Advanced Question Writing Seminar

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Advanced Question Writing Seminar

Post by No Rules Westbrook »

Well, we've had a breather from the NAQT thread, and I like to pontificate as much as anyone on good quizbowl writing, so...

Over the years, I've encountered a number of rather minor issues in quizbowl writing, most of which I probably can't recall on the spot, but they arise in an ad hoc fashion and I think lots of us have dealt with them. I'm titling this post "advanced qb writing seminar" because these are not issues I think are central to good writing - if you're just starting out, these are probably not things you want to worry about; the big stuff is obviously pyrimadality, specificity, etc...you know, mostly the things Jerry wrote about in his seminal "how to write" piece. In fact, some of these things will probably tend to be simply stylistic and without a right or best answer; in some cases, it may be a good thing that different writers do things differently...questions could get pretty boring if we were all exactly the same. So, this is a post to make observations (one at a time) about some of these issues and people can discuss them if and as they wish...or maybe I'll rapidly tire of this and this will be the only time I ever post in this thread, who knows. And others can raise similar issues too, of course. Thankfully, though, this particular question writing camp is entirely and forever online. Anyways...


Discussion Topic #1: Clue Spacing

Okay, in any tossup, there are hopefully several clues that give people "chances to buzz." But, as we all know (cause it's the ADVANCED writing seminar), it's easy to forget about how people will react when they sit there hearing a question...as opposed to how you react to your own question sitting at the computer reading it. Even under perfect conditions (moderator is good, etc.), people are not robots...they don't immediately react to clues. Sometimes they do - a stock clue for instance will result in a reflex buzz because the player is reasonably sure that he can quickly connect that clue to the right answer. But, lots of other clues elicit different reactions...a player may sit there struggling to recall the right answer or sit there a little longer to weigh the odds that an answer he is considering is the right answer, he may have to "add things up," etc. We often see people buzzing in the middle of a non-clue, because they finally remembered the answer or decided it was worth buzzing or finally realized that the moderator said "blue" and not "shoe" or whatever.

This becomes a problem when people write tossups where clues are too scrunched together. Often, this scrunching is surprisingly difficult to avoid...the most natural way to write a sentence or a paragraph simply results in the clues (and, thus, the "chances to buzz") running together. This is unfortunate because the player then has very little time to process a clue; I think all of us have been sitting there calmly mulling over a clue only to be caught with our pants down when another (sometimes, much easier) clue comes flying around the corner. I think the optimal spacing is probably about five or six words between clues (and let's say clues "end" when the player has a reasonable understanding of what the clue is). Now, there's sometimes no problem with sticking two clues together if they really go together and you're sure that they're about equal difficulty. This stuff is difficult to discuss in the abstract; there are several cases I can imagine where sticking clues together is just fine.

But, what I think is at issue here is the "flow" of the question. Someone like Teitler, for instance, has made very reasonable arguments against using "flabby" language in tossups like "famously" or "most important," etc. But, I think words like these can be very helpful in making a tossup flow more smoothly. If you'd rather not have one clue so close to another, you can usually engage in some quick meaningless chatter. Example: "...and he also invented the [Clue X] However, perhaps this man remains most famous for [Clue Y]..." I've separated the clues sufficiently by using words like however, perhaps, and famous. This can easily be overused, of course, but what can't. And, obviously, we should generally avoid long stretches without clues too. I suppose that's all I have to say for now.
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Post by DakarKra »

Ryan, how would you (or anyone else, for that matter) see this issue as it applies to the "novice-level" packets produced for tournaments like ACF Fall, Illinois Novice, etc., which have rather short length limits (6-lines seems to be standard for these events)? Should writers aim more for density or something approaching this 5 or 6-word spacing, especially as pursuing the latter policy excessively could result in questions which flow well, but have but 4 clues total?

Also, would this topic include the subject of sentence structure, comparing the terser writing styles of a Sorice (if I remember correctly on how he labels himself, apologies if I'm wrong), with those who write in a more Ciceronian style?
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Re: Advanced Question Writing Seminar

Post by setht »

In a shocking development, I disagree with Ryan. It seems to me he'd be better served by having moderators pause for 5 seconds after every significant clue. That'll give people time to savor each clue, and there's no chance they'll be distracted by chatter that turns out to be irrelevant. After all, if I'm stuck thinking about some previous clue to the point that I'm not going to pay attention to the next clue, why should I care whether there's some content-free verbiage put in as an attempt at a segue to the next clue? (And if I'm not stuck on a previous clue, why should I care whether there's some content-free verbiage put in as an attempt at a segue to the next clue?)

I dislike both proposals (Ryan's meaningless padding and my silent padding). I've had the experience Ryan alludes to--getting stuck thinking about a previous clue, and then missing out on an easier clue later--and when it happens, I think to myself that I should play differently. I don't think to myself that the question should have been written differently. I don't see any reason for people to change their question writing practices to accommodate bad playing habits (and let's face it, "I stopped paying attention to the question" is a bad move no matter what the reason), especially when the proposed change is "let's make questions longer without adding to the clue content."

Moving off the immediate topic for a moment, I wanted to clarify that when I rail against "flabbiness" in questions, I'm not saying we should write tossups like this: "Divergence-free gauge. Electrostatic force point charges. Charge unit." I enjoy complete sentences as much as the next person. I don't enjoy unnecessary verbiage; in particular, I'm not a fan of stuff like "more famously," which people use to connect two sentences that really don't have anything to do with each other. If you have two sentences in a row with no clear logical connection, just put them in as two separate sentences--don't put in meaningless padding in case some people want to sit there and think, and don't put in meaningless "flow" words.

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Re: Advanced Question Writing Seminar

Post by setht »

Argh, double post
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Post by First Chairman »

I'd love to have people help construct a session if you see fit for the Bootcamp in the summer.
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Post by No Rules Westbrook »

DakarKra raises a fine point. If you're writing something less than the standard mACF 7-8 line tossup, getting out enough clues with decent spacing can be very tough. In those tossups of lesser length, I'd much much rather see enough clues with some tight spacing than a dearth of clues. I say this for lots of reasons: (1) putting in more clues is a good way to learn them yourself and for people hearing/reading the packets to hear/see lots of clues and become good players thesmelves (and, as you know if you've followed my arguments on this board, this type of learning is what I am all about). (2) editors can always take out too many clues a lot easier than they can insert more clues, and really, there is very rarely a problem of too many clues (3) as Teitler indicates, it's pretty easy for someone to just learn to play "quicker" in their mind, you can't adjust your playing style when there are just not enough clues in the questions.


In response to Teitler, I'd say a few things. First of all, I don't mean to suggest that any of the "meaningless chatter" should mislead players - if you say Person X is "most famous" for something, it should be at least a defensible claim. So, to the extent you're suggesting that such language can itself mislead players, I'm not advocating this. Secondly, I don't think encouraging people to just think quicker and discard previous clues quicker is the ideal answer. Meditating on a previous clue may be a bad playing habit in the sense that you would get more points per game if you stopped doing it (because of how the questions happen to be written); but that doesn't really mean that the habit itself is something that should be discouraged. Eau contrare, I think we should encourage people to thoughtfully consider good clues...this doesn't mean they "stop paying attention," it just means that their focus is split, because people are not robots capable of taking in all information instantaneously. And, it's not just the "getting caught with your pants down" effect that bothers me...I would rather see people buzz on a harder and more obscure clue than an easier one. I like seeing good buzzes. So, it's preferrable to me that people should (where possible) get a reasonable amount of time to ponder clues before the question descends into what a lot of us would think of as a ho-hum obvious clue.

I really don't mean for this discussion to confuse any writers out there, because it's a fine line to walk. I too fear that suggesting the inclusion of what I call "meaningless chatter" will be taken as an invitation to write questions with a paltry smattering of non-clues and a whole bunch of silly verbiage. And, like I said, occasionally putting some clues together is good - it's tough to say when in the abstract though.
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Post by Mr. Kwalter »

There are a few considerations here that need to be taken into account:

1) In ACF, we have the 5 second rule. Many players decide that they do need 5 seconds to figure out where they've heard that clue before etc, so they take it themselves. With that kind of rule I don't think we need to build any space in to ensure that people have enough time to consider previous clues.

2) I think these days the "standard 7-8 line mACF tossup" is all but extinct. Really, the only tournaments you're going to find those tossups at are ACF nationals, Chicago Open, and the occasional other tournament clearly written for masters teams. While I realize that this is an "advanced" discussion on question writing, I think clue density is a much more salient "advanced" topic even for good writers than clue spacing.

3) Seth, I can't agree with you 100% on flow words. Sudden stops in the flow of a question are distracting both for the moderator and the players. I know I as a moderator am sometimes surprised by the abrupt end of a sentence with no segue to the next clue to the extent that I pause to make sure I haven't missed anything. When writing questions, people should take some time out to actually read their questions aloud to themselves. Be careful with your commas; what seems like it might be grammatically correct (and hell, it really might be) may be prohibitively awkward when spoken aloud.
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Post by grapesmoker »

Kit Cloudkicker wrote:2) I think these days the "standard 7-8 line mACF tossup" is all but extinct. Really, the only tournaments you're going to find those tossups at are ACF nationals, Chicago Open, and the occasional other tournament clearly written for masters teams. While I realize that this is an "advanced" discussion on question writing, I think clue density is a much more salient "advanced" topic even for good writers than clue spacing.
I really hope this isn't true. 7 to 8 lines is totally reasonable as far as Regionals is concerned, and is the norm for most mACF events. But I agree with the other things that Eric is saying here.
3) Seth, I can't agree with you 100% on flow words. Sudden stops in the flow of a question are distracting both for the moderator and the players. I know I as a moderator am sometimes surprised by the abrupt end of a sentence with no segue to the next clue to the extent that I pause to make sure I haven't missed anything. When writing questions, people should take some time out to actually read their questions aloud to themselves. Be careful with your commas; what seems like it might be grammatically correct (and hell, it really might be) may be prohibitively awkward when spoken aloud.
Echoing this sentiment. Connecting words keep the question flowing instead of turning into a series of blunt declarations.

Anyway, it's mostly just a question of style. If you like a little more flow in your questions, you might prefer Ryan's approach; if you like it more straightforward, you'll like Seth's suggestions. Ultimately, neither of these are going to make or break a question, so I would focus on substantial clue placement first and proper grammar/identifying words second.
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Post by Matt Weiner »

grapesmoker wrote:I really hope this isn't true. 7 to 8 lines is totally reasonable as far as Regionals is concerned, and is the norm for most mACF events.
Regionals will be six lines this year, as Penn Bowl was last year and will be this year.

I am confused as to what "mACF" means since it seems that every single tournament not actually run on NAQT questions labels itself thus, but I assure you that the anarchic editing present in certain events, which allows tossups to range from 3 lines to 19 lines of equally variable clue usefulness, does not represent a concerted or useful philosophical statement on anyone's part.

I have worked on quite a few events with rigorous restrictions on question length, and I have come to the conclusion that 6-line tossups are an ideal way to render all further criticism of tossup length incorrect and ignorable, while still allowing for perfectly fair discrimination amongst top teams and the inclusion of amusing or obscure clues early in the question.
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Post by DakarKra »

Matt Weiner wrote:
grapesmoker wrote:I really hope this isn't true. 7 to 8 lines is totally reasonable as far as Regionals is concerned, and is the norm for most mACF events.
Regionals will be six lines this year, as Penn Bowl was last year and will be this year.

I am confused as to what "mACF" means since it seems that every single tournament not actually run on NAQT questions labels itself thus, but I assure you that the anarchic editing present in certain events, which allows tossups to range from 3 lines to 19 lines of equally variable clue usefulness, does not represent a concerted or useful philosophical statement on anyone's part.

I have worked on quite a few events with rigorous restrictions on question length, and I have come to the conclusion that 6-line tossups are an ideal way to render all further criticism of tossup length incorrect and ignorable, while still allowing for perfectly fair discrimination amongst top teams and the inclusion of amusing or obscure clues early in the question.
Is it too late to argue for the merits of the 7- or 8-line tossup? I would argue that a firm limit of 8 lines on questions for events like Regionals (and whatever "mACF" events would like to hold themselves to those standards, regardless of whether they meet them) would not be excessive and would, in fact, be the optimum. In my mind, the difference between those two lines is a boon for the writer, as it grants far more flexibility to work with, especially in areas that he or she knows very well. Furthermore, it does not come across as oppressively long, because once the approximate 6-line distance has been hit in the 8-line question, you are in the giveaway range - or whatever you like to call it, when middle clues start bleeding over into the areas that are best known, and consequently should be eliciting buzzes from even those of us who are not particularly strong players. Furthermore, just because 8 lines is the limit, 7- and 7.5-line questions are going to be occurring just as frequently, which I think even softens the blow all the more, while presenting the same advantages for the writer.

I would contrast those 7-8 line questions with the significantly longer brands of questions out there (whether they're good, like at ACF Nationals or even last years Regionals, or bad, like some of the much-maligned Sun N Fun packets or an 18.5 line From Justin to Kelly tossup, which sticks out as a particularly egregious offender in my mind), simply because once you've reached the 6-line point, you're reaching the point where most buzzes should be coming in - whether they really do or not. For the inexperienced, casual, or even bad player, a 10.5- or 11-line question is really like two separate questions, the first lacking a giveaway, in terms of what they hear, while a 7- or 8-line question represents only a fractionally larger time investment and lacks that apparent difficulty which comes with a longer question like Jerry's submission on Shakespeare for Sun N Fun (I use this example, because I think we can agree that there was no "easier" answer, but the length and overall difficulty of the clues definitely gives it that apparent difficulty that comes from the fact that all of the clues, amounting to 6.5 lines, before Harold Bloom are difficult as they rightly should be, at least to me and my ignorance).

This meandering, hardly coherent argument is brought to you by the Committee for More 7- to 8-Line Tossups.
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Post by vandyhawk »

To comment on Ryan's original post, I both agree and disagree. While I don't think people should intentionally space out clues, especially when working with length restrictions, I like flowing questions with some conjunctions and such better than ones with short, succinct sentences. I guess that naturally gives a little more clue processing time, but like Eric said, if you know you know a clue, you can buzz and have 5 seconds to sit there and think about what the answer is, or you can wait for another clue to help push your brain that should be coming along shortly. If you "get caught with your pants down," whose fault is it really? Part of this game is recognizing clues and buzzing, so if you fail to do so b/c of trouble remembering an answer to a clue you normally know, rather than a bad question, etc., I don't see how that's anyone's fault but one's own.

On a slightly different note...
DakarKra wrote:Is it too late to argue for the merits of the 7- or 8-line tossup?
Yes. On that note - everyone please start writing questions for us to edit.
DakarKra wrote:I would argue that a firm limit of 8 lines on questions for events like Regionals (and whatever "mACF" events would like to hold themselves to those standards, regardless of whether they meet them) would not be excessive and would, in fact, be the optimum. In my mind, the difference between those two lines is a boon for the writer, as it grants far more flexibility to work with, especially in areas that he or she knows very well.
In my mind, the experience of a player hearing a question is far more important than the writer having some kind of flexibility boon in writing everything he knows about certain subjects. Why should it matter so much to have room to show off your expert knowledge in your pet areas - chances are, other players don't share this knowledge and would benefit just as much by hearing a well-constructed, reasonable-length tossup. And what about the areas you don't know well? Writing an 8 line question on an unfamiliar topic can be quite the daunting task and rarely turns out well for anyone but the very most experienced writers. Picking proper clue placement and subject matter, especially in the middle, becomes very tough compared with around a 6 line question, at least in my experience.
DakarKra wrote:Furthermore, it does not come across as oppressively long, because once the approximate 6-line distance has been hit in the 8-line question, you are in the giveaway range - or whatever you like to call it, when middle clues start bleeding over into the areas that are best known, and consequently should be eliciting buzzes from even those of us who are not particularly strong players. Furthermore, just because 8 lines is the limit, 7- and 7.5-line questions are going to be occurring just as frequently, which I think even softens the blow all the more, while presenting the same advantages for the writer.
If you're in the giveaway range at line 6, why don't you end the question there? Someone would have a very hard time convincing me that a 6 line tossup doesn't leave adequate room for differentiating among teams, even those at the top. You have 1-2 lines for an interesting (or at the least difficult and identifying) leadin, up to 3.5 or so lines for multiple middle clues, and then a giveaway. In my opinion and experience, longer tossups of the last few years just tacked on more early/hard middle clues unlikely to add much differentiation ability compared with the time and frustration they added to most players listening. There is a reason that attendance at Regionals has dramatically dropped in at least most of the regions over the past few years, and although difficulty has just as much to do with it, length is a major factor. We need to remember that the vast majority of quizbowl players aren't on this board and don't share the same aesthetics of say Jerry or Ryan, and it's my opinion that a well-written 6 line tossup best fits within everyone's quizbowl ideals.
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Post by DakarKra »

vandyhawk wrote: In my mind, the experience of a player hearing a question is far more important than the writer having some kind of flexibility boon in writing everything he knows about certain subjects. Why should it matter so much to have room to show off your expert knowledge in your pet areas - chances are, other players don't share this knowledge and would benefit just as much by hearing a well-constructed, reasonable-length tossup. And what about the areas you don't know well? Writing an 8 line question on an unfamiliar topic can be quite the daunting task and rarely turns out well for anyone but the very most experienced writers. Picking proper clue placement and subject matter, especially in the middle, becomes very tough compared with around a 6 line question, at least in my experience.
I don't disagree with the first part of this in the least (though, I will note here that I actually enjoy writing a lot more than playing at this point and have for the past 4 years; this is why I argue primarily from that perspective, for what little that's worth). I actually think that the addition of two lines at maximum for Regionals-level* questions - when performed well - is hardly so daunting an experience for players that it is what keeps people from attending those events. I actually think that the addition of two lines adds very little in terms of time to the playing experience (with the natural caveat that moderation must be good; even a 4-line tossup with a terrible moderator feels like Gone with the Wind).

As for the second, I'm not suggesting that players "show off" by coming up with 5 lines of lead-in level clues. Rather, I think that there are any number of potential clues - many in the "middle" range - for several subjects (by the way, Sisyphos is not one) which a person of deep knowledge can sort very accurately, creating the most pyramidal, and also most educational, question possible. In 6 lines, this is not always possible. Is 8 lines automatically best able to capture this? I can't say that that's necessarily the case, but I think that by bumping the firm maximum up two lines (and not automatically filling those two lines with harder and harder lead-in level clues), you're creating the opportunity for better questions (which also improves the experiences of teams playing).

You are right that not everyone will be an expert in every field for which they write questions. However, by setting the maximum at 8 lines, you are in no way requiring that all tossups meet that length. Uniformity in quality should be maintained to a much stricter degree than uniformity of question length. If packets for the types of tournaments I'm discussing consisted of approximately half of the questions at 7-8 lines and the other half at 6-7 lines, I don't think that this increases the burden so greatly for those submitting the questions, while it does allow for hypothetically better questions to be submitted.
vandyhawk wrote: If you're in the giveaway range at line 6, why don't you end the question there?Someone would have a very hard time convincing me that a 6 line tossup doesn't leave adequate room for differentiating among teams, even those at the top. You have 1-2 lines for an interesting (or at the least difficult and identifying) leadin, up to 3.5 or so lines for multiple middle clues, and then a giveaway. In my opinion and experience, longer tossups of the last few years just tacked on more early/hard middle clues unlikely to add much differentiation ability compared with the time and frustration they added to most players listening. There is a reason that attendance at Regionals has dramatically dropped in at least most of the regions over the past few years, and although difficulty has just as much to do with it, length is a major factor. We need to remember that the vast majority of quizbowl players aren't on this board and don't share the same aesthetics of say Jerry or Ryan, and it's my opinion that a well-written 6 line tossup best fits within everyone's quizbowl ideals.
In clarification here, while I did use the phrase "giveaway range", I did define it as covering that area where easier "middle" clues are being used and which, to the best of my knowledge, is the portion of the question referenced most often as the place where buzzes should be taking place. That is, before the FTP and the best known clue or two. Also, I will admit that I see the breakdown of a question differently than do you (and than does our normal vocabulary on the subject). I see the lead-in as including new material; the first "middle stage" as incorporating previously used early clues and other more "difficult" facts; the second "middle stage" as featuring the lower-level, semi-stock middle clues, eventually bleeding into the "giveaway". Using that scheme, a division of 1-2, 2.5, 2.5-3.5, 1 does not strike me as an inappropriate way (and, in fact, in my mind, it's a very good way) to set up an 8 line question.

Also, I agree that that probably has been the case of late with longer questions and that "apparent" difficulty, as well as actual difficulty has played a part in question perception. In fact, I address this very issue (perhaps not well enough) and cite a specific example (Jerry's Shakespeare tossup). However, I think that the solution to that problem is not to automatically shorten questions, but to improve the way longer questions are being written/edited. If that is improved instead, then I think that greater differentiation you mention will automatically follow and that the experiences of these disenfranchised voices will not be harmed, but improved.


*The existence of "Regionals-level" being very much disputed by Matt and others.
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Post by grapesmoker »

Matt Weiner wrote:Regionals will be six lines this year, as Penn Bowl was last year and will be this year.
I find this hugely unfortunate, especially given the fact that many of the editor tossups at the aforementioned 2007 Penn Bowl were 7 lines, and those that were, were markedly better than the 6 line ones. You can pack a lot of extra information into a 7 or 8 line tossup that you can't get into a 6 line one and I think placing a hard limit like that is a poor idea.
I am confused as to what "mACF" means since it seems that every single tournament not actually run on NAQT questions labels itself thus, but I assure you that the anarchic editing present in certain events, which allows tossups to range from 3 lines to 19 lines of equally variable clue usefulness, does not represent a concerted or useful philosophical statement on anyone's part.
Yeah, I don't actually mean events that suck or are poorly edited. I don't know why you would pick on this strawman when we have available to us multiple fine examples of non-ACF tournaments that have 7 or 8 line tossups.
I have worked on quite a few events with rigorous restrictions on question length, and I have come to the conclusion that 6-line tossups are an ideal way to render all further criticism of tossup length incorrect and ignorable, while still allowing for perfectly fair discrimination amongst top teams and the inclusion of amusing or obscure clues early in the question.
Anyone who complains about question length of a 7 or 8 line question is being unreasonable, especially since it's pretty much a fact that this has negligible impact on tournament length. So I don't see the need to move to a hard 6-line cap in order to please people who are clearly wrong anyway. I also don't think the last part is true. If you're trying to work an interesting and novel anecdote into a question, figure that's about 2 lines. That's it, now you have 4 lines at most to give canonical clues and get to a giveaway, which is going to eat up one line already, so now we have 3 lines left. I think that's too few and doesn't allow enough varied and interesting clues. I feel like this length limitation is driving ACF questions in the direction of emphasizing speed more than they should and I don't think that's the right direction to go.
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Post by grapesmoker »

DakarKra wrote:For the inexperienced, casual, or even bad player, a 10.5- or 11-line question is really like two separate questions, the first lacking a giveaway, in terms of what they hear, while a 7- or 8-line question represents only a fractionally larger time investment and lacks that apparent difficulty which comes with a longer question like Jerry's submission on Shakespeare for Sun N Fun (I use this example, because I think we can agree that there was no "easier" answer, but the length and overall difficulty of the clues definitely gives it that apparent difficulty that comes from the fact that all of the clues, amounting to 6.5 lines, before Harold Bloom are difficult as they rightly should be, at least to me and my ignorance).
Ok, so, that Shakespeare question was obviously not a question on the works of Shakespeare as such, because that would be incredibly easy. It was instead a question about books inspired by Shakespeare and critics who wrote about him.
A novel narrated by Hooker and written by Leon Rooke was titled after this man's "dog," and a fictionalized life of this man was written by Marchette Chutte in 1949. Terry Eagleton wrote a critical study about this man "and Society," while the poems "Cabaret Girl Dies on Welfare Island," "Death Chant," "Down and Out," and "Evil Morning," were all included in a poetry collection by Langston Hughes about this man in Harlem. Anne Sexton took the title for her poetry collection about the death of her parents, All My Pretty Ones, from one of this man's more famous works, and Harold Bloom wrote a work about this man and "the invention of the human." For ten points, identify this literary figure, whose own poetic works include "Venus and Adonis" and "Troilus and Cressida," but who is better known for such plays as "Timon of Athens" and a whole bunch of sonnets.

Answer: William Shakespeare
The first clue is obviously pretty hard, but the progression is less difficult than you think. For example, Terry Eagleton is a pretty famous critic, and Shakespeare and Society is one of his major works. After that comes a clue about Langston Hughes, who is pretty famous, so cursory familiarity with his work might get you points right there. The Sexton clue came next because it includes text from an actual Shakespeare play (i.e. "All my pretty ones" from the scene where Macduff is told his family has been killed), and then a clue about Harold Bloom, noted guy who wrote a huge-ass tome about Shakespeare. "Troilus and Cressida" is already giveaway material.

Ok, why am I dissecting this question? I'm doing it to show that you can pack a lot of useful information into 7 or 8 lines (I ran over into line 9, but I think we could trim enough text to make this tossup 7.5 easily) that finely discriminates between various levels of knowledge. Beyond trimming that first clue and a couple of superfluous words here and there, I don't see a way of cutting that question down and still keeping all the information that is contained in the original. One might argue, as Matt does, that maybe there's no need to pack all that information into the question, but I disagree; we do it to discriminate between different levels of knowledge, but it's also done as a learning experience, both for the writer and the listener. I mean, maybe you weren't aware of the Langston Hughes collection or of Anne Sexton's poem, or Terry Eagleton's work. If you heard that question, you just learned something you might not have known before, and I think that is one of the main strengths of allowing a little more latitude in question length.
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Post by setht »

grapesmoker wrote:Ok, so, that Shakespeare question was obviously not a question on the works of Shakespeare as such, because that would be incredibly easy. It was instead a question about books inspired by Shakespeare and critics who wrote about him.
I wanted to jump in and say that I don't see any reason why a question on Shakespeare based entirely on clues from his works should be incredibly easy. There are lead-in level (or harder) clues for every single work by Shakespeare, there are middle-level clues for many of his works, and there are giveaways for many of his works. I think it should be very easy to write a fine, pyramidal question on Shakespeare using only clues from his works. Of course it's also fine to write Shakespeare questions using mostly clues from criticism and later works that were inspired by him.
grapesmoker wrote:
A novel narrated by Hooker and written by Leon Rooke was titled after this man's "dog," and a fictionalized life of this man was written by Marchette Chutte in 1949. Terry Eagleton wrote a critical study about this man "and Society," while the poems "Cabaret Girl Dies on Welfare Island," "Death Chant," "Down and Out," and "Evil Morning," were all included in a poetry collection by Langston Hughes about this man in Harlem. Anne Sexton took the title for her poetry collection about the death of her parents, All My Pretty Ones, from one of this man's more famous works, and Harold Bloom wrote a work about this man and "the invention of the human." For ten points, identify this literary figure, whose own poetic works include "Venus and Adonis" and "Troilus and Cressida," but who is better known for such plays as "Timon of Athens" and a whole bunch of sonnets.

Answer: William Shakespeare
The first clue is obviously pretty hard, but the progression is less difficult than you think. For example, Terry Eagleton is a pretty famous critic, and Shakespeare and Society is one of his major works. After that comes a clue about Langston Hughes, who is pretty famous, so cursory familiarity with his work might get you points right there. The Sexton clue came next because it includes text from an actual Shakespeare play (i.e. "All my pretty ones" from the scene where Macduff is told his family has been killed), and then a clue about Harold Bloom, noted guy who wrote a huge-ass tome about Shakespeare. "Troilus and Cressida" is already giveaway material.

Ok, why am I dissecting this question? I'm doing it to show that you can pack a lot of useful information into 7 or 8 lines (I ran over into line 9, but I think we could trim enough text to make this tossup 7.5 easily) that finely discriminates between various levels of knowledge. Beyond trimming that first clue and a couple of superfluous words here and there, I don't see a way of cutting that question down and still keeping all the information that is contained in the original. One might argue, as Matt does, that maybe there's no need to pack all that information into the question, but I disagree; we do it to discriminate between different levels of knowledge, but it's also done as a learning experience, both for the writer and the listener. I mean, maybe you weren't aware of the Langston Hughes collection or of Anne Sexton's poem, or Terry Eagleton's work. If you heard that question, you just learned something you might not have known before, and I think that is one of the main strengths of allowing a little more latitude in question length.
Of course there's no way to cut down the question substantially and keep all the information that is contained in the original. I think the relevant question is, can we cut the question down substantially and keep a good amount of useful information that finely discriminates between various levels of knowledge? I think we can.

Here's a 6-line version of Jerry's tossup:

Leon Rooke wrote a novel titled after this man's "dog," and Terry Eagleton wrote a critical study about this man "and Society." The poems "Death Chant" and "Evil Morning" appear in a Langston Hughes collection about this man “in Harlem.â€
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Post by Auks Ran Ova »

A small note: Troilus and Cressida isn't really a "poetic work" of Shakespeare; it's a play.
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Post by Sima Guang Hater »

My 2c:

I completely understand the need for a 6-line cap at events like ACF fall and MCMNT; you don't want to bore people by putting in too much extra information, and for whatever reason (wrong or right), people start getting bored by longer questions. I don't think I'm ever going to really understand why, so live and let live, I guess. For higher-level tournaments edited by people who know what they're doing, there's no reason that an 8-line cap is unreasonable. A few reasons:

1) Its unlikely that the main body of players at ACF fall will know of something like "Shakespeare's Dog", but a group of masterplots-addicted dinosaurs and Jonathan Magin have a much higher chance of buzzing on clues like that. The extra line gives them the opportunity to differentiate their knowledge not only from the main body of players, but from each other. At tournaments like regionals, that's important.

2) 8-line tossups are great vehicles for low-level canon expansion, which is something that's more important at higher-difficulty tournaments than something like fall. I enjoy being able to add more clues that I want to see come up more, or to add novel clues about an answer without making the pyramid too steep.

3) Putting an 8-line soft cap as opposed to a 6-line hard cap decreases the probability of the occasional 4 line clunker making it in. Also, I consider the minimum possible length of an ACF-style tossup to be 5 lines; putting an 8-line cap instead of a 6-line cap gives more space to work in.

4) 8-line tournaments make much better material to read and practice from; more clues are always a good thing in this angle.
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Post by Captain Sinico »

I just want to say that I think Seth is dead-on in absolutely everything he's said here.

That is all,
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Post by theMoMA »

So let me just throw this out there. As a writer and player, I tend to prefer longer questions. I think this is fairly typical of players who invest a lot of time in the game and expect to be successful. I don't expect that there's much disagreement among the so-called board consensus that events written explicitly for very dedicated players (Chicago Open, Illinois Open, ACF Nationals, and any side events associated with those three) should be written with serious players in mind. This means more leeway on answer difficulty, longer questions, harder bonuses, and a higher standard of quality.

But let's keep in mind that events like Penn Bowl, MLK/TIT, and other quality regular-difficulty tournaments are written for a wider audience. ACF brass, especially Matt, have pushed for Regionals as the premiere regular-difficulty tournament instead of its own level of quizbowl. Both for the continuity of ACF and the enjoyment of players in the circuit at large, this is an excellent plan.

But we need to note that there are tradeoffs in this plan, because Regionals now must be written for a wider audience instead of the most dedicated few. Question length is one of the most noticeable tradeoffs.

For newer teams, there are few things that are as much a turnoff to ACF-style quizbowl as long questions. I've seen this over and over firsthand. I don't think it's right for us to dismiss all question-length criticism as "being unreasonable" and its promoters as "clearly wrong," as Jerry would suggest. Newer players and teams turned off to quizbowl by long questions is a real phenomenon, and it won't go away if we simply label it "wrong." In fact, that's about the worst thing that we can do to ensure the continuity of m/ACF quizbowl.

It's certainly possible that six-line questions are too short for good quizbowl, or overemphasize speed in ACF, but arguing to that end in such a dismissive manner isn't really helping anyone.
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Post by vandyhawk »

grapesmoker wrote:many of the editor tossups at the aforementioned 2007 Penn Bowl were 7 lines, and those that were, were markedly better than the 6 line ones.
From a quick perusal, if you make sure all the margins are 1" (by the way, I've always been confused why margins greater than 1" have ever been used), there are only 2 or 3 actual 7 line questions, one of which is on Robocop... There are also a couple 6.5 line questions and a handful with a few words spilled over onto the 7th line. Now, I had nothing to do with the pronouncement of the 6 line limit for regionals, but I plan to follow it. If someone submits an amazing 6.5 line tossup, though, and I see no way to shorten it w/out weakening it substantially, I may be inclined to let it go, but I don't know Matt W's take is on this, so don't quote me on it.
ToStrikeInfinitely wrote:2) 8-line tossups are great vehicles for low-level canon expansion, which is something that's more important at higher-difficulty tournaments than something like fall. I enjoy being able to add more clues that I want to see come up more, or to add novel clues about an answer without making the pyramid too steep.

3) Putting an 8-line soft cap as opposed to a 6-line hard cap decreases the probability of the occasional 4 line clunker making it in. Also, I consider the minimum possible length of an ACF-style tossup to be 5 lines; putting an 8-line cap instead of a 6-line cap gives more space to work in.
I agree with Eric that 5 lines is the minimum for a good tossup, but I'm confused how a 6 line limit increases the odds of a 4 line clunker. I also think 6 lines still allows for a small amount of canon expansion in the leadins - do we really need 2+ lines of canon expansion for a tournament aimed at a wide audience?

theMoMa wrote:It's certainly possible that six-line questions are too short for good quizbowl, or overemphasize speed in ACF
I think Andrew made a very good post, except this part, which kind of contradicts the rest of the post. From a brief look at a couple rounds from each of the past few years of regionals, there are several 6 line tossups in each round, and I don't remember anyone saying that those questions were far inferior to the 7 and 8 line tossups in the rounds.
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Post by grapesmoker »

strifeheart wrote:A small note: Troilus and Cressida isn't really a "poetic work" of Shakespeare; it's a play.
You are of course correct. I think I meant to write "The Phoenix and the Turtle" but for some reason went with "Troilus and Cressida" and forgot to change the previous term. Mea culpa.

With regard to Seth's editing of my question, I think it's a good attempt that keeps most of the useful information. Even so, I think the extra bits that my version had in there are useful: for example, "Shakespeare in Harlem" is a large collection, and it's entirely plausible that someone might read one or two poems from it in an anthology (like I did) but not necessarily read the whole thing. Because the collection didn't strike me as having one standout poem that everyone usually reads (unlike, for example, "The Emperor of Ice Cream" from Harmonium), I tried to include several things which I'd seen in an anthology to increase the chance of someone identifying the collection, or at least Hughes, before that clue was given. Likewise, Chute was a notable popularizer of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, so that clue is not useless; at the very least, that knowledge, if you have it, puts you in the right time period before any other player, buying you some time to eliminate Jonson or Chaucer by hearing other clues.

What I'm saying is that I feel the information I included is interesting, novel, and useful to a small subset of players without necessarily being burdensome to the rest of the field.

To respond to Andrew:
For newer teams, there are few things that are as much a turnoff to ACF-style quizbowl as long questions. I've seen this over and over firsthand. I don't think it's right for us to dismiss all question-length criticism as "being unreasonable" and its promoters as "clearly wrong," as Jerry would suggest. Newer players and teams turned off to quizbowl by long questions is a real phenomenon, and it won't go away if we simply label it "wrong." In fact, that's about the worst thing that we can do to ensure the continuity of m/ACF quizbowl.
Obviously, not all question length complaints are unreasonable. Look, I'm not asking for baptisms of fire for freshmen on 9-line tossups here. Given that I'm not the target audience for ACF Fall, I'm more than happy to have a hard cap on those questions, because at that level, the emphasis is on clue placement and introducing new players to the college game and canon. But when you're getting into more advanced events, and I do think Regionals qualifies, then I think that restriction should be relaxed. You have more experienced players in the field now, and many of them would like to hear new and interesting clues they might not have heard before.

As for labeling these complaints "wrong," I just feel that it's a retread of dicussions we've had before. If you do the math, the most that an extra line or two could possibly add to a tournament would be something like 1/2 hour, which translates to something like an extra two minutes per match. Is the attention span of quizbowlers seriously so short that those two extra minutes make or break the tournament for them? I see no compelling reason to think that someone will tolerate a 6-line tossup but not one that's 7 or 8 lines.

Just to be more clear, I'm not saying that 6 line tossups are the end of the world and are going to kill ACF. I'm happy playing on well-written tossups of this length, much more so than playing on poorly written ones of any length. I just view it as a step in the wrong direction, away from including more interesting information and towards contracting the space of usable clues. I'd like to think that questions have not just a game-play use, but a didactic use as well, which is why I defend things like a combination of obscure and well-known titles in easy bonus parts about authors, for example. Of course we want to stay within the bounds of good question writing (hence avoiding useless descriptions and the like), but within those bounds, longer questions represent more chances to learn something new, and I feel that if we start trimming them down to the bone, we'll end up losing that aspect.
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Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) »

[quote=vandyhawk]I also think 6 lines still allows for a small amount of canon expansion in the leadins - do we really need 2+ lines of canon expansion for a tournament aimed at a wide audience? [/quote]
I don't know the answer to your question, but it seems to me if you have minimal canon expansion at regular tournaments and save most of it for ACF nats, opens, side tournaments, etc. then you will end up with a smaller group of people being used to the concept of a changing canon, and then the majority of people will end up further out of the loop when the canon expansion they've been missing makes its way down to regular season events, and reinforcing the "ACF is impossible" myth which could drive those teams back away. Just a thought that may be totally off base, I don't know
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Post by No Rules Westbrook »

Heh, there are some familiar and predictable battle lines being drawn here. It's like the usual ACF suspects are members of the Supreme Court, you know what you're going to get from each of them, and these days I suppose I'm Justice Stevens. Anyways...

Most importantly, I agree with almost everything Andrew says...and I too know that inexperienced players really get ants in their pants (to continue the pants-related metaphors in this thread) about even moderately long questions. I don't think they should (I mean, hell, of course I'll never complain about a tu being too long so long as it's clue-dense), but I understand the inclination towards compromise on this issue, and so I'm probably not quite as extreme as Jerry.

But, if you go underneath the practical stuff and look at the philosophies being espoused in this thread, I think you have two groups - people like myself, Jerry, probably Eric M, others - who are interested in seeing a slower, more cerebral, more meditative game with a great focus on learning (by playing packets, reading packets, and writing packets). And you have a group of people like Seth, Sorice probably, Weiner probably - who seem most interested in efficient and entertaining gameplay, by and large the issue for them being what type of questions make for the best "game," i.e. efficiently distinguish between levels of knowledge.

Well, as I've made clear at several points, I'm not much for the game aspect of quizbowl. Seth may be right in saying that his tossup doesn't affect the gameplay (I'm inclined to think he is, in this particular case), but I don't mind a few more Hughes poems in the tossup because it makes it seem fuller, more fleshed out, better researched, and gives you some quick information. I don't see any harm in it. Plus, in agreement with what Andrew suggested at the end, I just don't think it's possible to write what I think of as deep, interesting, really good questions with a 6-line limit (especially in areas like lit and philosophy, whereas in areas like myth and geography it's a lot more possible). When I do research for a tossup and organize my collection of clues roughly into early/middle/later clues, and then assemble them properly with some decent grammar, what I usually end up with is a 7-8 line tossup. Could I usually just get rid of some clues or make my language choppier and more condensed? Sure, but I think you're losing something quite important when you do that, so it isn't my style. And that's what this is largely about, style.

And, by the way, saying people have 5 seconds once they buzz is not really a shut-down argument for the spacing issue. Yeah, you can buzz and get some time but it's risky because you can't unbuzz after 4.5 seconds, so most people tend to be conservative about doing it.
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Post by SnookerUSF »

I wonder if there is some consideration to be given to the difference between originally submitted tossup length and final edited tossup length. For those individuals who find themselves in the occasionally unenviable position of being a tournament editor, do you believe it is more efficient for you to pare down a tossup to the prescribed length, or perhaps it's better to add or modify clues as necessary to ensure the length desired, acknowledging of course the increased research time.

It would seem, on first blush, that the latter is less time consuming as ostensibly not every tossup will require such a treatment, while in the case of the former it is likely that every tossup or most tossups in a packet will require significant editing. Though I wonder if this bears out in real world tournament editing experience.

The advantages of allowing longer tossups to be submitted revolves around the sort of qualities of the game that Mr. Westbrook was referring when discussing the "cerebral, meditative" aspect. Individuals who are committed to more in-depth research for the sake of becoming better players or just idle curiosity in the topic at hand can write their extended disquisitions, while economically minded tournament editors can pick and choose sets of clues already researched and placed into pyramidal structured format.

This is relevant, I hold, because regardless of the length of the tossup (within reason), a well-edited tournament is always better than a hastily edited tournament, and thus measures that packet writers can take to make the task of tournament editing less chaotic is likely in the best interest of us all.

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Post by Sima Guang Hater »

Ryan Westbrook wrote:But, if you go underneath the practical stuff and look at the philosophies being espoused in this thread, I think you have two groups - people like myself, Jerry, probably Eric M, others - who are interested in seeing a slower, more cerebral, more meditative game with a great focus on learning (by playing packets, reading packets, and writing packets). And you have a group of people like Seth, Sorice probably, Weiner probably - who seem most interested in efficient and entertaining gameplay, by and large the issue for them being what type of questions make for the best "game," i.e. efficiently distinguish between levels of knowledge.
I think this dichotomy is somewhat unfounded. In my experience, whether you have efficient, entertaining, and fast gameplay is less a function of the length of the question than it is who you're playing against and whether you have a good reader. There were definitely games at ACF nationals and the MLK mirror last year that I felt went at a fast pace, not because the questions had early giveaways or were short, but because you had to be on your toes to beat someone to the buzz. At nationals, for example, playing Texas A&M felt like both teams were relying more on knowledge than speed, resulting in a slower game, while playing Illinois A was a much more hair-trigger affair (and these were both in the playoffs).

I enjoy both "slow" and "fast" quizbowl, as Ryan puts it, but that has its limits (For example, I'm not a huge fan of NAQT breakneck-speed setup, nor would I be a huge fan of 10-11 line tossups becoming the norm). That being said, I think 6-line tossups can be informative and great to practice on and study from, and I think 7-8 line tossups can lead to entertaining gameplay if they are clue-dense and interesting. Several tournaments that I've enjoyed have had a mix of tossups between 6 and 8 lines long, and I didn't find the 6 liners objectively worse than the 8 liners, both in terms of interesting content and distinguishing teams.

Its just bothersome when at an event like regionals, which is intended not only as an event for the quizbowl masses, but as an event to distinguish top players from each other, has a line cap when relaxing it just a little would result in a non-noticeable time difference and more clues to buzz off of. If time is really an issue, we could probably do away with long bonus leadins and whatnot, or mix it up between 6-line and 8-line tossups, which is what ends up happening anyway.
Matt Keller wrote:I agree with Eric that 5 lines is the minimum for a good tossup, but I'm confused how a 6 line limit increases the odds of a 4 line clunker.
I'm glad we agree about that minimum, Matt; I hope the regionals editing reflects this. The thing about four-line clunkers came from observations about fall, where a few of them snuck in.
Matt Keller again wrote: I also think 6 lines still allows for a small amount of canon expansion in the leadins - do we really need 2+ lines of canon expansion for a tournament aimed at a wide audience?
Dees wrote:It seems to me if you have minimal canon expansion at regular tournaments and save most of it for ACF nats, opens, side tournaments, etc. then you will end up with a smaller group of people being used to the concept of a changing canon, and then the majority of people will end up further out of the loop when the canon expansion they've been missing makes its way down to regular season events, and reinforcing the "ACF is impossible" myth which could drive those teams back away.
Matt and Charlie both bring up good issues. I agree with Charlie that regular season events should have at least a modicum of canon expansion, for the reasons that he states. The issue then becomes Matt's point, ie, whether we need 8 line tossups for that reason. Canon expansion can and does occur in the leadin of 6-line tossups, but there doesn't seem to be any harm in adding a line or two of more novel information at more high-level events, for the reasons already mentioned in this thread.
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Post by yoda4554 »

A comment toward all of the people who have suggested that six-line tossups are insufficient to really delineate successfully between teams at a typical invitational.

I've just looked over the packets of Titanomachy, a six-line tossup invitational I played last fall where my team ended up toward the bottom of the top bracket. I focused on those where my team was playing teams with a roughly equal or better record than we had. Now, these were not superstar teams, but one team had Meigs, one had Magin and Chris, and one had a lot of really, really old people, so we've all seen our fair share of packets.

In these games, only a little more than 10% of tossups were answered before the beginning of the fourth line. As far as I remember, furthermore, none of these 10% were really intense buzzer races either, and I can count on one hand the number that went down in the first line (with fingers to spare).

In other words, unless the rest of the country is a lot better than us, I don't see, practically, that a seventh or eighth line makes any kind of difference in delineating knowledge a typical invitational. In fact, you could probably make every tossup in the set 5 lines without affecting the scores at all, so long as the verbiage is minimized. While there may be personal preferences toward hearing more clues, I don't think it's necessary to preserve the integrity of the game.

And even if there were more early buzzes, I don't know that adding more clues is going to delineate knowledge better. Let's say Magin and I happened to play against each other on the packet with the tossup on Milton, whom both of us have read extensively. As is, maybe there would have been a buzzer race early on. But if that means the question's too short, what do you add on? Dig up some critical clue? Unless you've got tons of knowledge to know what Milton students have read up on, the probability that we're going to recognize it is tiny--and if one of us does, well, then did you happen to pick the criticism that Magin's read, or the criticism I've read? At that level, it starts to get arbitrary. Same goes for finding some obscure quote to throw in there: in all likelihood, no one's getting it, except on the very small chance that it's the random line one of us remembers and the other doesn't (instead of vice versa).
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Post by cvdwightw »

Realistically, I think a circuit goal would be a soft 6-line cap. That is, questions should aim for being between 6 and 7 lines long, with no tossup shorter than 5 or longer than 8 lines, and the majority being around 6 lines. Why is this?

I make the following assumptions in my argument, all of which I believe the circuit holds to be true: First, that the vast majority of tournaments contain questions written by players at a variety of levels, and even with one quality writer coordinating each packet, a number of the questions at any given packet-submission tournament are written by new players or otherwise bad writers. Second, that a six-line tossup takes less time to edit than an eight-line tossup. Third, that editors rarely have all the time they would like or even need to produce a quality packet set. Fourth, that ordering fewer clues by difficulty is easier than ordering more clues by difficulty.

Essentially, we ask for two main components of any good tossup: lots of clues and pyramidality. Shorter questions contain less clues, but it is easier to order few clues into a pyramidal question than many clues. Thus we are looking at a trade-off between number of clues and pyramidality. For each writer, this is different. Many experienced writers can craft excellent 8 line tossups with excellent pyramidality. Most of the circuit can't. Asking an inexperienced writer to put out an 8 line tossup will, most of the time, result in one of two things: first, lots of fluff, excess verbiage, non-clues, and generally things that decrease the clue density; and second, massive transparency and pyramidality issues. I maintain that both of these problems can be corrected to some degree with a six-line cap; in the first case, what you have anyway is really a 5 line tossup with 3 lines of stuff no one needs, and in the second case, there are fewer clues to get completely out of place. In both cases, cutting two lines from the question saves the editor much-needed time, since everyone gets their questions in late anyway (looking at myself right now).

Right now, I feel that making a 7-8 line tossup a circuit standard is like trying to teach someone calculus when they're struggling with algebra. Until people can get the meat-and-potatoes basics of question writing down, pyramidality will be inversely proportional to length for most writers. Thus, we should be looking at a circuit standard where an inexperienced question writer has a decent chance of writing a packet full of good questions (or at least things that the editor doesn't have to completely rewrite) balanced against how well a question "discriminates between two teams" or "rewards learning" or whatever else your philosophy of good quizbowl is. This, I believe, is the six-line tossup. Four and five line tossups are certainly easier to write, but they are often poor in either the "game" or "meditative" aspects. Seven and eight line questions are good for the "meditative" part of the game and superb for discriminating between teams, but are on average lower quality. I don't think we should discourage people who can do a good job of it from writing the occasional 8 line question; on the other hand, we can't force people to take perfectly good 5-6 line questions and add 2 more lines, because whatever happens in those 2 lines is completely unpredictable.

Thus, a reasonable goal for any tournament is to be full of quality, clue-dense, pyramidal six-line tossups, and if people who know what they're doing want to go over by a line or two, they should be allowed to do so.
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