February 13, 2000

The SZCZicago Manual of Style

A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Academic Quiz Competition Questions

by Mitchell Szczepanczyk of the University of Chicago
Version 3.0


The academic quiz competition (AQC) questions that you write today won't self-destruct at the end of the tournament for which you write them. After your questions are played in competition, they can be used in practices and scrimmages by schools that bought the tournament's questions and did not play in the tournament. Your questions also can (and frequently do) become part archived electronic formats, and thereby gain a very wide audience. Clearly, the questions you write now can have an effect on play for years to come. If that effect is to be positive, your questions must be well-written, regardless the format of play or subject matter of the questions.

The Stanford and ACF Guidelines, and the Michigan Memorandum, among other documents, all provide valuable advice for writing acceptable questions. These documents provide input for what is important in questions--what to keep in mind, what to do, what to write, and what not to write. They do not, however, give players much input on how to write their questions, which is what I hope to impart in The SZCZicago Manual of Style. Thus, I intend to complement rather than usurp the existent literature of AQC writing guides.

In The SZCZicago Manual of Style, I have documented the basic process that I follow in writing AQC questions that conform to the philosophy of these guides. I have devoted the bulk of the guide to tossup questions because these are the questions that drive this activity. In addition, I have narrowed the focus to of this guide to single, individual questions, rather than entire packets of questions. Certainly, players should keep a larger view of the packets that they write, both for topic distribution and other distributional concerns (e.g., do all of your packets science questions and answers have a mix of concepts, ideas, and people? Are all of your questions ask about things and people throughout the world and universe, not just in a single area?) But to write great question packets, you must write great individual questions, and I will emphasize the individual question in this guide.


Step 1: Get the facts
The boring reality is that excellent questions depend more on prewriting than on writing. It's much easier to write superlative questions when you have superlative information to write about. Such information won't materialize from nothing; you must make the effort to get them.

Potential sources for suitable facts abound, like television, radio, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, various books, the Internet, and the World Wide Web, among many others. A (small) suggested list of sources includes the following in no particular order:

Encyclopaedia Britannica; Columbia Encyclopedia; the Chronicle books series; Guinness Book of World Records; The World, Universal, and Information Please Almanacs; The Top 10 of Everything, The American Heritage Dictionary; The Oxford English Dictionary; Bartlett's Quotations

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Norton Anthologies, Compact Classics (a.k.a. The Great American Bathroom Book series), Masterplots, Macgill's Survey Books, Dictionary of Religion and the Bible, Rand McNally's Atlases

CNN, ESPN, The Discovery Channel, PBS, NPR, BBC, A&E

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or most any large city daily (e.g., The Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune) as well as AP/UPI wire reports

Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, Scientific American, Harper's Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, People, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, Discover, Smithsonian, Skeptical Enquirer, In These Times

The Dwight Kidder reference page is an excellent starting point for finding informative webpages, as is britannica.com. Other sources include clari.news Usenet groups, or other reputable usenet groups and FAQ files.

I'm a particular fan of Martin Gardner, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Boorstin, Timothy Ferris, and Stephen Pinker. Primary sources and various textbooks are also excellent.

Remember that the facts you use in a given question can and should be culled from multiple sources. Remember also that this is only a partial list of viable sources, and not one to which writers should limit themselves. However, the works of David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace (The People's Almanac, The Book of Lists, The 20th Century), Fred L. Worth (The Trivia Encyclopedia), and Jeff Rovin (In Search of Trivia) have many errors; avoid using information they provide, unless you can find verification in other sources. What's more, caution should be exercised in all sources used in question writing. This is not to say that you should always get at least two sources for every fact to be used. Merely that judgment of the quality of the source or sources (say, a Wallechinsky book versus the Encyclopaedia Britannica) should always be kept in mind, and double-sourcing should be used when necessary.

Step 2: Keep an eye out for potential giveaways.

In looking through these sources, you may wonder what to write about from the nearly limitless universe of available facts. I like to keep in mind that 80%-90% of the questions should be answered by someone in a given team. This leads to a useful rule of thumb for sifting through information: Look for an answer (e.g., Dances With Wolves, as illustrated below) which has a ready but intelligent giveaway (e.g., 1990 movie about Lakota directed by Kevin Costner)

Such answers must refer to fascinating, pertinent, and substantial events, people, and things, and not be about flashes-in-the-pan nor little-known names that nobodys heard about (but that are conveniently found in encyclopedias late at night when packets need to be sent).

In other words, find someone or something about which you will be able to say some obvious fact about it, and that pretty much everyone who hears it will know what you're asking for. Of course, what I consider a giveaway clue might seem obscure to another writer. To which I suggest: Choose the giveaway as a player rather than as a writer. Ask yourself how the question can be written so that, even if you know nothing else about the topic, you can get the answer from the giveaway. (See the example following step 4.)

Step 3: Organize those facts for tapering

Strictly speaking, tossups and bonuses arent "questions," (which, as that smart-aleck kid in Airplane II says, is "an interrogative statement[s] used to test knowledge") but as complicated intellectual puzzles, and should be treated as such. As puzzles, tossups and bonuses---especially tossups---demand a specific order for the facts they contain. The facts must taper; they must go from most obscure to least. The beauty of this arrangement is that it aims to reward depth of knowledge, not brute buzzer speed.

I like to keep a three-fold distinction in mind for tossups: the lead-in, the pith, and the giveaway. The lead-in, which begins a tossup, should be a cool story or detail or anecdote or fact about something or someone that begins a tossup, and makes it memorable. The lead in should also be somewhat obscure; remember the tapering rule. After the lead-in should come more substantial facts about the entity in question--what I call the "pith" of a question. Written well, the pith rewards solid knowledge about something or someone, even if you may not know every little tiny fact about it. Put another way, the architecture should look like this:

Lead-in (fascinating, most obscure, pertinent facts)
--> Pith (more substantial, less obscure, pertinent facts)
--> Giveaway (least obscure, pertinent facts)

Step 4: Avoid being misleading.

This is perhaps the most crucial step in tossup writing. Every word in every part of the tossup must be directed only to the desired answer. Any part of the question directed to anything else is misleading and must be avoided at all costs. To put it another way, if the answer is X, then write only about X---that is, mention fascinating, substantial, pertinent,
and specific facts about X, and X only. (If the answer is Dances With Wolves, a bad example is "This 1990 movie won a lot of awards." How many awards? What awards did it win?)

Sometimes, however, you may not have the knowledge to realize that a question is misleading. For example, suppose you're writing a question whose lead-in is "Newspaper columnist Herb Caen" and whose answer is San Francisco, the city in which Caen writes. If you don't know that Beatnikis also an acceptable answer given the structure of that question, since Caen coined the word "Beatnik," you won't realize that the lead-in is ambiguous. This is what I call fact-dependent veering; it is a concern even among experienced writers. Obviously, you won't veer if you have the knowledge needed to avoid it; a much easier solution, however, is to write the question so that it immediately zeroes in on a single answer from the very start (e.g., "In this city, newspaper columnist Herb Caen...").

Before we move on to the final step, let's illustrate the (admittedly abstract) implications of steps 1-4 with a specific example. Suppose that you watched the movie Dances With Wolves, and want to write a question about it.

Step 1: Get the facts.
The following facts can be culled from the movie itself, the movie box, and various other sources.

1. It was released in 1990.
2. It won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director.
3. Besides starring in it, Kevin Costner also directed the movie.
4. It was Costner's directorial debut.
5. In the movie, Costner plays Lieutenant John Dunbar.
6. The movie is set during the American Civil War.
7. Dunbar comes in contact with the Lakota people, whose population he later joins.
8. The Lakota give Dunbar the name "Dances with Wolves," after they see him dance with a wolf named Two-Socks.
9. The Lakota translation of "Dances with Wolves" is "Sungmanitutonka ob waci."

Step 2: Keep an eye out for potential giveaways.
Now which answer will let us write a clear and obvious giveaway? Probably not "Sungmanitutonka ob waci" (unless you're a big Dances With Wolves fan or a proficient Lakota speaker). "Dances With Wolves" is a more likely choice, enabling us to use a giveaway like "this Academy Award-winning 1990 movie directed by Kevin Costner."

Step 3: Organize the facts in step 1.
We have a lot of facts listed. Writers often forget that tossups should be of a reasonable length. Using all the above would make for an unduly long question, even in untimed games. The best questions will consist of those specific facts that are most fascinating, pertinent, and substantial.

Referring to the list above, we might select facts 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 9. If we were to write the question with these facts in this order, we might get a question like (1):

(1) It was released in 1990. It won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Director. It stars Kevin Costner, who also directed it. He plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, but he is given a by the Lakota after they see him dance with a wolf named Two-Socks. The Lakota translation of that name is "Sungmanitutonka ob waci."

answer: Dances With Wolves

In intercollegiate competition, this question would most likely be interrupted (and answered correctly) midway through the second sentence. If we reverse the order of the facts, the question will taper as it should.

Step 4: Avoid being misleading.
Question (2) is a truly evil tossup.

(2) The Lakota translation of this name is "Sungmanitutonka ob waci." It was given to Lieutenant John Dunbar by the Lakota after they see him dance with a wolf named Two-Socks. It was released in 1990. It won Oscars for Best Picture, and Director. How many Oscars in all did "Dances With Wolves" win?

answer: Seven

"Its" and "him" refer to the name of the movie, not to the answer; in fact, until the final sentence, (2) doesn't even mention the desired answer. It's possible to change the question to accommodate the answer, but in this case, it's much easier and more preferable to change the answer instead. Again, the question must aim towards the answer from the very beginning and nothing else.

Now let's discuss the remaining step of question writing.

Step 5: Fine tuning the question (pronouns, distribution, FTP, prompts and alternative answers, and dates).

If steps 1-4 are done well, then a few diagnostic steps (subsumed under a larger final step) are all that remain are to make sure that the question is suitable for play. We'll work with example (3), which is example (2) without the diabolical ending.

(3) The Lakota translation of this name is "Sungmanitutonka ob waci." It
was given to Lieutenant John Dunbar by the Lakota after they see him dance
with a wolf named Two-Socks. It was released in 1990. It won 7 Oscars,
including Best Picture and Director.

answer: Dances With Wolves

5.1: Simple editing procedures.

The editing procedures that help improve prose also help AQC questions, so this is where books like The Elements of Style and Style: Towards Clarity and Grace come in handy. For instance, (3) above can be improved into (4).

(4) It's the translation of the Lakota name "Sungmanitutonka ob waci,"
which was given, after an encounter with Two-Socks, to Lieutenant John
Dunbar. This 1990 movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, for its
director and star, Kevin Costner.

answer: Dances With Wolves

5.2 Pronouns antecedents.

Pronouns must always refer to the answer. It is enough of a challenge for players to figure out what a good tossup is asking for, never mind having to figure out what pronouns refer to. Check your pronouns carefully. In (4) above, both "it" and "this 1990 movie" are used appropriately, since the movie's title is Dunbar's Lakota name, and both pronouns refer to the answer. (In the rare event when a good tossup must have a pronoun that doesn't refer to the answer, one suggestion is to preface the tossup with a warning like: "Warning: The first pronoun in this tossup does not refer to the answer.")

5.3: "For ten points, name/what" cues.

Although saying the point value of tossups may seem redundant, including the phrase "for ten points" helps players establish a rhythm and provides them a notice that says "Warning! Giveaway coming up!" This cue must appear before the giveaway and (preferably) before one or two additional facts. Typically, "for ten points" is included as either an imperative (e.g., "For ten points, name...") or an interrogative (e.g., "For ten points, what..."). Question (5) is an example of an acceptable place to put the prompt.

(5) It's the translation of the Lakota name "Sungmanitutonka ob waci," which was given, after an encounter with Two-Socks, to Lieutenant John Dunbar. For 10 points, name this 1990 movie which won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, for its director and star, Kevin Costner.

answer: Dances With Wolves

But there must always be at least something of substance after the for ten points prompt. Questions that end with "For ten points, whats the answer?" or "For ten points, name him." are unacceptable because you don't get a giveaway after the giveaway prompt. Not doing so defeats the purpose of tapering, and if you don't try to taper entirely throughout the question, down to the very last word, the very notion of tapering is defeated. (I.e., Don't have the end of (5) say something like for Kevin Costner, its director and star. since Costner's name is the most substantial item so late in the question.)

5.4: Prompts.

Tossups do sometimes point to both the intended answer and another partially correct answer. In tossups like these, a prompt or an acceptable alternative answer should be listed to the right of or immediately below the primary answer. If (5) above were to exclude the Lakota name, the answer should certainly include a prompt (e.g.,(prompt on "Sungmanitutonka ob waci")) listing the name at the very least.

5.5: Alternative answers.

Confusion can arise when a single answer has alternative names. Prompts or other acceptable answers should be included for all possible alternative names not listed in the question (or not yet read when a player buzzes in). Acceptable answers should include (but are not limited to) the original or alternative names of persons and the names of countries in the language or languages of their residents.

5.6: Pronunciation guides.

Pronunciation guides should be included for unfamiliar or difficult-to- pronounce words or phrases. As in, "Sungmanitutonka ob waci" (soong-MAH- nee-too-TAWNK-ah-ohb-WAH-chee).

5.7: Dates.

Finally, there is the date: if a question uses facts (like from a magazine or newspaper) that refer to a recent point in time, be sure to include at least the month and year (unless the question demands that a full date--e.g., January 15, 1997--be used). This is so the question will remain useful for years to come, and future players won't shrug shoulders if they hear the word "recently".

And after all this, we have our completed tossup, in (6) below.

(6) It's the translation of the Lakota name "Sungmanitutonka ob waci," (soong-MAH-nee-too-TAWNK-ah-ohb-WAH-chee). was given, after an encounter with Two-Socks, to Lieutenant John Dunbar. For 10 points, name this 1990 movie which won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, for its director and star, Kevin Costner.

answer: Dances With Wolves

Now on to bonuses.


The same writing process that I use for tossups can also be applied to bonuses. Because bonuses (except for 30-20-10s) need not taper, step 3 can be deemphasized; because bonuses allow players more time to sort through the questions' literal meaning, step 4 is not as important (although still necessary).

You can classify the way facts in bonuses are organized in one of two ways: top-heavy or bottom-heavy. In top-heavy bonuses (see (7) below), the introduction contains information that helps players answer the question; these introductions are roughly parallel to tossups' lead-ins, and the parts of a bonus must make at least one reference to the intro. When such connection cant be made, then bonuses should be bottom heavy. (There is no need to waste time on asides like Dances With Wolves is a really great movie that won a bunch of awards.) In bottom-heavy bonuses, like (8), the introduction contains no such information. In many cases, like (7) and (8), you can use the same facts to write a bonus either way.

(7) It's the translation of the Lakota phrase "Sungmanitutonka ob waci" (soong-MAH-nee-too-TAWNK-ah-ohb-WAH-chee), which was given after an encounter with Two-Socks. For 10 points each:

A. Give this three word phrase, which is also the name of a 1990 movie which won 7 Oscars.

answer: Dances With Wolves

B. Name the actor who starred in and directed Dances With Wolves.

answer: Kevin Costner

C. Name the American Civil War lieutenant that Costner portrayed.

answer: Lieutenant John Dunbar

(8) For 10 points each, answer these questions about the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves.

A. In what language of what eponymous people encountered in the movie does the name "Dances With Wolves" translate as "Sungmanitutonka ob waci" (soong-MAH-nee-too-TAWNK-ah-ohb-WAH-chee)?
answer: Lakota (prompt on: Sioux)

B. Name the actor who starred in and directed Dances With Wolves.
answer: Kevin Costner

C. Name the American Civil War lieutenant that Costner portrayed.
answer: John Dunbar

DISCLAIMER: The opinions represented in this document are solely those of its author, Mitchell Szczepanczyk, and not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, nor of the University of Chicago College Bowl Team.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thanks to Peter Freeman, John Sheahan, and Andrew Serowik, for their encouragement; and to Matt Kiefer and Steve Wang for their editorial feedback. A BIG thanks to Sarah Bagby for her fanatical editing prowess, which improved this document in so many ways. Big thanks are also due to Kevin Olmstead, and especially to David Frazee--my mentor in question-writing. So if there are any flaws or errors in this document or its philosophy, it's all their fault. :-)