How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

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How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Adventure Temple Trail » Fri Aug 26, 2016 3:33 am

I've written a lot of questions in my day, and one of the most frustrating things about the question-writing process is stalling out while I try to think of question ideas. Even though this is a game where lots of topics come up in questions over and over, it paradoxically can become very difficult to come up with compelling answers ideas for new questions just when the time comes for your mind to actually select them. I've seen a lot of experienced writers run into this "writers' block"-esque part of the process, which often hampers timeliness, so it seems worthwhile to share some of my thoughts on what I do to overcome it or work around it.

> Keep a list of academic things you find interesting or amusing, which you'd like to use in questions someday. It's easier to write questions when you're writing about a phenomenon or work that genuinely interests you or that you've been waiting to "break into the 'canon'". (With age, some writers find that interesting things come more readily at the clue level, which lets you sort of "spin" a whole question around a new clue, figuring out the best way to make answer lines reasonable and slot it in appropriately.) But you're not going to have, in readily accessible working memory, all of the things you have ever thought were cool, without some kind of cued recall bringing some of them back up into active consciousness. And you could easily forget something that you spot in a magazine or a journal article somewhere unless you bookmark it in some manner.
I do this by keeping a note on my [password-protected] phone and an Excel sheet sorted by category on my laptop; at its largest extent the Excel sheet has had about 1,000 ideas on it. Scrolling through it again, you may think that some ideas you had are super-dumb, and as the list grows, motivation to write on any of it to clear it out again may drop. But you know you have it in a pinch if some tournament has a hole to fill. (It's obviously important not to share this file with anyone else, or to broadcast in too much detail all the stuff you look at to inspire question ideas. One thing that's sort of sad about quizbowl is that, because you can't spoil things you haven't yet written on, active players really have to be careful what they put on public sites such as Goodreads.)

> Focus in on writing stuff that is deliberately unlike anything else in the tournament you're working on. The more specific you get, the easier it is to come up with question ideas. The human mind gets overwhelmed easily by large numbers and big projects. When your tournament has 300 needs left, it's easy to think "I NEED TO WRITE TO MANY QUESTIONS AGH" and get nowhere, as you spin your gears with writer's block. It sometimes helps to "drill down" from a big top-level category to subcategories and sub-subcategories that the tournament you're working on hasn't filled up yet, tackling a coherent, small sub-segment of the tournament to completion rather than bouncing around writing haphazardly. It's much easier to follow through if you say "One of the things I can write is a history question," and from there easier still if you say "I could write an American history question," and easier yet if you get to the level of "time to write on a Supreme Court case" or "something Civil War" or "something 1990-present". At the level of smaller niches like that, every all-subject tournament is going to have little mini-niches to be filled like that -- if you don't have something Shakespeare, or some Russian history of some era, or something related to electromagnetism, for a few examples, you'll probably want to get one of each of those done in your attempt to hit all the basic areas.

> If you want to generate a ton of ideas in a really short amount of time, you can "strip mine" old books on your shelf / old reference materials for question ideas. By "strip mine", I mean flipping through a book page-by-page, taking note of (and writing down) every topic that jumps out at you as intriguing enough to use as a clue or answer at some future time. If a lot of the material is basic and just not calling out to you, you can focus only on typing in things that you find compelling enough to write on, or which are new to you. If I have (let's say) a high school European history textbook, I'm not going to write down every basic term if I've written lots of questions on them before, but I may spot a weirdly difficult or as-yet-unasked piece of information when flipping pages rapidly, and seize on that. As an added reward, it helps you decide whether those old books actually still "spark joy" or whatever; if you flip through something and find that it's boring and you won't look back at it again, that can be impetus to give it away or sell it.

> If you are an expert writer, try writing on your topic in a manner that is deliberately unlike any other question you've seen before. (Because I have zero interest in fighting about this, I'll just say now: the answer line need not be complicated to focus the clues in on an overlooked aspect of the topic, or keep the clues tightly "thematic"!) You can make it sort of a game with yourself, to challenge yourself to have a wacky focus and keep things accessible and have a simple answer line.

> When you get a workable idea but haven't written the question yet, start brainstorming outward to other potential clues or related bonus parts. The clearest way to do this is to read a lot of text and actually learn what it says for real and what its words mean. But there are lots of ways to save on time and still find connections between ideas which are more authentic than Wikipedia links. Newer-fangled webpages, such as Revolvy and the Open Syllabus Project, take different approaches to generating a lot of ideas that are related to a focus search topic. And of course, the indexes of reference books can be helpful. If none of that works, ask yourself questions like "Who else was alive when this person/work/event happened?" or "Does this spark any ideas outside this category?" which are guaranteed to shift your perspective and provide a new route for thought. Relatively specific reference books, in particular, are good too.

> You can also just free-associate from a basic common word (e.g. 'snow') and see what kinds of question ideas that gets you. If you are writing for a tournament that has Mixed_Pure_Academic bonuses, you can very quickly knock out a ton of needs this way! ("Answer the following about snow, for 10 points each...")

> Accept that motivation will come and go, and that's okay (provided baseline decency at time management). I think this one is difficult for a lot of question writers, in part because the disaster stories over the years of sets not getting done are so numerous, and in part because a lot of question writers are very self-driven people who do this out of love for the game (or out of desire to get good enough to beat the rival team, or what have you). Not every big question-production day is going to be followed up by another big question-production day, and unless it's crunch time, it's going to happen that some time periods feel more fertile with ideas than others. It may just be that you won't come up with anything intriguing to write about today; if so, don't force it, but instead maybe take a break and walk away from the screen for a few minutes. You may well find a good question idea out in the world.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Cheynem » Fri Aug 26, 2016 8:20 am

I was wondering why this topic was reported, only to find the report astutely called it for to be stickied.

Great insights--I think this problem happens to most dedicated question writers.

One thing that works for me on most difficulties (maybe not novice) is to think of how to do familiar answerlines in different ways. There was a really good MO tossup on "Gatsby's house" a few years ago, for instance. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't, of course (I was surprised how many people told me that the CO Invincibles tossup, meant to be a fresh way of doing a Phoenix Park Murders tossup, was really hard).
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Periplus of the Erythraean Sea » Fri Aug 26, 2016 12:19 pm

I endorse all of the strategies that Matt has outlined above. There are a couple in particular I'd like to highlight:

Putting ideas down beforehand: When I'm working on tournaments, I usually list out my subdistributions well ahead of time and fill them in with ideas (elaborated upon with comments indicating clues I want to use) as they come to me, such that I'll often have some idea listed a couple months before I actually execute it. This helps minimize the potential problem of not having ideas for questions, since as I work through a category, I typically have almost everything filled out already - including, many times, a lot of "good ideas" (as opposed to "hey we don't have any X, let's shove a question on X in there").

Time management: Make sure you're making steady progress over the entire lifetime of a project. In particular, editors can get pretty irritated about people repeatedly putting off writing questions until the last minute, because rushing through things the last minute does not produce a quality product nearly as effectively. I think this is one of the biggest reasons (besides leadership quality) that NAQT and ACF sets tend to end up better than housewrites - the packet-submission schedules (in the case of ACF) and NAQT's ability to draw on questions written throughout the year (and indeed in past years) mean that the workstream is steadier.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Skepticism and Animal Feed » Fri Aug 26, 2016 1:04 pm

All of this is good stuff. I want to put in a plug for another resource: other people.

They might not always be available: maybe this is a tournament you have to write solo, or literally everyone else is playing, or it's just for your packet, etc. But odds are there will be people who are not playing your tournament and who you might be able to bounce ideas off for new tossups. They might see the subjects and distributions slightly differently than you do, they might have an idea about an up-and-coming topic, they might have an opinion about how you never write x type of question and maybe should.

At the very least, read the last thread on HSQB about one of your tournaments, there may be ideas in there about what you can do differently next time.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby magin » Fri Aug 26, 2016 1:10 pm

Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:Putting ideas down beforehand: When I'm working on tournaments, I usually list out my subdistributions well ahead of time and fill them in with ideas (elaborated upon with comments indicating clues I want to use) as they come to me, such that I'll often have some idea listed a couple months before I actually execute it. This helps minimize the potential problem of not having ideas for questions, since as I work through a category, I typically have almost everything filled out already - including, many times, a lot of "good ideas" (as opposed to "hey we don't have any X, let's shove a question on X in there").


I'm a big fan of this method. When I was editing big tournaments, I'd spend around two months just brainstorming possible answers and clues, especially for subcategories that can be tricky to write well, such as music and social science. I didn't sit down and take hours thinking up answers, but just wrote down possibly interesting ideas when I encountered them from reading them (for instance, looking at a bunch of economics blogs gave me the idea to write a tossup on the minimum wage for CO 2015).

One other avenue that hasn't been expressed yet is simply talking to people. Other people often have really good ideas that you'd never think of yourself, especially in subcategories where you're not an expert. So ask them! Two heads are better than one.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Mike Bentley » Fri Aug 26, 2016 1:18 pm

magin wrote:
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:Putting ideas down beforehand: When I'm working on tournaments, I usually list out my subdistributions well ahead of time and fill them in with ideas (elaborated upon with comments indicating clues I want to use) as they come to me, such that I'll often have some idea listed a couple months before I actually execute it. This helps minimize the potential problem of not having ideas for questions, since as I work through a category, I typically have almost everything filled out already - including, many times, a lot of "good ideas" (as opposed to "hey we don't have any X, let's shove a question on X in there").


I'm a big fan of this method. When I was editing big tournaments, I'd spend around two months just brainstorming possible answers and clues, especially for subcategories that can be tricky to write well, such as music and social science. I didn't sit down and take hours thinking up answers, but just wrote down possibly interesting ideas when I encountered them from reading them (for instance, looking at a bunch of economics blogs gave me the idea to write a tossup on the minimum wage for CO 2015).

One other avenue that hasn't been expressed yet is simply talking to people. Other people often have really good ideas that you'd never think of yourself, especially in subcategories where you're not an expert. So ask them! Two heads are better than one.


I'm actually less of a fan of planning out all ideas ahead of time. I find that some number of the questions that I plan end up not working out and are best left abandoned. Instead, I try to get to a decent point of completion and then analyze what's been created and cut some stuff and add some more for balance.

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, I do like the idea that Matt suggests of keeping notes of things that you're going to write on. I have a giant OneNote of ideas, clues and half-written questions going back several years that eventually may get turned into actual questions.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby magin » Fri Aug 26, 2016 1:33 pm

Mike Bentley wrote:
magin wrote:
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea wrote:Putting ideas down beforehand: When I'm working on tournaments, I usually list out my subdistributions well ahead of time and fill them in with ideas (elaborated upon with comments indicating clues I want to use) as they come to me, such that I'll often have some idea listed a couple months before I actually execute it. This helps minimize the potential problem of not having ideas for questions, since as I work through a category, I typically have almost everything filled out already - including, many times, a lot of "good ideas" (as opposed to "hey we don't have any X, let's shove a question on X in there").


I'm a big fan of this method. When I was editing big tournaments, I'd spend around two months just brainstorming possible answers and clues, especially for subcategories that can be tricky to write well, such as music and social science. I didn't sit down and take hours thinking up answers, but just wrote down possibly interesting ideas when I encountered them from reading them (for instance, looking at a bunch of economics blogs gave me the idea to write a tossup on the minimum wage for CO 2015).

One other avenue that hasn't been expressed yet is simply talking to people. Other people often have really good ideas that you'd never think of yourself, especially in subcategories where you're not an expert. So ask them! Two heads are better than one.


I'm actually less of a fan of planning out all ideas ahead of time. I find that some number of the questions that I plan end up not working out and are best left abandoned. Instead, I try to get to a decent point of completion and then analyze what's been created and cut some stuff and add some more for balance.

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, I do like the idea that Matt suggests of keeping notes of things that you're going to write on. I have a giant OneNote of ideas, clues and half-written questions going back several years that eventually may get turned into actual questions.


I think we're actually in agreement. I don't advocate picking out all your answers ahead of time, just that brainstorming answers this way makes it much easier to get off to a strong start when you're sitting down and trying to fill out a distribution. Many ideas don't actually work out, and need to be cut or revamped, but that's why starting early helps you avoid a time crunch.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby The King's Flight to the Scots » Fri Aug 26, 2016 3:27 pm

A tactic that helps me is to think about questions in the past that made me think, "Huh, that's an interesting way of asking that." When I had to come up with an American history answer for Nats 2014, I thought about Matt's Leo Frank tossup from 2013 and came up with the analogous DC Stephenson question, both being questions ostensibly on people that were actually about the details of an early 20th century public scandal. It was really hard but people seemed to enjoy it. I'll avoid more specific discussion of my philosophy for obvious reasons.

Another thing that helps me is, as Mike Cheyne says, to "grip it and rip it." If I go through all the old standbys and still can't find an answer, I'll pick a tolerable, somewhat conventional answer and just bang it out. Often, the process of looking up and ordering clues will spark an idea for a more interesting answerline that I wouldn't have come up with staring at a blank .doc.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Adventure Temple Trail » Fri Aug 26, 2016 6:54 pm

Skepticism and Animal Feed wrote:All of this is good stuff. I want to put in a plug for another resource: other people.

They might not always be available: maybe this is a tournament you have to write solo, or literally everyone else is playing, or it's just for your packet, etc. But odds are there will be people who are not playing your tournament and who you might be able to bounce ideas off for new tossups. They might see the subjects and distributions slightly differently than you do, they might have an idea about an up-and-coming topic, they might have an opinion about how you never write x type of question and maybe should.

At the very least, read the last thread on HSQB about one of your tournaments, there may be ideas in there about what you can do differently next time.


magin wrote:One other avenue that hasn't been expressed yet is simply talking to people. Other people often have really good ideas that you'd never think of yourself, especially in subcategories where you're not an expert. So ask them! Two heads are better than one.


Bruce quite rightly points out that being too open with other people in quizbowl about what you want to write questions on is typically not okay unless that other person is a member of your writing cohort or 100% not-playing-this-tournament retired.

That said, there are enormous number of people outside of quizbowl who have lots of interests that aren't strait-jacketed into the category distributions we use. Especially if you are a current college student, asking your non-quizbowl friends about what actively excites them in their academic study (or their travel or their reading lists or their faith or...) can be a tremendously useful sponge of information which you can then sift through for quizbowl-compatible clues. (I may or may not have done this extensively to become a better generalist as a player, too.) They're not necessarily going to be able to comfort you or even know what the hell you're talking about when you say you need, e.g. "12/0 RMP ideas" to finish your tournament, though.
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Re: How To Avoid Running Out Of Question Ideas

Postby Cheynem » Fri Aug 26, 2016 7:19 pm

I asked a colleague who specialized in Latin American history for a question idea when I was doing CO and that's where the "Costa Rica" tossup came from.
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