Selecting Useful Clues

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Selecting Useful Clues

Post by magin »

I thought this thread might be of use for people writing questions. My examples are about literature, but I think it's generalizable to other fields. When writing tossups (or bonuses, but especially tossups), it's easy to cite quotes from a literary work or use clues that aren't very useful. Especially for novels or plays, there are many quotes that aren't very helpful to players ripe for the picking. The question is: how can we select quotes (or any clues, really) that will be useful in tossups? By useful, I mean concrete, unique, and buzzable. So, I'll present some ways I like to find useful clues.

First, if I'm writing about a book, or a work of art, or a piece of music, I try to read the book, view the painting, or hear the composition. It may not be feasible to read every book (or expose yourself to everything) before you write about it (especially since writing questions is a great way to learn about new subjects). Still, if you can read the book, reading it is very useful; I find that I can select the clues that are important/interesting/useful much more easily than if I've read only a summary. Here are what I mean by useful clues from a book: important elements of the plot, images, characters, subplots, literary influences, and important quotes (by important, I mean really important to the book, important so that someone reading the book will understand why they are important). In a sense, that's subjective, but my definition of importance is "if I asked you why you used this quote, could you explain why it is important to the book?" I think that's fairly rigorous, considering.

But, since it's not possible to read everything, how can one select useful clues? Well, I have some suggestions. I've found that reading critical essays works well; however, almost always, mentioning the name or the thesis of the essay isn't a really good clue (although there are exceptions, of course). Instead, I like to use essays to discover useful/important/interesting clues about a work. For instance, to write the tossup about The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas for CO Lit, I read an essay about the novel's use of time. The essay mentioned that Bras Cubas was turned into a copy of Summa Theologica and then was taken to the beginning of time by a hippopotamus; instead of mentioning the context of the essay, I wrote in this novel, "the protagonist imagines he is an illustrated edition of Summa Theologica and that a hippopotamus carries him to the beginning of time." I think that's a useful way to comb through essays, especially if one hasn't read a work. Since good critical essays will mention important quotes or episodes from a work, those essays are a good place to discover those interesting details.

I think it's possible to extend this model to all fields; if I wanted to write a history tossup on some ruler or event, I would look up essays/books about that ruler/event, not with the goal of citing the essays (unless citing those essays would be appropriate for the tournament audience), but with the goal of discovering important and interesting facts about that ruler/event. Possibly, some will think I'm arguing for an absence of critical clues; that is not correct. Critical clues are fine, but best used sparingly (it's quite difficult, also, to determine which criticism is really important unless one is a scholar in that field, and none of us are scholars in that many fields).

So, in conclusion, use primary sources when you can. When you can't, use good secondary sources to find interesting/important/useful clues (in fact, you can use tertiary sources to find important/useful critical clues, in my model). I'm hoping people have found other ways to select useful clues as well; I'd love to hear them.
Jonathan Magin
Montgomery Blair HS '04, University of Maryland '08
Editor: ACF

"noted difficulty controller"

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Re: Selecting Useful Clues

Post by Cheynem »

This is a good thread starter and I was very interested in your comments. As a relatively inexperienced question writer, one of the most difficult things for me is in writing the earliest clues, the first or second lines. It's easy enough to put down two lines of obscure crap (obscure book quotes, obscure historical facts), but it's much more difficult to put down two lines of difficult clues that are gettable by someone with deep knowledge of the subject without being transparent. So I am interested in hearing ideas in this regard.
Mike Cheyne
Formerly U of Minnesota

"You killed HSAPQ"--Matt Bollinger