by default which I find extremely annoying). You can probably set up similar mechanisms in your browser of choice.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Unicolored Jay » Mon Mar 14, 2011 1:06 pm

Does anyone have tips on how to write science questions quickly? My speed right now is torpid because I haven't learned nearly enough to write half a question off my head, especially at higher levels, and at times it's very hard to figure out what exactly my sources are saying. I've found some success using online articles and papers, but my rate is probably like 2 hours per tossup.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by AKKOLADE » Mon Mar 14, 2011 1:10 pm

Just as a general thing: bonuses seem to be a lot easier to write for me when I first started writing regularly. I think doing those and getting yourself to see the differentiation between easy, medium and hard parts helps you translate that into writing pyramidal questions.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Mike Bentley » Mon Mar 14, 2011 2:33 pm

Fred wrote:Just as a general thing: bonuses seem to be a lot easier to write for me when I first started writing regularly. I think doing those and getting yourself to see the differentiation between easy, medium and hard parts helps you translate that into writing pyramidal questions.
Most of the trickiness of writing bonuses is selecting answers. The bonus parts themselves are pretty easy to write, but you generally need to do a decent bit of research to determine what clues to use to make it have a good easy/medium/hard structure.

Science questions are probably the hardest questions to write in quizbowl. It's typically not that hard to find clues (there are lots of textbooks and research papers available) but it can be very difficult to figure out what is famous, what is not going to help anyone, and what doesn't even make sense if you translate it into your tossup.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Mechanical Beasts » Mon Mar 14, 2011 2:36 pm

Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast wrote:Does anyone have tips on how to write science questions quickly? My speed right now is torpid because I haven't learned nearly enough to write half a question off my head, especially at higher levels, and at times it's very hard to figure out what exactly my sources are saying. I've found some success using online articles and papers, but my rate is probably like 2 hours per tossup.
There is no reliable* way without learning science. This is good because through quizbowl you learn science. This is bad because it's hard to get faster without taking time to learn the science.


*otherwise some of your clues will be non-unique in some pretty predictable ways--like if Wikipedia says that all blue dreebles are flox on the page about blue dreebles, it's incredibly common that all dreebles are flox, too, and I'll sigh and tell myself that as I get beaten to the question on the next clue. (I seem to remember questions that uniquely specified "any cubic equation of state" but of course wanted Redlich-Kwong, or something like that.)
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Auroni » Mon Mar 14, 2011 2:41 pm

If you want to improve speed of writing and efficiency at all costs, write on subjects that you are familiar with. There are two major drawbacks to this approach:

- If your favorite subjects are well known to your audience, they can figure out the answer without really knowing what's going on, and that's bad
- You don't learn much and improve as a player by writing on familiar subjects.

For science, think back to the last science class that you took. Think about a topic you learned back then you'd want to explore in a little bit more detail, and construct your questions that way. (If your last science class was high school bio, then there you go.) But be careful not to ask something hyper-specific to your college major, since those questions will be very hard for people not in that major.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed » Mon Mar 14, 2011 2:52 pm

I'm sure that editors would prefer a complete, early packet with some bad science tossups to a late or incomplete packet with slightly better science tossups. Don't write atrocious science questions, but don't let yourself get bogged down because you're trying to write the perfect science tossup without any real science knowledge.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by grapesmoker » Mon Mar 14, 2011 3:42 pm

Morraine Man wrote:I'm sure that editors would prefer a complete, early packet with some bad science tossups to a late or incomplete packet with slightly better science tossups. Don't write atrocious science questions, but don't let yourself get bogged down because you're trying to write the perfect science tossup without any real science knowledge.
I can't speak for all editors, but I do in fact prefer this. Don't spend forever on one science question; give it your reasonably best shot and move on. If you submit a packet where everything is good but the science, you'll make editors happier than if you wait two weeks because you're writing the best possible tossup on the Autler-Townes effect.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Cheynem » Mon Mar 14, 2011 5:56 pm

Mike Sorice said this once, it was something along the lines of "At times, quizbowl divides itself into writing poor questions and talking about writing good questions." What I take from this is that the important thing about writing questions is...writing. This isn't an excuse for slapdash or poor effort, but it's a truth that not every question we write is perfect. I think some people get very hung up on getting a perfect question, finding hot new clues, and making sure everything is pyramidal, that they don't actually write a lot.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Mike Bentley » Mon Mar 14, 2011 7:00 pm

Another thing I should mention here: There's more to producing good questions than simply throwing down enough facts to get a 6-8 question. When I write questions for tournaments I end up also editing, I try to go through a four step process of writing questions.

First, I do the basic writing of the questions. In general, I try to do this fairly quickly.

Second, I do a first editing pass on the questions. This should always be done at least a day after the first step to get yourself out of the frame of mind when you wrote the question. I've found that

Third, I try to play test the questions. This is useful for a bunch of reasons. The most obvious reason is that you get other people's feedback on the questions. An equally important second reason is that you actually start to worry about your questions as you're reading them. Things that seemed okay when you were editing them suddenly seem crappy and transparent as you realize people are about to buzz on clues you were worrying about being misplaced. You also tend to catch a lot of grammatical errors while doing this.

(A side note about playtesting: You generally need to take this with a grain of salt. If you're play testing online, it can be hard to tell if someone is actually paying attention or not. It's possible they may have first lined your question or 30'd the bonus in an actual game situation but were simply talking in another channel or watching TV or something. Next, you can also get into the fallacy of the questions being too easy when you're playtesting it in a room full of the top quizbowl players in the country.)

Fourth, I edit the questions one more time. At this point, it mainly consists of incorporating playtesting feedback (re-arranging clues, replacing bonus parts, changing tossup answer lines if they didn't work out). It's also a good idea to read the questions out loud at this point to try to make sure they don't have any big grammar issues.

There is an additional fifth step, which is a final proofread of the questions. I find this step probably the most difficult, because I've already looked at the questions at least 3 times by now.

Anyway, the point of this post is that for question efficiency, I'd try to write the questions quickly and then make sure you spend a good deal of time in the editing process, even if they'll eventually be submitted to a central editor for a tournament. It's very difficult, for me at least, to write a good question on just a single pass.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by cvdwightw » Mon Mar 14, 2011 9:13 pm

In my opinion, it's not just finally figuring out answer selection that makes a tossup easier to write. It's also having an overall theme to the tossup. If you're searching all over the place for clues about, say, George Washington, it may take you a really long time to comb through your sources and pick and choose clues that make sense. If you're searching instead about, say, George Washington's military career, then you've significantly decreased the amount of work you have to do to write a half-decent question, because you've eliminated a lot of clue-searching and you're probably not going to end up with a disjointed tossup that makes no sense when you put your clues together. Similarly, searching for "sodium" is going to give you a lot of useless results that talk about almanac properties of sodium. Looking for uses of sodium in, say, astronomy or biology is going to limit the amount of useless or near-useless information you're going to have to sift through.

One potentially useful idea for people who are looking for science ideas is to go to nobelprize.org and look at what people have won Nobel Prizes in science for. This isn't to say that you should write about the Nobel Laureates themselves. But look - broadly speaking, the last five Nobels in Chemistry have been awarded for research on palladium (in organic chemistry), ribosomes, GFP, surface chemistry, and transcription. With the exception of surface chemistry (which, if you read the associated material, lends itself nicely to clues in a Haber-Bosch question), all of these things are specific enough for an answer line and difficulty appropriate for a tossup at ACF Regionals level or below (although you might prefer not to shoehorn a question on, e.g., ribosomes into the chemistry distribution). Seriously, those people won Nobel Prizes for a reason - because the scientific work they did was really that important (well, usually). Sometimes you might end up looking at something, like the Marcus theory of electron transfer, that's just not difficulty appropriate at regular difficulty, but it's still important. And in theory, at least, there are non-specialists in the audience at the Nobel Lectures, and Nobel Laureates at least try to make their lectures accessible to those non-specialists; that means that, more than likely, the "Scientific Information" (for the more recent Nobels) and "Nobel Lecture" sections can provide clues that you can understand if you have a very basic conception of science. If you're a non-scientist looking for a place to start, there are a lot worse places you can go.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Quantum Mushroom Billiard Hat » Mon Mar 14, 2011 9:31 pm

Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast wrote:Does anyone have tips on how to write science questions quickly? My speed right now is torpid because I haven't learned nearly enough to write half a question off my head, especially at higher levels, and at times it's very hard to figure out what exactly my sources are saying. I've found some success using online articles and papers, but my rate is probably like 2 hours per tossup.
I don't really have any tips for writing science quickly. I write pretty slowly, though I'm sure some of that is getting distracted and reading more of an article than needed for the question. I like sorting articles by number of citations, since that gives at least some sense of how important some clue might be. Text books are very good sources if you have them; my thermo book has probably gotten as much use from writing questions as it did during class. I'll also second Dwight's recommendations of the Nobel site. There are a lot of important topics represented there, and the Nobel lectures have a lot of good information.

My best advice for any subject is to write questions on the things you are learning for classes (or reading about elsewhere), and save them for later. It helps you study for class by making sure you understand the concept, and you can generally write those questions pretty quickly.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Cheynem » Mon Mar 14, 2011 10:17 pm

I have found some of my best playtesting occurs in face to face situations, involving members of your team/fellow editors. While I have had good IRC playtesting, a lot of times it ends up being somewhat muddled. Now, I'm fortunate to have teammates who are excellent writers/editors, but I think I get a lot more out of being able to converse with people and really get the feel of people working through questions that way.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Mike Bentley » Mon Mar 14, 2011 10:40 pm

Cheynem wrote:I have found some of my best playtesting occurs in face to face situations, involving members of your team/fellow editors. While I have had good IRC playtesting, a lot of times it ends up being somewhat muddled. Now, I'm fortunate to have teammates who are excellent writers/editors, but I think I get a lot more out of being able to converse with people and really get the feel of people working through questions that way.
Yeah, sure, that's ideal, but it's sometimes not possible (and you can run into biases based on what your team knows well).
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Magister Ludi » Tue Mar 15, 2011 11:39 am

Yeah, I think all major tournaments (especially ones in which there will more than a few editors packets) should spend one full day planning out exactly what they want their answers to be, especially spending time figuring out good bonus topics. I always surprised by how many topics for bonuses, especially in the finals packets of harder tournaments, are really poorly conceived and don't lend themselves to having a fair tripartite structure. I wish tournament editors would take the time to really think about subjects that really lend to themselves to bonuses with three parts rather than choosing some super hard writer who has barely come up before in quizbowl and then asking about one of their works as the hard part, then asking about them as the middle part and then just throwing in an easy part at the end. I've been guilty of this myself and for the first HI when I wrote an ill-advised bonus on Cyril Connolly in which Connolly was the middle part and just threw in a gimme easy part at the end. Not to harp on CO, but there were some egregious examples of this practice in the finals packets, especially that bonus on Charles Baxter and the fact that both packets had tossups on American poetry and the second packet had two tossups on American literature at the price of any Euro or World lit tossups. Basically, I think not only would writing efficiency improve with really thorough planning, but the appropriateness of written packets would improve as well.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by grapesmoker » Tue Mar 15, 2011 2:00 pm

I should point out that the reason the last packet of CO had two American lit tossups was because I had mistakenly misplaced a Euro lit question that should have been in that packet. I had to then go to some reserve questions and that's what I had in stock. It was a mistake on my part, but it wasn't supposed to have been that way.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Frater Taciturnus » Tue Mar 15, 2011 3:30 pm

I'm more than a little late to this party but I have fairly recently decided that if you work on writing until you start to slow down or girnd to a halt and then do about 30-25 minutes of physical/manual labor (go for a walk, pull weeds, whatever-- it doesn't have to be very intense as long as its slightly elevated from your normal exertion) you can come back fresh and get a good second wind.

Also this may have already been said, but if you look at a giant list of blank lines that say ANSWER: (or even if you have answers filled in) it can seem overwhelmingly daunting. Grab a few answer lines in a totally separate document and knock those out and it will be easier to keep yourself to a steady pace.
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Re: Improving productivity as a writer

Post by Deviant Insider » Tue Mar 15, 2011 5:29 pm

It helps me to break the work down so I am working on one job at a time. If there are a few days where the only quizbowl job I am working on is writing tossups that I already have the answers for, then I get into a frame of mind that allows me to crank them out. On the other hand, if I have to write a bonus or think up the next answer every time I finish a tossup, then things move slowly.
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