Before I launch into my thesis, I want to offer up a sort of taxonomy of knowledge that I think better reflects what people know than the taxonomy that Ryan outlined in that Nationals discussion thread. I'm going to split quizbowl knowledge into roughly two somewhat overlapping but sufficiently distinct categories, which I will call "direct" knowledge and "inferential" knowledge. Direct knowledge is immediate knowledge of a given fact, which you either have or do not have, e.g. that Ernest Hemingway's only play is called The Fifth Column, or that the First World War was ended by the Treaty of Versailles. Inferential knowledge is more tricky: it's knowledge obtained from circumstantial evidence or other pieces of knowledge, leading to an indirect conclusion about what is being asked for. For example, in a tossup about J.L. Austin, you might not literally know every clue, or even any specific clue, especially in questions that backload titles. But you might be generally familiar with the sort of thing that Austin was interested in; certain marker terms (e.g. "sense data") might not necessarily be 100% dispositive of "Austin" as the answer, but they point at a specific constellation of facts: 20th century philosopher, concerned with mind, concerned with language, known for a light and humorous style, etc. This doesn't mean that you're always going to be right when buzzing with "Austin" on that constellation of facts, but it can be a powerful intuition in guiding anticipation of future clues. What we call "transparency" is a sort of exaggerated version of this: in many cases, some constellation of things like "20th century Hungarian composer" usually means "Bartok," even if occasionally it can mean "Lygeti."
If this sounds a lot like the "Yaphe method" of quizbowl, that's because it is. The following bias is freely admitted: I made my living as a player repeatedly solving the riddle of questions by narrowing down the world of possible answers, so as a result I am deeply sympathetic to this method of playing. So sympathetic that when I write questions, I write them so as to, ideally, offer maximum possibility for this kind of reasoning. Obviously this does not mean ignoring direct knowledge, but it does mean using certain information to clue people in to what's happening in the question. To illustrate the difference between these two styles of writing, I want to present the following two tossups. The first tossup is from this year's tournament and I assume was written by Ryan, while the second is from 2011 ACF Nationals and was written by me. I picked these two questions because they conveniently happen to both be really hard tossups on basically the same historical topic, namely, Cromwellian England.
Let's walk through this question and consider the information provided. The first sentence names two Convenanters and a pamphlet they published. Unless you are Jeff Hoppes, you don't know this, and that's fine; that's why it's the first clue. The second tells you about two "Wigtown Martyrs" named Margaret. Again, unless you know specifically who the Wigtown Martyrs are, you cannot buzz there, which is fine, but you also cannot in any way determine either the time period or the geographical location of the group in question. At best, you know that this is some Anglophone nation, and death by drowning might indicate an earlier time period, but it's hard to be sure. The same is true about the next clue: either you know the Sanquhar Declaration and the names of the leaders of the "Society Men," or you don't. You still have no idea where or when you are. It's only at the point where you reach the phrase "Oath of Abjuration" that you might be getting some hint that this somehow involves the English throne, but still that's hardly enough; without knowing that exact term, you have no hope of being sure, since the question doesn't tell you anything about what the Oath of Abjuration actually contains. Perhaps Bothwell Bridge might mean "Scotland" to you, but it's still a pretty hard pull. We're now 3/4 of the way to the end of the question and unless you have deep specific knowledge of any of the things mentioned, you can't be sure where or when any of this is taking place until the question just straight up tells you that this group was prominent during the Civil War. Then the "Solemn League" clue is supposed to get you to fill in the blank and say "Covenant."2015 ACF Nationals wrote:An extreme faction of this group, including men such as David Hackston and Donald Cargill, published a pamphlet called the Informatory Vindication. Their numbers included the teenager Margaret Wilson, who became one of the “Wigtown Martyrs” after she and an elderly woman also named Margaret were put to death by drowning. A faction of this movement known as the “Society Men” issued the Sanquhar Declaration, under the leadership of Richard Cameron and later James Renwick. Robert Woodrow coined the term for a period of suffering undergone by members of this group who refused to take the Oath of Abjuration, or were accused of participating in the rebellion at Bothwell Bridge. That period of their suffering is called the “killing time.” Another leader of this movement, Alexander Henderson, wrote a document which allied this group with Parliament during the English Civil War. For 10 points, name this group of Scottish Presbyterians who agreed to form a “Solemn League” in 1643, and were named for the pact in which they pledged to uphold their religion.
ANSWER: Covenanters [prompt on “Scottish Presbyterians”]
Now, here's a question from ACF Nationals 2011 that I wrote:
Again, walking through this question. The first clue here tells you that this is some kind of document with multiple articles, one of which provides for the raising of revenue to field an army. The significant terms here are "dragoons" and "infantry." You don't know anything about the specific provisions of the Instrument of Government, but already it seems likely that we're talking about some sort of executive document (as opposed to a treaty) and that the time period is, roughly, sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries, when dragoons would have been a relevant military force. You also probably don't know who Henry Rolle is, but the words "Lord Chief Justice" likely mean that you are in England; the rest of the clue indicates that this document also addressed religious disputes, which should further narrow down the possibility of time frame. Already you can reasonably infer, without knowing the specific facts, that we are in England, likely somewhere in the 17th or early 18th century. The next clue tells you that this document created an important executive office; how many documents do we know from this era and place that created such offices? Obviously this is an oblique hint at the office of the Lord Protector. The next clue tells you the name of a document that superseded the one we're looking for, and that's relevant too, not just for the name itself but for the style of name: not many things in the 18th century have names like "Humble Petition and Advice," so you can pretty reasonably eliminate that time period and focus on 17th century England. Then you get Barebones Parliament, which should cement "English Civil War" in your mind, then John Lambert, the author, and finally the last two clues are "Lord Protector" and "constitution under Cromwell" which are just direct pieces of knowledge.2011 ACF Nationals wrote:The 27th article of this document provided for the raising of revenue to maintain a force of 10,000 horse and dragoons and 20,000 infantry, while its second article provided for the formation of a council comprising between 13 and 21 individuals. Lord Chief Justice Henry Rolle resigned due to doubts regarding the legality of this document, which was adopted following a legislative body’s breakup over the question of whether patrons would be allowed to appoint clergymen to livings. According to this document’s 32nd article, the executive office it created would be elective rather than hereditary. Eventually superseded by a document drafted by Lord Broghill, Edward Montagu, and Oliver St. John, among others, the Humble Petition and Advice, this document was adopted by the Council of Officers upon the dissolution of the Nominated Assembly, also called Barebones’ Parliament. Written by John Lambert, for ten points, identify this document which vested executive power in a Lord Protector and was effectively the constitution of England during the early reign of Oliver Cromwell.
ANSWER: Instrument of Government
Now, let me be clear about what I'm not claiming: I'm not saying that the second question is easy, by any means. It is not: it's a really hard tossup on a pretty obscure thing and only a few teams are realistically going to convert it. What I do claim is that for the teams that have a shot at this question, its structure and style provides more chances for them to answer it before the giveaway than the first question does. Ryan's tossup is just a straightforward list of facts that you either know or do not know, but there's almost no way to use the information in the question to narrow down the possibilities. My question also contains a ton of facts, but the facts are arranged and cued in such a way that you can use them to successfully narrow down the range of possibilities and infer the correct answer even without knowing all the specific facts about it.
It's going to be unsurprising that I claim the second form of writing is more "friendly" to players than the first. It provides more opportunities to understand and figure out just what the question is about. Applied to easier answer lines, this method of writing is going to result in more earlier buzzes by people who are good at understanding contextual clues and using them to eliminate possible answer options. Of course, not all questions are amenable to this kind of treatment; sometimes a lit tossup is just a list of plot points, and that's fine. But when possible, I always try to structure my questions in such a way that the information guides players towards the answer without them necessarily having all the facts in hand.
Which of these writing and playing styles you prefer is going to depend heavily on what you're good at. Certainly all players really use a combination of the two: inference, after all, requires a deep knowledge base from which to infer. At the same time, I selfishly believe that the latter style of writing rewards paying careful attention to the context of the question, while placing less emphasis on amassing a large collection of facts that might not contain any genuinely useful information for players. Obviously, these are idealized poles and any real question is going to contain some mix of the two strategy, but my personal ideological commitment is to the latter style insofar as it is possible over the former.
I think the discrepancy between these two styles accounts for a lot of the difference in difficulty perception. For someone like me, the former question would be incredibly painful to play because it would be impossible to figure out what the hell was going on, and the question would likely run to the end; I hate questions like that, which is what drives my opposition to science questions that are just lists of eponymous terms. I would imagine that for someone like Ryan, the latter question would be less annoying (it still, obviously, contains facts), but would lend itself to being "solved" by someone who did not possess the discrete pieces of knowledge necessary to do the one-to-one mapping from facts to answers. Maybe that produces a more irritating playing experience because you stand the risk of getting beaten by a clever inferer; it also definitely requires a lot more thinking and active engagement during questions than just listening for a key term, and that can be exhausting and lead you to think that a question is more difficult.
I hope this exposition is illuminating to people. I do believe that the latter style is better than the former, but I don't think either is wrong. It's just that depending on how you are used to playing and what kind of questions you are used to hearing or what kind of style you prefer, you might perceive some questions as being more difficult than others.