Writing Questions

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Many players have an inkling for writing questions as soon as they start playing. This is a great attitude. What a lot of those players are missing, though, is the philosophy behind question-writing. A good question paints a portrait in the player’s mind of a specific concept. The clues tell a story instead of listing unconnected facts and reward meaningful understanding rather than meaningless trivia. This guide will outline the life cycle of a question, from the writer’s mind to the moderator’s page.

Deciding What to Write About

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The first question any writer asks is “What should I write about?” The best practice to is to write about the topics you know best. This makes for a smoother writing process and better-written questions.

After deciding on a topic, consider the target difficulty of your question. Some answers (e.g. the philosopher Jacques Derrida or the Diels–Alder Reaction) are not suitable for beginner tournaments because even the easiest clue on these topics would rarely result in a successful buzz. On the other hand, answers like Odin and Gettysburg are appropriate for a wide range of difficulty levels.

Conducting Research

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After selecting a topic to write about, the next step is to conduct research. The question archive QuizDB is a useful source but use it cautiously. Plagiarizing from question archives is unethical and writing questions entirely composed of past clues advantages packet study over other forms of knowledge. Consult textbooks and other reliable sources to ensure the accuracy of your questions.

The Two Types of Questions

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There are two types of quiz bowl questions: tossups and bonuses. A packet for a single match consists of 20 of each.


A tossup is a series of clues. Players can buzz at any time to give an answer. A proper question is pyramidal, with clues in order of decreasing difficulty, ending with the easiest clue after the phrase “For 10 points.”

Avoid writing questions with difficulty cliffs, where the middle of the question suddenly contains a much easier clue. This can lead to buzzer races where multiple players buzz at once, which is frustrating for players. Tossup clues should be thematically related.


Bonuses are three-part questions that are given to the team that answers a tossup correctly. While all three parts of the bonus are conventionally worth 10 points, well-written bonuses have a clear easy, medium, and hard part. Having a trivially easy part or an incredibly hard part is less effective at distinguishing between teams, as is having three parts of the same difficulty.

Common Mistakes

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Vague clues - Each clue should refer uniquely to your specific answer. With every clue, consider what knowledge would lead a player to buzz. This will help you avoid hoses, clues which tend to result in a particular incorrect buzz because they are strongly associated with something other than your intended answer.

Unclear writing - Use professional grammar and syntax. Avoid using “and” to connect unrelated sentences. Each sentence should represent a separate idea. Keep in mind that your questions will be read aloud and reading your drafts out loud can help you identify poor phrasing.

Imprecise referents - Refer to your answer as a person, painting, country, or similar clear term. Avoid obfuscating terms like “work” or “polity.” Use “title” instead of “titular,” as in “This novel’s title animal is killed by Captain Ahab” (the novel is Moby-Dick).

Transparency - In many cases, clues become much easier than otherwise because players can guess based on factors other than direct knowledge. If, for example, you write a tossup on “this country” and write a clue saying that one of its cities is Yokohama, players with no knowledge that Yokohama exists can correctly guess “Japan” based on the linguistic properties of the word.

Category-jumping - Tossups and bonuses should not contain multiple topics. A tossup on the surname “Jackson” with clues from Stonewall Jackson and Michael Jackson is inappropriate since these figures are best placed in distinct categories. On the other hand, a tossup on the surname “Rockefeller” would be acceptable.

Stock clues - Certain clues are asked disproportionately often compared to their importance, with later sets imitating earlier sets until these clues become notorious as meaningless trivia that players must memorize in order to be competitive. Using sources other than packet archives when writing is the best way to avoid the overuse of stock clues.

Lightning Rounds

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Lightning rounds are used in some non-standard formats. They contain 8–10 short team questions on a specific category or theme. These themes can be standard topics such as “The War of 1812” or “Asian Geography” but also “Art Starting with the Letter M” or other cross-disciplinary and unusual links. While themes are often creative, they should not be deliberately misleading.

Lightning round questions should be short since they are played on a clock. Avoid complicated alternate answers since the moderator must move quickly through the round.