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On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Fri Oct 31, 2008 8:34 pm
by yoda4554
Over the past few years, there have been a number of people who have spoken ill of writing for NAQT, ranging from very inexperienced players who do not write much at all, much less for NAQT, to people who have decided to write for other companies, to people who have written thousands of questions for NAQT. Excluding complaints about distribution--arguments which I don't wholly buy, but which I won't get into now--the main complaint is usually the character limit, with many people claiming that a 425-character question is by its nature completely unable to distinguish good teams, or at best a handicap that prevents good questions from being really good questions. The cap limit is usually described as a weird sort of hoop that makes NAQT writing unbearably irritating.

I think this perception--whether true or false, though I will soon argue for the latter--is starting to have something of an adverse effect on the game. Fewer top players are moving in to write for NAQT out of high school and college, because they don't like the format, which leads both to difficulties for NAQT in keeping up with the rapidly-changing standards of canon and pyramidality at all levels of the game as well as difficulties in keeping up with its production schedule as some of its top writers lower their own writing; this year in particular, I think there are several people who used to write a lot who are now writing less, and thus more questions are being written by people who are more removed from the circuit. (This is not to speak about people who have focused their efforts on other packet sets, which obviously hurts NAQT but perhaps does not hurt quiz bowl overall.) I think that we can all agree this is not a good overall situation--but the only way it'll change is if more top players sign on to write for NAQT, because every set is only as good as the people writing it, and the best writers tend to be players who have just ceased playing the questions that they would write.

So what I'd like to do is convince some people that writing good questions within NAQT style is not the oxymoron that many seem to think.

Here's a question I wrote for the CO Lit tournament, which was intended to distinguish between a field ranging from good high school players to masters players like Andrew Yaphe, and to play to a crowd that seems to take pleasure at very long questions. It is 918 characters long.

In the chapter she narrates, she wishes her relationship with her mother to be “a hot thing,” and she is associated in the last chapter with “the loneliness that roams.” Fascinated by two turtles having sex in the pond, she is later given the complete pair of ice skates to skate there, making her sister jealous. She appears finally as an ice-pick-bearing pregnant woman, having earlier asked her father figure to “touch her on the inside part”; that father figure knows she’s left when he sees Here Boy sleeping peacefully at the pump. Though she, Howard, and Buglar, had escaped Kentucky eighteen years earlier without trouble, the approach of the schoolteacher who’d taken over Sweet Home caused her mother to take her to the shed and beat her to death. For 10 points, name this haunter of 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, the sister of Denver, daughter of Sethe, and title character of a Toni Morrison novel.
ANSWER: Beloved

I think this is a pretty decent Beloved question. Here's how I would have written this question for NAQT--this is 413 characters, less than half as long.

In the last chapter, she is part of “the loneliness that roams.” Fascinated by turtles having sex in the pond where her new skates enrage her sister, she appears finally as an ice-pick-bearing pregnant woman, frightening Here Boy. Though she escaped from Sweet Home, the schoolteacher's approach causes her mother to beat her to death. For 10 points--name this sister of Denver and daughter of Sethe, a Toni Morrison title character.
ANSWER: Beloved

So, in that 500 characters that I lost, what did I sacrifice in terms of clues? I lost two pretty obscure quotes ("a hot thing" and "touch me on the inside part"), but I don't feel bad about that, because if you've got a great memory for phrases from Beloved you can still show off with "the loneliness that roams." I also lost "Kentucky"--no big deal--as well as a bunch of midlevel names like "Howard," "Buglar," "124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati" and "Denver"; those are more likely to affect gameplay, but not hugely, because people who have that stuff down should also remember, to differing degrees, "Here Boy," "Sweet Home," and at the end "Sethe." All the rest is restructuring sentences and losing a little precision in ways that won't affect how this plays. That is, in the transfer, this question has lost very little of its important clues or overall transitional flow and still has at least 10 plausible buzz points, pyramidally arranged from stuff I would only expect a big Morrison fan (or someone who'd read the book recently or had some random reason for retaining those facts) to get down through challenging and standard middle clues toward a pretty easy giveaway. Scanning through some tossups in the 2008 EFT (which I very much enjoyed playing, at least until the last round when I was pretty wiped out), I see an average of 11-12 plausible buzz points in tossups that are usually around 700 characters. As such, I would feel entirely comfortable submitting this question at any NAQT level from IS to DI SCT. (I like to use harder answer space when I write for ICT, though if I were to grade it up for that, I would replace one later clue with an earlier, harder one.) In short, this question, I think, does almost exactly as good of a job for its purposes as an mACF one (and indeed at a given tournament it will probably produce the same results in each room as the CO Lit tossup would) and--precisely because of the format--does so in less space, allowing for a quicker pace for the game, which I know much enhances my own pscyho-physiological enjoyment of a tournament.

My point is that it is not as difficult to write good, clue-dense, pyramidal questions that distinguish between a variety of teams within the NAQT constraints as many people seem to think. What the NAQT format does do is force you to be on the very top of your game--you need to state your clues succinctly, and you need to make sure that every clue is moving you down the pyramid. Some people have suggested that NAQT questions cause weird grammar--I'm not sure why that is, because generally they give me clearer grammar, because I don't have as much room to screw around with dependent clauses and qualifications. mACF allows greater laziness in general: if you've got a handful of hard clues and don't know which are most useful, you can just throw them all in (even if it turns out that two of them are completely useless, say), but in NAQT you have to limit yourself to the one you think will work best. In mACF you have room for snarkiness; in NAQT you do not. In mACF you have room to sputter out a complicated clue in whatever way seems most obvious, even if it takes two lines; in NAQT you have to ask yourself what words are most important for a player and find some way to get them out quickly. These are differences for NAQT writing, but they're not Harrison-Bergeron-like impediments that keep everything worse than they could be; in fact, I think they force your writing to improve overall. Now, certainly, there have been times when I've made the wrong choices when writing for NAQT: I clogged up a question with four supporting characters' names when two would have moved us down the pyramid just as well, or I fell in love with two very hard clues that took up half the question, and so on. For instance, my Woman in White tossup at CO Lit was an attempt to make up for an imperfect one I had in the ICT which suffered from some of those problems--yet, at the same time, I think both are better than several other eight-line Woman in White tossups I've seen.

Now, have I seen questions of mine get mangled a bit in the NAQT process, or used at tournament of inappropriate difficulty, or otherwise not used to the effect I'd wished? Yes--but on almost every occasion, if I email the editors about it, it gets fixed. Are there some people who are not the world's best writers who end up writing a lot of questions NAQT uses? Yes, but--and I have observed this in set statistics--their totals rise a great deal when there aren't good questions in reserve. Despite what both people think and what NAQT's product sometimes seems to indicate--I will not try to defend the many criticisms of systematic problems within many NAQT questions at all levels, because I have seen them myself and commented to the higher-ups about them--NAQT wants to produce good tournaments that are both enjoyable for everybody and adhere to circuit standards of good tournaments. In fact--and I hope I'm not speaking out of school about this--when R. inquired if I'd be interested in doing some editing for NAQT (sadly I had turn to this down, as I turned down a similar ACF offer, due to my personal need not to commit to any long-term editing commitments during the school year), he cited "knowledge of circuit standards" as a point in my favor. I'm sure that was an even stronger point for getting Seth to edit SCT, and the complex arrangement that that set off should be telling--there are so few serious circuit players working for NAQT (certainly in comparison to ACF, PACE, HSAPQ, and so on, for various reasons) that getting one required some contortion of eligibility standards. I think it'd be for the good of quiz bowl in general, then, if more people understood that NAQT's format is not a real impediment to question quality and applied to write for them.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Fri Oct 31, 2008 9:31 pm
by Captain Sinico
My rejoinder is three-fold. First of all, I think you severely underestimate the impact of the distribution. For my own purposes, I have every confidence that acceptable questions can be written under the NAQT character cap (thought I'll never cease asserting that better questions should result from its being relaxed somewhat.) However, the NAQT distribution really turns me off, as a player. Anyway, I understand if you do not wish to treat that subject, but I think that neglecting to do so will never produce an adequate treatment of why so few top players write for NAQT.
Secondly, if the length difference between your two example questions is not substantively important, why did you write the first question at such a greater length? You seem to suggest "Because I'm lazy," but I don't think I buy that; you're giving rather short shrift to the value of the clues you're cutting.
Actually, I think I'll just up and say that I think this objection is unanswerable. The one answer I can see you making (that isn't a repetition of the weak "people are too lazy to condense their questions; me too") is that such a length is demanded/expected at the level the question was written at; I'll pre-empt that in two ways. I'll say that I never write questions that long (almost 9 lines in 10 pt, 1" TNR) and rarely allow them when I edit, so I know the market, even at the highest levels, will accept shorter questions. I'll further flatter myself to claim that I'm a high-level player, but say that, as a player, I dislike questions that long; I prefer them shorter (obviously, those aren't entirely independent events.) Anyway, let's see what you come up with to answer that.
Thirdly, my experience indicates that there are many other (what I'll deem "structural") issues about how NAQT produces questions that turn people off. I've not seriously considered writing for NAQT as I don't really have time to do all the things I'm already committed to do. However, were I to consider it, one factor in my decision would be my distress at geting notes on my physics questions from NAQT science editor Samer Ismael. That's because I think I know more about both physics (a lot more!) and about writing good quizbowl questions (a lot more!) than Samer does. But, that's just one example; there are many others. I think these structural factors are also crucially important in explaining why NAQT fails to draw top writing talent and are also not treated by your analysis.


Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:52 pm
by Mike Bentley
While I do write some questions for NAQT, there are several reasons why I don't write more.

I guess the primary one is that at this point in my life, I'm mainly interested in writing quizbowl questions that are interesting to me. Writing a tossup on many of the things in the high school canon usually does not fall in that category of "interesting", so that rules out a lot of what NAQT produces, and certainly almost all of their TV stuff and A-Sets. Second, I also get interested in a subject when I hear several neat clues about it. Unfortunately, the NAQT length requirement often means that these clues have to be sacrificed in order to have enough room to distinguish between teams. Yes, you can write decent enough pyramidal questions under 425 characters, but this means sacrificing clues, restructuring tossups, etc. Thus, it becomes difficult for me to gather the motivation to write an NAQT question, and often times these questions end up becoming questions for mACF tournaments. These issues are less of a concern with bonuses, but I don't have the motivation to write bonuses and much as I do tossups.

The format required for NAQT questions is also very annoying. There are probably 20 tossups and bonuses on my computer I haven't submitted at the moment because I don't feel like transferring them from normal format to NAQT's mark-up language. This is something that I plan to remedy in the near future as I'm working on a program to do this for me, but it's still a decent amount of time sunk on doing things that have nothing to do with producing good questions.

There are probably other reasons, and if they aren't raised by other people I might do so when I'm feeling more like writing later.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Fri Oct 31, 2008 11:59 pm
by Important Bird Area
Two quick points:

1. I don't find NAQT's markup language any more irritating than standardizing the formats used in a packet-submission event. (compare this old thread where people discuss creating a markup language for mACF events)

2. Mike, could you explain what impact NAQT's distribution has on you as a writer? I understand why players complain about it, but I don't see how "this tournament has only 3/3 of my non-western myth, and so the other 1/1 I just submitted won't be read until the 2010 ICT" has any effect whatsoever on the writers.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sat Nov 01, 2008 12:10 am
by Mike Bentley
bt_green_warbler wrote:1. I don't find NAQT's markup language any more irritating than standardizing the formats used in a packet-submission event. (compare this old thread where people discuss creating a markup language for mACF events)
The formats used in packet submission events are super easy. Underline and bold required parts of answers. Don't use weird Word formatting. Bonus parts start with [10]'s. Italicize titles. I think that's pretty much it.

NAQT's markup language involves things like:
-Figure out the subject, place, language and time code of your question
-Label the question as tossup/bonus
-Make sure your answers are formatted exactly as "answer:[tab]" where answer must be lowercase and there must be a tab after it
-Use tags for italicizing and underlining rather than built-in word editor stuff
-Transfer the text from a word processor to a text editor
-Add power marks to the questions
-Upload the questions with a unique file name
-Fix any tossups that are greater than 425 characters in length (or shorter for A-sets)

When you add it all up, a lot of time is spent doing relatively unnecessary formatting work when writing NAQT questions.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sat Nov 01, 2008 12:36 am
by Important Bird Area
Bentley Like Beckham wrote: When you add it all up, a lot of time is spent doing relatively unnecessary formatting work when writing NAQT questions.
Eh. I spent a lot of time doing unnecessary formatting work the first month I wrote for NAQT, but it's just the ordinary course of business now. In particular:

1. I always just write from scratch within a text editor. Much, much easier than writing in Word for several of the reasons you mention.

2. You're doing a whole lot of work that you can perfectly well leave to the editors. We're happy to do the difficulty, place, language, and time codes and place the power mark.

3. "Label the question as tossup/bonus" and "upload the questions with a unique file name" are not strenuous tasks.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sun Nov 02, 2008 12:21 am
by setht
I guess I should preface this by saying that I'm not speaking in any official capacity for NAQT.

Here's my take on this: I think signing up to write and/or edit questions for NAQT, particularly at the SCT/ICT level, is a worthwhile endeavor. I think there are some barriers to entry, many of which have been mentioned in this thread. I don't think any such barrier is insurmountable. I also think that writing for NAQT has some advantages over writing for a standard mACF circuit tournament.

Dave started this thread by focusing on the character limit issue. This has actually been the biggest issue for me as a writer, so I'll set that aside for now.

Mike S. added the issues of NAQT's distribution and editorial structure. Regarding distribution: my impression as a player is that the SCT/ICT distribution has shifted over the past few years, moving closer to a standard mACF-type distribution. I'd like to see the distribution shift a bit more, but I don't really see how this affects me as a writer--I write in the categories I want to write, and ignore the categories I don't want to write. No one has ever tried to assign me questions to write in categories that I don't want to write, and I assume the same holds for all other NAQT writers. The only way I can think of that the distribution might affect me as a writer would be if I felt that the current distribution is so bad that the SCT/ICT sets are automatically doomed from the start, and didn't feel like spending my time writing questions for a tournament that I felt was going to suck overall no matter what I did to help produce it. If people do feel that NAQT's efforts to produce quality SCT and ICT sets are doomed because of NAQT's distribution or character limits or
editorial staff or whatever, then
a) I don't agree with you, but you're entitled to that opinion, and
b) I urge you make your concerns known to NAQT; if they hear that a large percentage of today's talented young writers aren't signing up because of this sort of concern, I think they will seriously consider making changes (I mean, they already have changed the distribution a good bit without this sort of impetus)
Mike, if you had some other distribution-related concern in mind, could you clarify that?

Regarding editorial structure: first, as a quick response to Mike's particular situation as a prospective physics writer, I believe the current physics editor is Maribeth Mason, not Samer. Second, I can think of only 2 occasions in which a question I wrote for NAQT had an editing change I didn't agree with, out of (apparently) 89 I've submitted so far. There have been more than 2 occasions in which a question I wrote for NAQT had an editing change I liked, but by far the most common occurrence has been that my questions go through without any real change. I don't know if this is atypical for experienced question writers, but it certainly doesn't seem worse than what I've experienced with standard mACF tournaments.

Mike B. added a concern about formatting. I feel that preparing questions within NAQT's formatting guidelines is comparable to the work I have to do formatting questions I do for circuit events (or ACF events, for that matter). I've got a template file (with blank entries for tossup and bonus type questions that just need to be filled with the question and answer) that I can just copy and paste into a text editor to take care of nearly every formatting requirement Mike mentions; if a question doesn't need lots of tags for italicizing/underlining/diacriticals, I find it a little easier than writing a comparable question in typical ACF-style formatting. If the question does need lots of those tags, it's a little harder. Either way, it really doesn't seem like a big deal to me.

Coming back to the character limits: I'd like to see the character limits go up for the DI SCT and ICT sets (and the match length extended to compensate). I believe the current 425 character limit applies to tossups ranging in difficulty from IS set to DI ICT; I could be wrong about this, but I am certain that the same character limit currently applies to tossups written for the HSNCT and for the DI ICT sets. I think the top high school teams these days are very impressive, but I think they're a good ways behind the top college teams on depth; similarly, I think there's a pretty large difference between the median team at HSNCT and the median DI team at SCT or ICT. Finally, I think there's a larger spread of depth between the top and bottom of the field in DI at SCT or ICT than in the field at HSNCT. As a result, I think it makes perfect sense to say that tossups that are meant to distinguish between DI teams at SCT or ICT should be at least slightly longer than tossups at HSNCT (and they really should be longer than tossups meant to distinguish between teams at a typical tournament run on an IS set, if in fact IS set tossups have the same 425 character limit). My impression is that no one is calling for shorter HSNCT tossups, and that many people (in particular, much of the current playing audience) are calling for longer DI SCT/ICT tossups.

Speaking as a writer, I feel that the character limit sometimes does keep me from turning a good question into a really good question (or a decent question into a good question). This doesn't always happen, and I think it should be possible to write a full set of at-least-decent tossups that fit under the current 425 character limit, but I've had it happen to me a couple times when I've sat down to write tossups for NAQT sets. I don't think I need 600+ characters to write a really good question or to indulge in a particularly neat clue when I find one, but I think it's hard to do this consistently in less than 425 characters. I think the cap is less of a problem in writing good literature tossups than it is for writing science tossups, for instance; there are some good science clues that require a decent amount of supporting text in order to make the clues unique, or even just correct. I think it's easier to take a long literature question and cut some of the supporting text around some clues without having to take out those clues entirely. In the past people have mentioned other types of questions that might suffer from similar problems (e.g., not having much space to put in aria titles in an opera question).

I really hope the character limit will go up a bit for DI SCT/ICT tossups. I don't think it needs to change much; even a modest increase would make it much easier for me to write lots more tossups I'd feel comfortable with using for national competition, and I imagine the same holds for other current/recent players that might sign up to write. In the meantime, I do think it is possible to produce decent, good, and really good questions within the current framework, I don't think it's a huge hassle to do so, and I wish more people would try their hands at it. I think it's good for people's development as writers, it's certainly good for NAQT, and it's good for the circuit--is there any other tournament that draws as many teams as SCT (all sites combined)? If you're an aspiring or veteran collegiate writer, SCT and ICT seem to me like great venues for displaying your question-writing talents. If you're a DI player, try writing some DII questions (if you're not playing SCT because you're staffing or whatever, write DI questions too); if you're a DII player, try writing some DI questions. If you don't qualify to go to ICT or you can't go for whatever reason, write some questions.


Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sun Nov 02, 2008 1:00 am
by Susan
Seth wrote: Regarding editorial structure: first, as a quick response to Mike's particular situation as a prospective physics writer, I believe the current physics editor is Maribeth Mason, not Samer. Second, I can think of only 2 occasions in which a question I wrote for NAQT had an editing change I didn't agree with, out of (apparently) 89 I've submitted so far. There have been more than 2 occasions in which a question I wrote for NAQT had an editing change I liked, but by far the most common occurrence has been that my questions go through without any real change. I don't know if this is atypical for experienced question writers, but it certainly doesn't seem worse than what I've experienced with standard mACF tournaments.
This has not been my experience in writing biology questions for NAQT; a fair number of my biology questions were changed, none in a way that clearly improved the question so far as I can tell (many seemed to be changed qua change, while at least one question had its original leadin replaced with a nonsensical, unbuzzable leadin ripped from Wikipedia, though to be fair the Wiki-leadin was removed when I pointed out the problem). (I've had other (non-bio) tossups changed by NAQT editors, always for the better so far as I can tell.)

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I think Mike's complaint is legit even if it doesn't apply specifically to physics questions.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sun Nov 02, 2008 4:18 am
by cvdwightw
First off, I think Chris Nolte has replaced Maribeth as physics editor, but Samer has not been the physics editor at least since I started uploading questions.

Second, I'm going to discard the length and distribution issues - the former because you just kind of have to accept that you can't write the world's greatest question on whatever, the latter because if you hate writing current events like I do then you don't have to write current events.

My experience with NAQT editing is just like my experience with most other editing - sometimes my question gets changed for the better, sometimes it gets changed for the worse, sometimes it gets changed because the editor needs to change things to feel like the question is edited, and sometimes it goes through unchanged.

So, then, maybe the problem behind "bad" NAQT science is that NAQT fails to attract science writers because "good" science writers either have too much of an ego or care too much about their questions to have their questions edited by Samer Ismail (so far, there haven't been any complaints about any of the other editors, as far as I know). What is NAQT to do, then? Remove Samer from editorship? Who's going to replace him? I certainly don't have the reputation as a science editor (both in terms of a reputation in the community and my faith in myself to write/edit consistently good science) that I can get people to send me science questions, and I certainly wouldn't be editing DI SCT/ICT science anytime soon (perhaps, if NAQT will have me, I might be able to take a portion of time between the end of my yearly HSAPQ commitment and HSNCT to help edit some HSNCT science, but that would be about it). I'm not sure anyone that does have the reputation as a good science writer/editor both (a) wants the job and (b) has time to perform that job well.

Re: On Writing for NAQT

Posted: Sun Nov 02, 2008 11:30 am
by harpersferry
Doesn't this kind of come back to a previous discussion about a general lack of experienced science editors on the circuit?

For the record, I don't write for NAQT not because of the issues cited above, but because I thought I could help IL better by writing for Aegis. Since NAQT hasn't really caught on there, I figured I might as well throw my questions with the guys who do have a decent foothold and are working for change, but still need writers to keep up with doing two big tournaments. And NAQT paying twice as much didn't really factor into the equation because I wouldn't be writing if I were interested in making money anyway.