how not to write questions

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how not to write questions

Post by grapesmoker » Sun Oct 16, 2005 4:38 pm

Having played in the Harvard WIT mirror and the Brandeis mirror of Heinrich Bowl, I'd like to focus on some of the more atrocious trends that I've seen popping up in questions all over again, despite the best efforts of many people to eliminate them. Whatever duties the editors of a particular tournament may have, there is a corresponding responsibility on the part of the people who are writing questions for the tournament to actually write questions that are usable. Before the main feature of my tiradte, I'd like to pre-emptively except first-year players, who simply don't know any better, but I would like those players to pay careful attention to the following criticisms in order to become better question writers.

First off, I'd like to make the point that if your club contains any members in their third or fourth year of playing, there is no excuse for turning in the kind of crap that I saw at Heinrich Bowl and WIT. I'm talking to you, Caltech, Stanford, USC, and Georgia Tech. The packet submitted by the Berkeley newbies, while certainly not up to the kind of standards I would have enforced as editor, is a gem compared to some of the things I saw at Heinrich Bowl. What follows is a long and tedious elucidation of the things that should expressly NOT be in your packets, ever.

Anecdotes that everyone knows

There are certain facts in quizbowl that appear over and over again, for no good reason other than that they are amusing anecdotes about the subject. There is nothing wrong with amusing anecdotes, but there is everything wrong with anecdotes that everyone who has been playing for more than a year knows. One example of this was a question that began with "This hydrocarbon was discovered in 1825 by Michael Faraday." I particularly love the disambiguation of "hydrocarbon" here, which prevents anyone from mistakenly buzzing in with "dynamo effect" or "induction" or something similar. This is an awful, awful question because everyone who's been on the circuit for any length of time will know that the answer is "benzene," including people whose closest contact with chemistry was a high-school level class (like me). Another example was a tossup on "La Dolce Vita" that began with a clue about Paparazzo (spelling? whatever). I haven't seen "La Dolce Vita," but I sure have enough fraudulent knowledge to buzz when I hear a giveaway.

One way of determining whether a particular fact would be a giveaway is to go back to packets written before 2001 (or maybe even 2002) and see if the clue you want to use appears in the first two or three lines of a tossup. If that is the case, don't use it. Everyone who has been playing for any length of time has probably played on these questions and internalized these clues. Find something interesting and original.

Main characters in the first clues

A tossup at Heinrich Bowl began with, "Tom and Maggie Tulliver." Stop this, dammit. It requires absolutely minimal knowledge of "The Mill on the Floss" to answer this question. These kinds of questions, like those above, are nothing but buzzer races, which runs directly contrary to the whole notion of testing knowledge. The same goes for well-known episodes in literary works, such as the dog being tried for the theft of the piece of cheese in "The Wasps." Another question with this problem was one about "The Tin Drum" which begins with a clue about the "diminutiveness and precociousness (of) the protagonist of this 1958 novel." There were many other examples.

One of the reasons this is bad is that it punishes knowledge, first in the form of buzzer-races and second in imposing what at Berkeley we called "the burden of knowledge" on more experienced players. That is, having heard the clue about "The Tin Drum," which I've read and know relatively well, I was definitely inclined to wait until I heard a clue about "Danzig" somewhere around the middle of the questions because I couldn't believe that what essentially amounts to a giveaway would be in the first two lines of a tossup. Questions like this throw a wrench into the whole mechanism of pyramidality and confuse the hell out of people with advanced knowledge.

Well-known anything in the first clues

The logic is the same as above. Just a few of the examples follow:

"Perhaps some of the most difficult-to-comprehend entities ever posited by a major metaphysician," -- Worst tossup on monads ever. It manages to be both extremely vague and a giveaway at the same time, which I guess is an achievement of its own. Of course, the answer could be something else, like "qualia," but what are the odds of that?

"Its proper title specifically names Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch." -- Alternate titles in the first clue = terrible question. Especially the alternate title of a work as well-known as "Nightwatch."

"The absurdity of an island ruling a continent." -- Anyone who has even heard of "Common Sense" will nail this tossup. Main theme of work in first clue also = terrible tossup.

I could go on and on, but I trust everyone gets the point. Well-known works in tossups on authors or artists, et cetera, et cetera. Stop writing questions like this.

Retarded science questions

Too many science questions that I've seen in the last few tournaments that I've played on exhibit signs of extreme laziness on the part of the question writers. They are either random facts cobbled together from Wikipedia or, in the case of bonuses, they are ridicculous list bonuses, like "give the charge of the polyatomic ion." The lazy tossups are prone to reliance on extremely well-known clues (see "benzene") because the question writer didn't bother to do a tiny bit of research and try to learn something interesting about the topic of his question. For the same reason, the bonuses I'm referring to suck. These include the polyatomic bonuses as well as my personal favorite, the "identify the random elementary particle" bonus. It might just be my own orneriness which makes me say this, but I am convinced that these questions are just dumb. Theay are the lazy man's crutch. They don't give you any interesting information about anything at all and you are almost certainly guaranteed zero points on them if you are not a scientist and 30 points if you are.

In fact, now that I think of it, I want to generalize the above argument to all list bonuses. Author/works, composer/symphony, artist/painting, king/period of rule, whatever. These are stupid and uninformative questions. They teach nothing except rote memorization and nothing in such a question convinces anyone hearing it that this is something that's important to know about.

Also, stop writing Colvin science, i.e. questions that rely mostly on some knowledge of Greek or Latin to answer them. I've already gotten at least one packet for ACF Fall that has spectacularly managed to break all of the above rules, being full of pointless biographical minutia, inverted-pyramid tossups (most famous discoveries coming first), and translation-based bonuses. Don't do this.

Unbalanced packets and stupid biography questions

One packet at Heinrich Bowl, at least one of whose authors follows this board regularly, contains 14(!) biography tossups. In addition, many of those tossups are devoid of any clues regarding the work for which the person in question is known. A tossup on Aldous Huxley babbles on about his personal life without any information about his work. His mother and sister died, his brother killed himself, blah blah blah. Who cares? This could be just about anyone. Now, a better question would be something like, "The death of his brother influenced his (insert work X)," (I don't know if this is true about Huxley, but let's say it is for the sake of argument). These kinds of questions were all over the place at Heinrich Bowl. Stop writing biography questions full of boring fluff like, "Born in X, he went to school at Y, blah blah blah." If the most interesting thing you can write about Nietzsche was that he was a philologist in Basle (either a complete giveaway or totally useless information, depending on how familiar you are with his biography) then maybe you should be going back and reading some of his work. Another awesome example was a question at the WIT mirror about Hesse which talked about how he served in World War I (could be anyone) and had himself psychoanalyzed (also could be anyone) and then wrote "Steppenwolf." Questions like this generate buzzer races instead of testing knowledge.

Another example of an unbalanced packet I saw at the HB mirror was a packet that had questions on Huckel, Calvin Coolidge, the Gran Chaco War, and "Bacchus and Ariadne," and then took a turn for the incredibly obscure with tossups on "mise en abime," Emmanuel Levinas, and Sir Thomas Brown. I have never heard of these things coming up in quizbowl and while they may be appropriate for a Nationals-level packet, they don't belong in a packet with far more gettable answers. In general, a packet should be roughly uniform in difficulty; at a tournament like HB, which is not Nationals-level, the aim ought to be for gettability by at least the top teams after the question is finished.

Lack of disambiguation

A question at HB on John Wycliffe that begins, "Declared a heretic by the Council of Constance." Also true for Jan Hus and invites negs because given the dismal quality of the packets that came before this one, one is fully justified in expecting a tossup on Hus starting with that exact clue. Putting, "He's not Jan Hus, but this man was also..." at the beginning of the question solves this problem. At WIT, a question on Tanizaki that began with a clue about his work, "The Master Builder." A simple disambiguation in the vein of, "He's not Ibsen, but this man etc." solves the problem. Questions exhibiting these problems may arise out of genuine lack of knowledge if the answer is something complicated, but for simple, gettable answers such as those above, where better or equally well-known works or people exist that match the clues, a simple disambiguation removes the neg bait.

Not adhering to the distribution

When the guidelines call for 4/4 literature, that doesn't mean you can stop at 2 tossups if you like. Deviating from the assigned distribution by one or two questions may be acceptable (especially if the questions are really good). Leaving out half of a major category is not.

Conclusion

Whew, that was long. I am going to this trouble not because I am a surly old man (although in fact I am), but because adhering to question-writing rules that are posted on the ACF website (http://www.dpo.uab.edu/~paik/acf/subash.html) and on the Berkeley website (http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~quizbowl/qb-writing.html) results in more enjoyable packets that stimulate learning and test knowledge, instead of endless buzzer races. Although I have not done a scientific survey, I am confident in saying that questions exhibiting the traits outlined above are almost invariably considered ass by most moderately-experienced players today. On the other hand, if you follow the basic question-writing guidelines to which I've linked, you will almost certainly never write an awful packet. You may write an unremarkable packet, but at least it will be usable and will not arous anyone's ire. But it will require a little extra effort and doing a little extra research.

By no means do I make the claim that every packet I write is perfect. I've made many of the above mistakes in the past when I was learning to write, and sometimes I (and almost everyone else) slip up and make them again. But most packets written by good question writers (who are also, incidentally, typically the best players in the game - think about that) are free of these defects. Look at Chicago A's packet and UT-Austin's packet for WIT. Those are the kinds of packets that you should aim to produce.

The ironic thing about all of this is that in a matchup between experienced teams and less-experienced teams, it is the experienced teams which derive an advantage from these kinds of bad questions, simply because they've been around longer and have hear all the overused clues. So effectively, I am working to remove something that, for the most part, works generally in my favor; I answered correctly most of the questions about which I have complaints above. I do it because I think these questions undermine the idea and the benefits of quizbowl.

To conclude, I would like to hear other players mention anything I might have missed or give their own advice on question writing.
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Post by Matt Weiner » Sun Oct 16, 2005 4:53 pm

Hear hear. I would go further on one point and suggest that the following clues, in and of themselves, are never worth including, and should only come up if they are absolutely crucial to some much more important or interesting clue to which they are immediately related in the question:

-Date or location of birth
-Educational institutions attended
-University positions held
-Father's profession

One thing I didn't notice was something related to the first-clue giveaway, the phenomenon of "early or never." It's bad enough to write overly hard tossups, but it's worse to use the easiest clue for a hard topic in the first sentence. Someone who has any familiarity with the topic at all will get the tossup immediately, and the other 90% of the field will stare blankly through the end of the question. This means you just wrote 4+ lines that are of no value to anyone. I don't have the HB packets on hand to cite specific questions, but I did see a couple of the rounds and this was a major problem, as it is in other tournaments.
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Post by Susan » Sun Oct 16, 2005 5:14 pm

One tiny little correction to Jerry's post: the "Master Builder" clue was in a question about Kazantzakis, not Tanizaki, and prior to the mention of the title, the question mentioned a character that appeared only in the Kazantzakis work (and had a name that didn't sound Norwegian). Apparently this was insufficient to allow players to discern between the Ibsen work and the Kazantzakis work, but at least some effort was made.

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Post by grapesmoker » Sun Oct 16, 2005 5:19 pm

myamphigory wrote:One tiny little correction to Jerry's post: the "Master Builder" clue was in a question about Kazantzakis, not Tanizaki, and prior to the mention of the title, the question mentioned a character that appeared only in the Kazantzakis work (and had a name that didn't sound Norwegian). Apparently this was insufficient to allow players to discern between the Ibsen work and the Kazantzakis work, but at least some effort was made.

Susan
Yes, my fault. There was a Tanizaki question in the tournament and I got it confused with that one. This is a case of context: at ACF Nationals or Regionals, I wouldn't buzz with Ibsen because it's highly unlikely that a question at that level would be so simpleminded as to ask for Ibsen with a clue on one of his major works. However, having waded through a sea of crap (the packet came at the end of the day), and having lost buzzer races while sitting on questions because I couldn't believe it was going to be that simple, I was prepared for anything, so I went on the first recognizable clue. Given the relatively fast pace of the game, I feel that question could have used a disambiguation, even with a character included in the beginning.

Edit: Incidentally, I found that I did just this in a tossup I wrote for Heinrich Bowl on Kawabata:

'Though he is not one of the Brothers Grimm, this co-founder of the journal Bungei Jidai, which advocated Neo-Sensualism, did write a novel called "Sleeping Beauty."'
Last edited by grapesmoker on Sun Oct 16, 2005 7:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by setht » Sun Oct 16, 2005 5:36 pm

Another suggestion for better packet-writing: it's usually a bad idea to fill a packet with references to your favorite things. If you're into biochem, that's wonderful; don't write 4/4 bio and chem for your science distribution and call it a day. You may love Asia and all things Asian; don't write 1/1 Asian literature, 1/1 Asian history, Asian pop culture, Asian geography, Asian art, etc. These things are generally mentioned in tournament announcements, but even when they're not, don't do it (unless you're writing for a theme tournament or something).

Even if you don't allow your personal predilections to overwhelm the question selection, multiple references to said predilections can be incredibly annoying, and possibly give an unfair advantage to people who know you well. You may giggle like a schoolgirl at the mention of anything phallic, but the vast majority of your audience will be unappreciative of the third dick joke in your packet (also the first and second such jokes; see the questions on the sexual organs/diseases of Roger Bhan, Kelly McKenzie et al. from various old ACF packets for more examples). Finally, if people from some teams are aware of your love of all things phallic, perhaps you should reconsider that lingam tossup--if I know you well, and I hear a question on something associated with Shiva, I'm much more likely to come up with lingam early in the question than if I don't know you, and that's just not right.
NOTE: I've used an example from WIT, but as far as I know, knowing the question-writer did not particularly help anyone with any question.

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Post by Deviant Insider » Mon Oct 17, 2005 2:40 pm

In general, a packet should be roughly uniform in difficulty; at a tournament like HB, which is not Nationals-level, the aim ought to be for gettability by at least the top teams after the question is finished.
I hope you won't mind me trespassing into the college section, but I would like to disagree with you on this point. (In general, most of what you say is correct; some of it does apply to HS writers, and some of it does not, but I won't bore you with those details.)

I think that there should be some variation in tossup difficulty within a round. I think that the top teams should be pushed to their limit, and sometimes beyond their limit. Also, when you write a packet that could be used simultaneously in a matchup of great teams and a matchup of mediocre teams, you want questions that will appeal to everybody. Some of this, but not all of it, can be handled by pyramidding.

Looking at an NAQT sample packet, I found two science questions. One was on Urey, which I consider obscure. (I could be wrong--I have no idea if he comes up often in College Bowl.) The other was on the Corpus Callosum, which I would consider relatively easy for college teams. To me, this seems like a good mix because the only way that both would go dead would be if both teams don't know science or just mess up the question. (I know you didn't want NAQT in this thread, but it was a simple example for me to find of the general point.)

Of course, there are caveats. Don't write an obscure question that you know everybody will miss. If you write an easy question, the pyramid structure is especially important and you should be careful not to make it too easy even at the end.

I do think, however, that there is nothing wrong with having Coolidge and Levinas in the same round. The point you were making is still valid--you don't want too many questions that are likely to go unanswered.
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Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed » Mon Oct 17, 2005 2:52 pm

Variance in difficulty really messes with your mind, though. I've lost way too much PPG through thinking "Nah, that will NEVER come up at this tournament, its too easy" and sitting on questions that I could have easily gotten.
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Post by grapesmoker » Mon Oct 17, 2005 3:05 pm

ReinsteinD wrote: I think that there should be some variation in tossup difficulty within a round. I think that the top teams should be pushed to their limit, and sometimes beyond their limit. Also, when you write a packet that could be used simultaneously in a matchup of great teams and a matchup of mediocre teams, you want questions that will appeal to everybody. Some of this, but not all of it, can be handled by pyramidding.
The key word in my post was "roughly." It's inevitable that there will be variability in the packet; however, the packet should not contain some reasonable questions and then a string of questions whose answers, so far as I know, are almost totally non-canonical.
Looking at an NAQT sample packet, I found two science questions. One was on Urey, which I consider obscure. (I could be wrong--I have no idea if he comes up often in College Bowl.) The other was on the Corpus Callosum, which I would consider relatively easy for college teams. To me, this seems like a good mix because the only way that both would go dead would be if both teams don't know science or just mess up the question. (I know you didn't want NAQT in this thread, but it was a simple example for me to find of the general point.)
Neither Urey nor corpus callosum are particularly hard. That packet appears to be mostly uniform in difficulty, even if it does suffer from some of the problems I addressed above.
I do think, however, that there is nothing wrong with having Coolidge and Levinas in the same round. The point you were making is still valid--you don't want too many questions that are likely to go unanswered.
I guess the part I omitted was that I have not heard Levinas come up in a quizbowl tournament ever. Maybe I've been going to the wrong tournaments or something, but I think his absence at multiple ACF Regionals, Nationals, and Open tournaments corroborates my assertion that he is non-canonical. Mind you, this says nothing about whether we ought to ask for him or not, but if we're expanding the canon, let's do so adiabatically. Introduce the new subject in a bonus part and slowly work it into a tossup.

edit:
From ACF Nationals 2005 (Editors Packet #3):

Name these 20th-century Jewish philosophers, FTP each.
A. This Lithuanian-born thinker began his career as a Husserl scholar, like his friend Derrida, but went on to perfect his own mode of obscure philosophizing in works like Ethics and Infinity and God, Death and Time.
Answer: Emmanuel Lévinas
Fair enough. One bonus part at ACF Nationals 2005 is still way too hard for tossup material at Heinrich Bowl.
Last edited by grapesmoker on Mon Oct 17, 2005 5:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Birdofredum Sawin » Mon Oct 17, 2005 3:35 pm

grapesmoker wrote: I guess the part I omitted was that I have not heard Levinas come up in a quizbowl tournament ever. Maybe I've been going to the wrong tournaments or something, but I think his absence at multiple ACF Regionals, Nationals, and Open tournaments corroborates my assertion that he is non-canonical. Mind you, this says nothing about whether we ought to ask for him or not, but if we're expanding the canon, let's do so adiabatically. Introduce the new subject in a bonus part and slowly work it into a tossup.
From ACF Nationals 2005 (Editors Packet #3):

Name these 20th-century Jewish philosophers, FTP each.
A. This Lithuanian-born thinker began his career as a Husserl scholar, like his friend Derrida, but went on to perfect his own mode of obscure philosophizing in works like Ethics and Infinity and God, Death and Time.
Answer: Emmanuel Lévinas
B. The first professing Jew to be elected to a fellowship at Oxford, this student of Hugo Munsterburg is best known for the metaphysical views expressed in his Gifford lectures on Space, Time, and Deity.
Answer: Samuel Alexander
C. This associate of Martin Buber discussed the three relations of creation, revelation, and salvation in his 1921 book The Star of Redemption.
Answer: Franz Rosenzweig

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Post by Deviant Insider » Mon Oct 17, 2005 3:48 pm

I think that having one or two non-canonical tossups in a round is a good thing. It rewards knowledge gained outside of quiz bowl. They are difficult to write because so many worthwhile topics are in the canon, and I would complain myself if there were a lot of them in one match. It is my opinion that there is nothing wrong with pushing the canon on a tossup.

I do know that changes in difficulty can mess with your mind, but when difficulty becomes too uniform it can lead to some ignorant guessing. This is something that is more of a problem in high school than in college. Taking TU28 from the same packet I referenced earlier, some people would guess Mahfouz upon hearing novella Sadat, which is a bad thing.
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Post by Matt Weiner » Mon Oct 17, 2005 3:54 pm

setht wrote:Another suggestion for better packet-writing: it's usually a bad idea to fill a packet with references to your favorite things.
Related to this: Don't write about things you've done in class recently without considering their general importance. This seems to mostly affect literature questions; a hip book of the moment or, more often, an obscure book selected for one class at one school because the professor likes it or it relates to some narrow topic being studied, comes up, and no one has any idea what it is. Not only are these questions too hard, they loudly proclaim the packet author's lack of concern for proper answer selection.

In other words, just because you find something easy because you've recently been exposed to it, doesn't mean that it's appropriate for all difficulty levels of quizbowl. Put in a few minutes of effort to find out if academia as a whole has taken note of this topic.
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Post by Captain Sinico » Mon Oct 17, 2005 4:35 pm

One shouldn't confuse the difficulty of a question with the obscurity of its answer. Though the two are related (to wit, the latter bounds the former), they are not one in the same. That is why it is entirely possible, both in theory and in practice, to write a question on some trite, high school topic (Abe Lincoln, say) for as hard a tournament you like and make it appropriate; of course, the converse does not apply. I, for one, aim to have answers that the players will know at least of, so that whether and when they're able to get the questions is the poll of their goodness as players. I believe that questions written on those principles are the best kind of questions by far.
In a related vein, one should never be caught thinking something to "too easy" or "too hard" to be the answer. You will never derive from me, nor from any other editor I know, a rational expectation that answers will be of a certain difficulty, even were that concept exactly definable. Attempting to answer a question via typifying answers by their obscurity, by whatever measure, is a drastically flawed heuristic that you should expect to fail often and spectacularly at a good tournament. Or, to put it as I once put it to Bruce, "I heard the editors... are dangerous madmen." Kelly McKenzie and I would advise you to wait for a clue you know, then buzz.

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Re: how not to write questions

Post by cvdwightw » Tue Oct 18, 2005 1:13 am

grapesmoker wrote:Look at ... UT-Austin's packet for WIT. Those are the kinds of packets that you should aim to produce.
The UT-Austin packet was excellent except in one respect: there were only 20 tossups in the entire packet. For obvious reasons (overtime, moderator error/protests, buzzer malfunctions), put extra questions in your packet.
grapesmoker wrote:...if we're expanding the canon, let's do so adiabatically. Introduce the new subject in a bonus part and slowly work it into a tossup.
I know we put in some stuff in our packet for BLaST/J'Accuse/etc. that was decidedly non-canonical. I am inclined to believe that the circumstances regarding this were different because they were on things people had heard of (possibly excluding Jobu, which anyone who has seen Major League should have heard of).
grapesmoker wrote:The ironic thing about all of this is that in a matchup between experienced teams and less-experienced teams, it is the experienced teams which derive an advantage from these kinds of bad questions, simply because they've been around longer and have hear all the overused clues.
I have generally not found this to be the case. Horribly bad packets tend to blur the distinction between the very good, the good, and the bad, since most points come off of either buzzer races, hoses resulting in one team getting essentially a free tossup, or one player's knowledge of something obscure that shouldn't come up. I am tempted to make the analogy to CBI, but I'll refrain.

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Post by suds1000 » Tue Oct 18, 2005 3:00 pm

ImmaculateDeception wrote:That is why it is entirely possible, both in theory and in practice, to write a question on some trite, high school topic (Abe Lincoln, say) for as hard a tournament you like and make it appropriate; of course, the converse does not apply. I, for one, aim to have answers that the players will know at least of, so that whether and when they're able to get the questions is the poll of their goodness as players. I believe that questions written on those principles are the best kind of questions by far.
In agreement, I provide a tossup that I once wrote for the hell of it:

Turgenev told him to focus on characters rather than plot, a view he would eventually espouse. His travel writings include A Little Tour in France and Italian Hours, and he wrote the poetic volume The American Scene after living abroad. He received the Order of Merit from King George V in 1915, twenty years after his original play Guy Domville flopped, but he would eventually gain fame for short stories like “The Aspern Papers.â€

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Post by Birdofredum Sawin » Tue Oct 18, 2005 3:46 pm

[quote="suds1000"]
In agreement, I provide a tossup that I once wrote for the hell of it:

Turgenev told him to focus on characters rather than plot, a view he would eventually espouse. His travel writings include A Little Tour in France and Italian Hours, and he wrote the poetic volume The American Scene after living abroad. He received the Order of Merit from King George V in 1915, twenty years after his original play Guy Domville flopped, but he would eventually gain fame for short stories like “The Aspern Papers.â€

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Post by Matt Weiner » Tue Oct 18, 2005 7:51 pm

Sudheer: I don't understand how the increasing difficulty of leadins alienates new players. Doing so enables the consistent asking of questions on very easy answers, which surely allows lesser teams to have an enjoyable game with few dead tossups and knowledgeable people to enter the game without having to worry about learning the "canon" at all to begin with. The avoidance of recycled clues for these easy answers means that the experienced player cannot rely on packets he's heard before to get questions, and is likely to lose out on a tossup to a new player who has outside knowledge of the topic. The alternative to the search for fresh leadins seems to be a constant weeding out of old answers, which is a sure way to have a real "difficulty arms race" and put academic quizbowl out of the reach of anyone except the best handful of players. No one wants that, so let's just continue making leadins harder, please.
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Post by grapesmoker » Tue Oct 18, 2005 8:25 pm

suds1000 wrote: One's play at a tournament should NEVER be governed by its reputed level of difficulty (which is at best relative to other tournaments, which are at best ill-defined themselves), and never should one assume that something is either too easy or too hard for a tournament...well, assuming that you actually know things.
I don't believe I ever claimed that one's play at a tournament should be based on that tournament's reputed difficulty. However, tournaments are advertised as having some specific difficulty, and widely varying difficulty within a tournament, or even worse, within a packet, throws people off.

The bit about knowing things is worth addressing too. I already presented an example of a tossup on "The Tin Drum," a work I know and love. It was very poorly written and until I heard about half a tossup, I couldn't believe that a question on that book would begin with such obvious clues. I kept thinking there must be another book fitting that description. The problem is compounded by the fact that if the general quality of questions is low and you go in on something that seems obvious and get burned a couple times, you become confused. Well, maybe not you, but I certainly do.
My next point is a response to Jerry's original argument about what he describes as "anecdotes that everyone knows". As is pointed out somewhere (possibly by him, I don't remember), asking players to come up with incredibly good clues requires that they be good players to begin with.
I certainly have not made the claim that to come up with good clues one must be a good player. The converse, in my experience, certainly holds; good players write good packets. However, that doesn't mean one must be a great player to write a decent packet. If you're writing a literature question, you can begin with a little-known but crucial episode in the work, say. A science question (which should never, ever begin with a definition) could start with the application of whatever it is you're writing about, or perhaps a way of deriving it if it's a law. A history question could begin with little-known but important consequences of some event. These are just some suggestions, but you can see that they're not exactly difficult to grasp. All you have to do is grab a book on the subject and do a little reading.
This is an unfair standard to hold them to, given that A) people need to improve at question-writing by writing questions (duh) and B) some people just plain don't retain facts as well as others or read old packets as much as others, and thus simply aren't as good at this game.
I disagree. There are editors and experienced players all over the place who would gladly offer advice if asked for it. Plus, people practice and read packets in practice, right? If you hear something coming up a bunch of times in old packets as a leadin, you can safely assume that it's not a good leadin anymore. Holding people who aren't as good players to the same standard of question writing is perfectly fair, as long as everyone is held to the same standard. If you'll notice, at the beginning I expressly excused new players; if you've been on the circuit more than a year or two, there are no excuses.
In this case, however, it's possible that these questions at WIT/Heinrich Bowl were truly egregious in their terribleness, and of course, these things always stand out more to you when you're actually attempting to compete on the questions....so, for all I know, maybe you, Jerry, are just having a reaction to this particular set. If so, I can understand perfectly, as we've all been there.
If you want, I can send you the set and you can look at them yourself.
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Post by Scipio » Tue Oct 18, 2005 8:37 pm

I am inclined to agree the the quest for new lead-ins is on its surface a good thing, provided those leadins are relevant and pyramidal (for example, a new lead-in about the battle of Crecy that involves a participant, militarily-relevant geographical feature, or strategy/tactic that is not a part of the "standard" leadin now is good; beginning the tossup with literary or artistic works which use the battle is bad, because, see, it would give the answer away to someone who may not know the history but knows the art/literature). Moreover, I agree for exactly the same reasons Weiner said: scraping the footnotes of the latest Philosophical journals for a new, unasked philosopher is far less useful and beneficial than finding new and creative ways to ask about those firmly entrenched in the canon, and in a sense it keeps the packet on paper, at least, within reasonable difficulty levels.

The only problem with finding new lead-ins is what it will often do to the rest of the question. What tends to happen to the old lead-in is that it will frequently replace the second clue in the writing of the tossup, leaving a displaced medium level clue. Now, giveways will tend to remain the same, for obvious reasons; so, what is to become of the medium clue? If it remains in the tossup, that means question length is extended greatly; this is not bad, but it can drastically augment the duration of a game and, ultimately, a tournament. If it is not retained, then instead of having a fresh, difficult lead-in, a medium clue, then a giveaway, what results is a fresh, difficult lead-in, followed by an old, difficult (to all but experienced players) lead-in, followed by a buzzer race-producing giveaway. No one with mid-range knowledge of a subject has much of a chance at this; if he doesn't know the new lead-in, that will pass him by; if he didn't know the old lead-in, that will pass him by (unless at this point it is gotten by a veteran player who may have less knowledge but perhaps memorised the lead-in); and this leads to the giveaway, which will be open to anyone, even the less-knowledgeable.

I don't know what the solution to this would be. Should old lead-ins be retired? Should question length keep being extended (I limit my tossups to three sentences, but they are very, very long sentences as it is)? Should medium clues be scrapped, and would this not be unfair? Or is there perhaps some solution which I do not see?

I'd welcome some commentary on this.
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Post by grapesmoker » Tue Oct 18, 2005 9:26 pm

Scipio wrote:I am inclined to agree the the quest for new lead-ins is on its surface a good thing, provided those leadins are relevant and pyramidal (for example, a new lead-in about the battle of Crecy that involves a participant, militarily-relevant geographical feature, or strategy/tactic that is not a part of the "standard" leadin now is good; beginning the tossup with literary or artistic works which use the battle is bad, because, see, it would give the answer away to someone who may not know the history but knows the art/literature).
I'm not sure if that's sarcasm or not, it's hard to tell online. I don't see anything wrong with tying information from different "areas" together into one question. Say a battle formed the basis for an important work of literature. That sounds like a good (and possibly not well-known) clue to include in your question.

I'd welcome some commentary on this.
I don't support eliminating medium clues or increasing tossup length beyond reasonable limits. I would like to see a lower bound on tossup lengths: 4 lines at the very, very least. Typically, I think most tossups should be between 6 and 8 lines. I know I have trouble keeping length down, but most tossups should fit comfortably in 6 to 8 lines.

As for harder clues replacing medium clues and so on: I don't think of question clues as a stack. For example, I have a book on military history that covers some important battles in European history. There is a wealth of data on each battle, so as Andrew pointed out before, there is a very large number of ways to write a question on the same topic, each time using different clues, and still come out with pyramidal questions that are alike in difficulty. I could probably write 5 tossups on Crecy with the information in one book that I own.

I guess the point is that coming up with new clues need not bump old clues "down" a level, although it might happen sometimes. There's no reason we can't come up with good, interesting, diverse mid-level clues, and I think multiple tournaments over the last year demonstrate this fact.
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