Question Writing Best Practices
by Scott Peterson
This document serves as a tutorial and a guideline. It is not intended as some objective, black-and-white rulebook or anything to be used as the basis for challenges.
Question writing is an art. Ideally this document will aid question writers in writing questions that:
- Are clear and understandable
- Test all parts of the material
- Utilize each different question type effectively
- Material should be tested through a variety of types and structures
There are many examples of questions that meet all 4 criteria but are still different. This is fine. We are not intending for all question writers to write questions that are indistinguishable from questions from any other writer.
If a question writer's questions cause quizzers to mentally flinch, to think extra to understand, or require anything else unexpected, then the questions should be examined to see if there are better ways to write them.
Throwaway words beginning the question
There are many leading words that may give very little information (e.g. so, but, then, if). If in the context of the question that word truly doesn't add any meaning, then there's no reason to include it at the beginning of the question. This isn't necessarily a desire to make the question unique as fast as possible. It's just a desire to not test the quizzer on inconsequential material.
Leading vs. trailing interrogative words
Interrogative questions that begin with the inserted interrogative word, all things being equal, are harder than ones that end with the inserted interrogative word. This reality should not cause the question writer to favor one question structure over another. The desire should be to meet the 4 criteria.
If, then flow
Let's use this phrase as our example: "If you are sleepy, you should go to sleep." It would be unclear and awkward to write a question:
- Q: If you are what?
- A: Sleepy.
It artificially truncates the complete thought from the entire if clause. A clearer and less awkward question would be:
- Q: If you are sleepy, what?
- A: You should go to sleep.
It is fine to write the question:
- Q: You should what?
- A: Go to sleep
This is because starting the question halfway into the if clause in essence removes that structure from the question, and you're just asking one isolated thing that is clear. Similarly, it would be fine to write:
- Q: You are what?
- A: Sleepy
Question + answer length
Questions should not be unduly long. This is subjective, but it's important to consider. On the flip-side, if the phrase is "He dove into the ballistic whale," you may often see questions that focus on the global unique word "ballistic."
- Q: Ballistic what?
- A: Whale
There's no need to start the question artificially right at the unique word. Instead:
- Q: The ballistic what?
- A: Whale
This is smoother and more natural for the quizmaster to read and for the quizzer to answer.
1 vs. 2 vs. 3-word unique phrases
There shouldn't necessarily be a desire to write either a lot of or few questions with a specific "unique word phrase length." Just write questions that meet the 4 criteria. You may get a question that isn't unique for a handful of syllables. There should not be a desire to skew away from these sorts of questions. If the question meets the 4 criteria, write it.
If 2 questions start with the same first 4 words, writing both as interrogative may violate the "Utilize each different question type effectively" criteria. If the material can be better tested by a different question type (reference question for example), do that instead.
We should never be trying to fool the quizzer. We should also never be trying to either make things easy on the quizzer or make things difficult. We're just trying to test the quizzer on the entire material, using all the question types and sub-types, and using many different structures.