Want to learn how NHBB writers craft the questions used in competitions? Interested in writing quizbowl questions of your own? Great! This page is a collection of lessons and essays about question writing. The ideas here are generally applicable to writing quizbowl questions for all subjects, not just history, though there are NHBB-specific essays as well.

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Introduction to Writing

Created by Brad Fischer

Writing questions serves as an excellent way to improve as a player, as a writer in general, and as a scholar. It exercises all the mental muscles involved in scholarship, especially some that don’t get used in other forms of quizbowl study.

Why write?

You get practice doing research and using (and judging!) source material. Wikipedia may have all the basic information you need to start understanding a topic, but that’s where its benefits stop and its faults begin. Articles will usually skimp on important analysis of the topic, and often have biased or flat-out incorrect analysis. Articles often prize brevity over completeness and ignore important aspects of the topic. The work that goes into a good question involves real scholarly research; going through the work of finding interesting discussion of a topic is great practice for you as both a writer and a scholar.

You also get practice as a writer; the simple act of crafting sentences, paragraphs, essays, arguments, speeches, is something that you should be doing every day. I’m a former math teacher, and even I made my students practice their writing every day!

Finally, you get quizbowl studying done – and not just any studying. You aren’t simply making and studying flash cards, which can teach you that X means Y or A caused B – you’re also caring about how clues work with each other, in the historical sense and the quizbowl sense. It’s one thing to write “This President signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” which a flashcard would teach you; it’s another thing to write “This President’s signing of the Fair Housing Act continued his predecessor’s fight for civil rights,” or something more elaborate than that. Flashcards usually don’t dive into that much detail; in writing a question, you can show how the Civil Rights Act fit into history, not just name it.
There’s more! It’s one thing to know that a clue is going to be in your tossup, but writing a tossup requires more clues than that AND knowing how they interact with each other. You want your tossup’s clues to go from hardest to easiest, which means you have to critically think about how well known your clues are, relative to each other. Writing flash cards can’t do all that. Reading books can’t do all that. Question writing is the synthesis of all your other studying, and it pays off accordingly.

What to focus on?

There are so many aspects to consider while writing. Are my clues unique? Interesting? Ordered from hard to easy? Do the clues gradually get easier, or do I ramble about impossible stuff the whole way until the giveaway? Do my sentences make sense as a lesson on the topic, or do they just throw different things together? Do my sentences make sense as written English?
That’s all before I, as a professional writer, start caring about how that finished tossup fits in the larger set of questions I’m writing for a tournament. Is the answer line too hard? Is the lead-in not too hard but not too easy? Does it fit in the category distribution? Did we write too many tossups like that already?

Beginning writers shouldn’t worry about that second set of meta-aspects of writing for a specific tournament; focus instead on the first set of criteria. You’re writing to learn more clues, so you should focus on finding and picking good clues that make sense together and on getting them in the right order. You should also focus on choosing worthwhile answer lines; things that you already know something about but want to learn more, things that you know come up in quizbowl. There’s room enough for going crazy difficult later; you’ve got basic lessons to learn.

And how do you learn those lessons (other than reading the essays here)? Read your questions to your friends, your teammates, players from other schools, etc. There’s never a shortage of people who want to listen to questions. Read and listen to their advice.

This beginning lesson introduces how tossups are structured and explains some basic quizbowl terminology used in the later lessons on question writing. It’s a great general introduction to the game of quizbowl, not just for beginning writers!

tossup question is meant to determine which player knows the most about the subject at hand. The main difference between a quizbowl tossup and other forms of trivia questions is the ability to buzz in and interrupt the moderator with an answer before the question has been fully read. As a result, tossups must be crafted in what is called pyramidal order, with clues getting progressively easier as the tossup goes on. In theory, this allows a player who knows a lot about the subject to buzz in before a player who knows less. We discuss pyramidality more in a later essay.

Every tossup has three types of clues: the lead-in, middle clues, and the giveaway. Many question writers prefer to write their tossup “backwards,” starting with the giveaway and ending with a lead-in, and that’s how this lesson will proceed as well.

The very last sentence of the tossup is the giveaway, and it needs to do exactly that — give the answer away. The giveaway tells the players not just the easiest possible clue, but the *defining characteristic* of the answer.

Example of a sub-par giveaway: For 10 points, name this World War II battle where the USS Arizona was sunk.

The sinking of the USS Arizona is definitely a good clue to use to hint at Pearl Harbor, but isn’t the *defining characteristic* of Pearl Harbor and therefore shouldn’t be the giveaway.

Better giveaway: For 10 points, name this 1941 battle, a Japanese sneak attack on a Hawaiian naval base that brought the US into World War II.

Generally speaking, giveaways should be “definitional,” whereas the other clues are “descriptive.” Regular clues talk about the subject, while the giveaway tells you what the subject is.  The sub-par giveaway uses a good descriptive clue; that clue should go earlier in the question. The better giveaway tells you not just the most famous fact about Pearl Harbor, but the description that people give when asked “What was the attack on Pearl Harbor?”

Prior to the giveaway, we have a number of middle clues in the body of the tossup. This is the meat of a question, as these clues can be descriptive and harder. Many of the lessons to be learned regarding question writing deal with choosing good body clues and implementing them well; we go into those in more detail in other essays.

The first clue in a tossup is called the lead-in. It’s a clue like the others, but it has added importance due to being the first clue. This clue can be descriptive, but it must be 100% specific to the answer; no vagueness can be tolerated, or else a player could successfully protest that their answer was also correct. Later clues should strive for uniqueness as well, but it’s not as strict of a requirement; we’ll come back to this point in a later essay.

Bad lead-in: “The Seneca Falls Convention featured this speaker.”
This fact describes something important about the answer, but there are three issues here. First, the Seneca Falls Convention is a very important topic, such that it’s far too easy of a clue to be the lead-in clue for any of the possible answers to this question.

Second, ignoring the “it’s too early” concern, it’s not phrased well for a lead-in. A tossup that instead begins “This speaker was featured at the Seneca Falls Convention” lets the players know what the question is looking for immediately. Tossups don’t always have to start with “This [whatever]”, but it should be very close to the start.

The most crucial issue, though, is the fact that it’s non-specific. The phrase “featuring a speaker” is subject to debate. You could argue that Lucretia Mott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton (or someone else!) was “featured” to speak there. This is the biggest problem for this clue; it’s downright fatal to a lead-in, and seriously problematic for a middle clue. Middle clues should make every effort to be specific as well; if I wanted to tell the player “this person spoke at Seneca Falls,” I should do so in a helpfully specific way. Probably the best way is describing what that person talked about; that is, after all, what they were there to do! We discuss how to make good clues in a later essay.

To recap this lesson: tossups present a series of clues in pyramidal order, from hardest to easiest. When writing, the lead-in clue must be unique and you should write an easy, definitional giveaway.

The Basics of Question Writing

In this lesson, we begin discussing what makes a clue good or bad. This lesson can only serve to start the discussion; it takes an immense amount of experience and writing practice to internalize this lesson. If you’ve only played quizbowl for a year or so, you will struggle with this in your early writing. If you’ve played quizbowl for a long time, you might be used to judging tossups for their clue quality and think you know what you’re doing, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that makes you completely immune to writing bad clues. It happens to us all at times!

A good clue is academically importantinteresting, and directly specific. If your clue lacks one of those qualities, you need to fix it. If your clue lacks two or all three of those qualities, you need to cut it. A good clue is also concise; tossups are of a finite length, so don’t waste words. You can ruin a good clue by making it run on too long. There are some facts that simply can’t be condensed into quizbowl-appropriate clues. This lesson focuses on just the first three qualities; brevity is a lesson best learned through self-examination.

Academically important means that it tells a story or fact that has historical merit; it’s something that is worth knowing as a historian. This is a judgment call that you as a writer have to make for each clue. Most of the time it’s a pretty easy call to make; the important thing is to be constantly making that judgment call.

Let’s do some practice judgment calls on a hypothetical tossup on Franklin Roosevelt. Each of the following facts is true; pretend that each appeared in a tossup, and disregard what would hypothetically go before or after that sentence. After you read each one, decide if it is academically important. My responses follow after each list. (We’ll use these same clues to judge “interesting” and “directly specific” next.)

“This man was born in 1882.”
“This man attended Groton School.”

“This man was paralyzed due to polio.”
“While on vacation at Campobello Island, this man contracted polio and was paralyzed.”
“This man’s public appearances were carefully managed to avoid exposing his wheelchair, which he needed due to paralysis caused by polio.”

“This man served as Governor of New York from 1929 until 1932.”
“This man supported Al Smith’s Presidential campaign by campaigning for, and succeeding him as, Governor of New York.”
“This man’s governorship was plagued by Tammany Hall corruption.”

“This man was nearly shot in Miami.”
“Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot this man.”
“Anton Cermak died after an assassination attempt on this man.”
“Mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak was killed when anti-capitalist Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot this man.”

“This President gave the ‘Infamy’ speech on December 8th, 1941.”
“This President called December 7th, 1941 a ‘date which will live in infamy’ when asking Congress to declare war against Japan.”
“This President noted that ‘the facts of yesterday speak for themselves’ in one speech to Congress.”

First up, the early biography clues.
*Being born in 1882 is not academically important; there is no need to study the birthdates of famous people. Similarly, birthplaces aren’t important. Death dates and places are only important if their death is academically important, and in those situations the clue isn’t “when,” it’s the “how” or “why.”
*Attending Groton is not academically important. I can see one argument in favor of it: Groton is an exceptionally exclusive boarding school, and you could do historical study on how Groton affected Roosevelt’s upbringing. Unfortunately, this clue is making no effort to incorporate that sort of thesis into the tossup; it’s just naming the school. This is an example of a context-free namedrop; these are, by-and-large, to be avoided for early and middle clues. About the only time it’s OK is when it’s something famous enough that the name itself is a clue; in those cases, the clue would be late in the tossup.

Next, his polio.
*FDR’s polio and paralysis is academically important. It’s a very important aspect of his private and political life, and it’s a fact worth learning in a classroom setting.
*This clue adds the place where he contracted polio. The Campobello clue is pulling some weight by adding context for the polio clue, but it’s not pulling a ton of weight. If the rest of your tossup is great, this clue probably survives. If the rest of your tossup needs editing (especially if it’s a bit too long), it might be cut for not being academically important. It is academically neutral; you should strive for clues that help more than this does, but it’s not bad.
*This clue adds a description of how the polio affected FDR; it adds academically important context to an academically important thing, and is therefore exceptionally important.

Next, stuff about his governorship.
*The fact that FDR was Governor of NY is academically important; knowing the exact years themselves are less so. (Would history have been different if New York held their elections a year earlier, and FDR served 1928-1931? Maybe, but that’s not a particularly interesting counterfactual.) Therefore, this clue is, on the whole, not good.
*This clue tells why he ran for Governor and, in the process, gives the player context on the timeframe. This is academically important information about FDR’s political career, and a better example than the dates themselves.
*Not much to debate here; FDR’s struggles with Tammany Hall are academically important.

Next, the assassination attempt.
*All this tossup tells you is “something happened in Miami;” you don’t technically know it’s the assassination attempt. Just like the date, the location is not highly relevant to the story. This is not academically important.
*This one only tells you the name of the assassin which is, in general, academically important. Assassins are studied, and knowing their identities is generally accepted as important.
*The death of Anton Cermak is academically important.
*This one just elaborates on the last one, and therefore is still academically important.

Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*This clue sounds very much like it would be academically unimportant — it’s a namedrop and a date! We just spent a full paragraph talking about how those things are bad! — but the name dropped is “Infamy” and the date is “the day after Pearl Harbor.” It is academically important that FDR gave the speech so soon after the attack, and the name is academically important because it comes from the most famous and important line of a famous and important speech. In this case, history cares enough about the facts in play that almost anything we do with it would count as “academically important.”
*Yep, this is academically important.
*Here’s where we draw the line. That quote is from the Infamy speech (which is important!), but the clue does nothing to help us know why that particular line would be important. So, we’ve got an arguments for “yes” and “no” here; that’s an editor’s dilemma. As written, on its own, I vote no. (But if the tossup were on the speech itself, instead of FDR — what would you think then?)

Next, interesting clues. This is the most subjective part of writing; what’s interesting to you might not be interesting to me, and what’s interesting to a college professor might not be interesting to a middle schooler. The good news is that our clues don’t have to be interesting to everyone; the primary goal for practicing writers is to avoid boring clues, so that’s what we’ll focus on here. Return to the list of sentences above, and decide whether each of the clues is interesting.

First, the early biography clues.
*No one should care about knowing the exact year that FDR was born. Similarly, no one should care where he was born. Definitely not interesting.
*The fact that he went to Groton is surely interesting to people who go to Groton, but that’s about it, and even then, it’s a context-free namedrop, so I’m bored.

Next, the polio.
*FDR’s paralysis due to polio is interesting; this clue doesn’t do a good job of making me interested in that fact. I feel it’s a little on the boring side.
*The added context of “where” makes this a little more interesting than the previous one.
*This one gives an interesting story about how the polio affected his life; definitely the most interesting of this group of three clues.

Next, the governorship.
*So boring! As a player, I don’t want to memorize dates, and especially not of “when people were in some political office!”
*Much better — we’re told why he ran for Governor, and it ties it in with another political figure.
*Ooh, scandal! This is a little interesting; it would definitely be more interesting with an example of the corruption, but it’s a start.

Next, the assassination attempt.
*Pretty boring, for the same reason it’s not academically important; nobody cares about just the “where,” I want to know the “how” or the “why.”
*I suppose I’ll settle for the “who,” for the same reasons described earlier in the academic importance section. Not great, though.
*Somebody else died when this guy was attacked? That’s definitely worth hearing more about; this is interesting.
*Wait — the Mayor of Chicago died when this guy was attacked? By a guy with political motive? Quite obviously, the most interesting of the bunch.

Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*With just the name of the speech and the date, I’m not as interested as I could be.
*A bold, famous quote and a declaration of war; this is interesting.
*This quote isn’t as bold, and he’s talking to Congress for…we don’t know why he’s talking to Congress. I think this is actually less interesting than namedropping “Infamy;” at least that one gives you something that’ll hopefully stick in your head so you can look it up later.

Finally, specificity. I use the word specific here to mean that a clue could apply to the answer; a directly specific clue gives a strong indication that it only applies to that one answer. The lead-in, of course, must be completely directly specific; for middle clues, the more direct, the better. To judge a clue’s direct specificity, consider it alone; if you had perfect knowledge of FDR, how confidently could you buzz on it? Perfect confidence means you know that it actually describes FDR and FDR alone, so it’s completely directly specific; no confidence means it describes many, many people, and so it’s not specific. This concept runs on a spectrum, so a clue might be “somewhat directly specific.” Decide whether the above clues are directly specific to FDR, then read on for my responses.

First, the early biographical clues.
*Neither of these clues even qualify as specific; so many people were born in 1882 or went to Groton that it’s impossible to have narrowed it down to FDR. Anyone buzzing here is believed to be cheating rather than smart.

Next, the polio clues.
*Here’s a dilemma; many people were paralyzed due to polio, but FDR’s is particularly famous. As written, this clue is context-free, so you don’t have any real confidence that the answer is FDR; if you buzz in on this sentence alone, you’re just assuming that “it’s famous!” is going to earn you points. Therefore, it obviously can’t be a lead-in – it’s very far away from “completely directly specific.” This clue would have to rely on the clues before it to make it clear that it’s a prominent American politician; if it does so, then the combination of earlier context with “paralyzed by polio” make this acceptable.
*The additional context of “vacationing at Campobello Island” makes this sentence completely directly specific and therefore a potential lead-in. It is a bad lead-in because the drop in difficulty from “Campobello Island” to “paralyzed with polio” is extremely sharp, so you don’t have enough context to make this acceptable (like I described in the last clue).
*This adds context that is definitely true about FDR, but is also true about many other people. This clue is just as non-direct as the first polio clue was; the real problem here is that the writer added that context in an attempt to make it more direct, and it failed. Read your clues out loud; test each of them as a stand-alone question. If it can’t stand alone, you should improve them.
So what can be done to fix this clue? Add a specific example! Say “His public speeches, including the “Four Freedoms” speech, were delivered while leaning against the lectern, even though he was paralyzed from the waist down due to polio.” The Four Freedoms clue (which is completely directly specific) is tied to the polio clue in a way that transfers the uniqueness; meanwhile, the context of the polio helps distract from the fact that we used Four Freedoms as a context-free namedrop. (Now, imagine that we described the Four Freedoms speech earlier in the question, and that problem is fixed, too!)

Next, the governor clues.
*This is a textbook example of completely directly specific. Hey, it got one out of three qualities right!
*Taken as a whole, this is also completely directly specific. Woohoo!
Worth noting: if you buzz at “This man supported Al Smith’s Presidential campaign,” it’s somewhat vague because the sentence hasn’t finished delivering the clue. Therefore, it’s not concise enough to be an ideal leadin. Most players would say “it’s obvious that there’s more coming,” and most players wouldn’t be offended by having to wait more than seven words to get to the point (as long as the point is actually coming), but we, as writers, should strive to avoid the problem altogether.
*Not specific at all; every governor of New York for eighty years dealt with Tammany Hall.

Next, the assassination attempt clues.
*Not specific at all. Even the “Governor for 1929 to 1932” clue had one quality right; this “clue” is awful for quizbowl purposes, and you hopefully noted it the first time you saw it.
*Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot FDR; he did shoot Cermak, and some believe that Cermak actually was his target; there were four other definitely-accidental victims. This clue is probably pointing to FDR, but possibly pointing to Cermak. For that reason, I must call it “not specific at all,” but it’s an easy re-wording away from being OK.
*The phrasing of this clue makes it clear that it’s FDR; after all, answering “Anton Cermak” to this clue just sounds stupid. Completely directly specific.
*Again, Cermak is named so there’s no question; this is completely directly specific.

Finally, the Pearl Harbor clues.
*Completely directly specific.
*Completely directly specific.
*Almost completely directly specific; technically speaking, all you need is one person re-enacting the speech in Congress, and this becomes not specific. (And Congress does speech re-enactments all the time.) It lacks the concrete specifiers that the first two clues had; this isn’t a problem if previous clues give you that context, so basically I’m just saying “this would need a re-wording if it was going to be a lead-in.” But combine that very minor issue with the “I’m not terribly interested” issue and the “it’s not good enough to be academically important,” and you have, as presented here, a bad clue.

Having studied these clues intensely, it’s worth remembering that a quizbowl tossup isn’t just a series of independent clues, one after the other. The clues work with each other, building off of each other, to tell the broad story. But, for beginning writers, it’s important to focus in at the level of an individual clue — and focusing on the three qualities of academic importance, interest, and specificity is the way to start.

This lesson discusses what it means for a tossup to be pyramidal and dissects an example tossup.

The word pyramidal is used to invoke the mental image of a pyramid to represent the number of people who can buzz in during the tossup. The lead-in is compared to the capstone, and the giveaway is compared to the base. “More bricks at a lower level of the pyramid” serves as a metaphor for “more people knowing the clue.” You can imagine a player studying; by learning more about a subject, they “climb” the pyramid for that subject. The more you know, the earlier you’ll buzz, so you reside at a higher level on the pyramid. Each step down from the top has incrementally more bricks, as incrementally more people at that level know that much about the subject. At the bottom, the pyramid is supported by the base, and the tossup is supported by the giveaway.

I view reading a tossup out loud as similar to running down the side of the pyramid from the top to the bottom. Early on, I want to give clues that will help the people at the very top; I want those who have studied intensely to buzz in on the first clue. At the next level down, the players here have studied a little less, so I provide a clue that’s a little easier. This continues until I reach the bottom of the pyramid, where I reach people who have only heard of the answer before; I give it away by providing the definitional clue, as described in an earlier essay.

Writing a good tossup is about understanding three things about how that run progresses.

  1. Never run uphill. The pyramid slopes down, picking up more players who should know those clues as it goes, so the clues should be put in order from hardest to easiest.
  2. Keep running; do not pause at a level. If you stand at the top and give three clues that only that the very best players are likely to know, you waste the time of everyone below you. Give one clue, then move on to an easier clue.
  3. Most importantly, pace yourself; do not sprint past a level. If you jump past a level without giving a clue there, the next clue may not allow for enough differentiation. This is, as a general rule, sub-optimal; it’s usually called a “buzzer cliff,” as the running slope of the pyramid is replaced with a cliff-style fall.

Each tossup is its own pyramid, and a series of 6 to 10 clues can’t differentiate individually between all of the thousands of players nationwide at once. Instead, for every tossup, you should be able to tell what kind of player will be able to buzz at each clue. Here’s an example tossup that I wrote for SCOP Novice 5, an entry-level high school tournament from two years ago. I’ve labeled what I feel are the 10 clues in this tossup; it’s surely not the only way to label them, but it’s what we’re doing here.

This man stabbed Henry Rathbone to begin his escape. (I) Boarding house owner Mary Surratt (II) was one of four people hanged for conspiring with this man (III), who was shot and killed in a burning barn (IV). Samuel Mudd was arrested for treating this man’s leg (V), which was broken after he fell to the stage of Ford’s Theater (VI), shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (VII) For 10 points, name this actor and Confederate (VIII) supporter who, on April 14th, 1865, (IX) shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. (X)
Answer: John Wilkes Booth

If you buzz at clue I, you remember one of the names of the witnesses of the assassination, a very minor detail.

At clue II, you remember the name of one of the conspirators; her role was more significant than Rathbone’s, so she’s an easier clue.

Clue III tells you that four people were hanged for conspiring with Booth, which provides helpful context for the name “Mary Surratt” if you thought it sounded familiar. A lot of the time, we want to give context, then the name, so this is somewhat unusual. It does happen occasionally, often with deep clues on very famous answer lines.

Clue IV tells you how Booth died, which is more famous than his conspirators.

Clues V and VI are interesting. The name “Samuel Mudd” is, in my mind, a little bit harder than “shot and killed in a burning barn.” When I wrote this, though, I didn’t think about “Samuel Mudd” as the clue. I also didn’t think about “Samuel Mudd was arrested for helping this man’s injury,” which is about equal in difficulty to “shot and killed in a burning barn.” (After all, they’re part of the same story; he was hiding in the barn tending to his leg.) I picked “Samuel Mudd was arrested for treating this man’s leg, which was broken after he fell to the stage of Ford’s Theater.” I decided that an extra clue at the same level as how Booth died was worth it, given that it let me transition cleanly into the next clue about how the leg was broken, which is a good next step down in difficulty. I remember struggling with this question for a while trying to get a wording I liked there; this was a compromise that allowed me room for contextual things like “Boarding house owner” early on. Long story short, Clue V is not the perfect way to do this tossup, but it’s certainly a good way.

Clue VII is a great example of a good clue badly placed. Nobody who knows the phrase that Booth yelled can buzz in there, because they all buzzed at Ford’s Theater (an easier clue) or earlier. This four-word phrase is tacked on in a way to get an extra clue there, but the clue isn’t helpful where it is. A better, though grammatically taxing, way would have been “after he fell, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”, to the stage of Ford’s Theater.” I think I wanted to avoid that weird sentence; it would have had four commas in it. You should strive to avoid situations like Clue VII. Either put those four words in their correct slot or, if you can’t fit them in for English’s sake, cut them and pick a different clue.

Moving on to the giveaway. If you were unable to buzz through Clue VII, but you were listening, you only know that we’re looking for some sort of villain in an English speaking country in a timeframe that includes guns and execution by hanging. Clue VIII tells you “OK, this is circa the American Civil War;” if you were thinking Booth but were holding off because you didn’t know the setting, you can buzz now. Clue IX gives you the date as another last gasp at figuring this out before we say “killed Lincoln.” In a regular difficulty high school set, you do not always need both clues VIII and IX; you might want to use that space on a harder lead-in instead. Clue X is the definitional giveaway, and we’re done.

In my estimation, clues I, II, and III are accessible only to Lincoln buffs and people who have studied Booth for quizbowl. I can’t expect a history class to lecture about those facts. Clues IV and V are accessible to all of the above and those who have heard Booth’s story in detail, more probably in class than the earlier clues. Clues VI and VII are accessible to all of the above and those who have heard Lincoln’s assassination story, which is even more likely to come up in class or outside of class. Clues VIII, IX, and X add context and give it away; by the end, if you know who Booth is, you can buzz.

This tossup provides opportunities for all levels in its audience; a tossup written for a harder tournament should include harder clues, preferably by expanding the length of the question rather than by removing middle or later clues. Pyramidality allows the same tossup to be enjoyed by players at all levels, and the feeling of “I buzzed at the giveaway this time, and I can learn from the clues here to buzz before the giveaway next time!” is what often hooks new players on the game.

Advanced Lessons

Quizbowl questions are meant to be both playable and educational; a player should be able to decide whether to buzz during the tossup and able to learn from the clues presented in the tossup afterwards. Therefore, we don’t want a tossup to just string together a random collection of facts; the clues should be related to each other by some substantive theme. Doing so makes it easier for players to follow the ideas presented, which helps players both to decide whether to buzz in and to learn from the tossup after it’s done. So, in choosing the topic of a tossup, a writer should choose not just the answer of the question, but also a theme for the tossup’s clues.

For example, if you’re writing a tossup on George Washington, you may want all of the clues to focus on his military career, or on domestic issues during his Presidency, or on his farewell address. A good tossup could incorporate some about all three, but it is easier and generally better to stick to a tighter theme.

Your giveaway can incorporate the theme, too, but you don’t have to avoid a proper giveaway just to make the theme work; your “Washington’s military career” giveaway should still mention “first President of the U.S.” at the end, even if it adds “Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army,” as the easiest military clue.

Consider this tossup from 2015-16 NHBB C-Set.

Prior to one battle, this man had a vision of enemy soldiers “falling like grasshoppers.” After a brief exile in Canada, this leader surrendered and was held at Standing Rock, where he was later killed in a botched arrest attempt. For 10 points, name this chief who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West well after leading the Lakota Sioux to victory over American forces at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Answer: Sitting Bull

This tossup begins with a clue from the Battle of Little Bighorn, then moves to his later life, then returns to mention Little Bighorn in the giveaway. This isn’t necessarily bad, but a more effective tossup may look like this, also taken from 2015-16 NHBB C-Set.

One work by this man shows a member of the White League shaking hands with the KKK above a shield that reads “Worse than Slavery.” Another artwork by this man shows a man’s head replaced by a moneybag, and he depicted one institution as a tiger mauling a woman in a Roman Colosseum as faux-Emperor Boss Tweed looks on. For 10 points, name this 19th century cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who feuded with Tammany Hall.
Answer: Thomas Nast

This tossup exclusively focuses on examples of Nast’s cartoons, making it somewhat easier to follow.

The goal of a tossup is to provide as many helpful clues as possible; the easiest way to make room for more clues is by cutting down on excessive wording that isn’t providing clues! In this lesson, we discuss how wording can be condensed, using two example tossups that were taken from the fall 2015 Provisional Writer Program.

Example 1:

This man once asked to borrow a pinch of snuff and left the room in response to a rival’s interrogation. He was accused of being a “dandy,” an “effeminate fop,” and an “incorrigible snob” by Davy Crockett. One speech attacking this man was called the “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace,” but is better known as the Gold Spoon Oration. That speech helped ensure that this man lost his bid for re-election to William Henry Harrison. For ten points, name this man who was President during the Panic of 1837 and succeeded Andrew Jackson.
Answer: Martin van Buren

In my first feedback on this tossup, I suggested adding a clue to the lead-in to make it more specific; specifically, “After tense questioning from Henry Clay, this man avoided the situation by borrowing a pinch of snuff from Clay and leaving the Senate.” Let’s see how we can further condense this sentence.
The point of this clue is that “Clay yelled at Van Buren, so Van Buren borrowed some snuff from Clay and walked out to avoid the conflict.” One aspect of the clue can probably be inferred by the players — why Van Buren walked out. Of course he walked out to defuse the situation; what else would that be doing? And even if that’s not clear, that part of the story is the least important to the execution of the clue. If someone has heard this story, they’re buzzing at “pinch of snuff” or “leaving the Senate after Henry Clay’s questioning,” not “the result was a defused situation,” so that point can be somewhat safely removed. I’d edit this sentence down to “After tense questioning from Henry Clay, this man borrowed a pinch of snuff from Clay and left the Senate.”

Sentence two: “He was accused of being a “dandy,” an “effeminate fop,” and an “incorrigible snob” by Davy Crockett.” The clue here is “Davy Crockett hated Martin Van Buren,” and that point can be expressed with just one of the three name-callings. This is a common place for condensing; when there’s a list of things, pick one for your clue. The extra names here don’t help. I’d edit this sentence down to “He was accused of being a “dandy” by Davy Crockett.” I’d probably look to combine it with another phrase to make a larger sentence, though this only works well if the two phrases are related — it had better be another rival or opponent complaining about hating him.

Sentences three and four: “One speech attacking this man was called the “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace,” but is better known as the Gold Spoon Oration. That speech helped ensure that this man lost his bid for re-election to William Henry Harrison.”
The clues here are (the name of the speech), (the other name of the speech), and (the effect of the speech). The three clues here take up about as much space as the connecting words between them. In character count, the important phrases “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace, Gold Spoon Oration, lost re-election to William Henry Harrison” take up 108 characters, while the rest of the words take up 113. The connecting language is crowding out clues! My first edit was “His lavish lifestyle was attacked in Charles Ogle’s speech “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace;” that speech, later called the “Gold Spoon” oration, helped ruin his re-election campaign against William Henry Harrison.” It’s basically the same size, but it adds the subject and speaker of that speech. It took me a pretty long time to get the language the way I liked it on that edit, and I’m not even thrilled with it yet, but it’s got 5 clues in 220 characters, so I’m not going to complain. The important thing here is that the connecting language got cut down significantly; the only phrase that doesn’t provide clues is “that speech, later called the.”

I originally wanted the Davy Crockett sentence to tie in with the next clue in a single sentence. Though this sentence does hit the “opponents of MVB theme” well, it’s long enough as it is. We’ll leave it alone.

The giveaway doesn’t have any language that needs cutting, but by removing words earlier, I was able to expand the giveaway to include more context. Here’s my final version:

After tense questioning from Henry Clay, this man borrowed a pinch of snuff from Clay and left the Senate. He was accused of being a “dandy” by Davy Crockett, and his lavish lifestyle was attacked in Charles Ogle’s speech “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” That speech, later called the “Gold Spoon” oration, helped ruin his re-election campaign against William Henry Harrison. For ten points, name this U.S. President who took power just five weeks before the onset of the Panic of 1837, largely caused by his predecessor, Andrew Jackson.
Answer: Martin Van Buren

Example 2:

During one battle of this campaign, a force defended the village of Wizna for three days while outnumbered by a ratio of over 40 to 1. Though it is untrue it is commonly believed that one side in this campaign charged enemy tanks on horseback. At one point in this invasion over ten percent of the city of Warsaw was destroyed by aerial bombardment. For the point, name this invasion that began on September 1, 1939 and started World War II.
Answer: Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland

Before you read the below lesson, use this tossup as an exercise. Copy it into a word processor and underline all the language that could be condensed away.

Going sentence by sentence…
“During one battle of this campaign, a force defended the village of Wizna for three days while outnumbered by a ratio of over 40 to 1.”
The brunt of this clue is “defenders at Wizna were heavily outnumbered,” so my version is “In this campaign, forces defended Wizna against an army 40 times larger.” Phrases like “In this campaign” or “In this war” are always preferable to “During one battle in this war.” We’re about to describe fighting anyway, so you don’t need to say “battle.”

Next sentence: “Though it is untrue it is commonly believed that one side in this campaign charged enemy tanks on horseback.”
Pay careful attention to the two bits to this clue — “horse-based cavalry charged against tanks” and “this didn’t happen.” A TON of famous stories have the “this didn’t happen” aspect; we need to make sure we’re telling the players that (so they don’t learn it as gospel truth) and that we’re telling them that quickly (because it’s just making the clue take longer). My version – “According to myth, the defenders in this campaign charged enemy tanks on horseback.”
“Supposedly,” can preface facts that may or may not have happened. It would not be appropriate here, as the fact in question is much closer to “false” than to “true.”
“According to legend,” can be used similarly to “According to myth,” but I prefer saving it for situations where it’s at least a little questionable whether the story is true.
If something is blatantly false (like this Polish horses charging German tanks story), then we’ll call it a myth.

“At one point in this invasion over ten percent of the city of Warsaw was destroyed by aerial bombardment.”
Here’s a good place to check your underlining.
Clue: “10% of Warsaw was destroyed by aerial bombardment”
Not clue: “At one point in” “over” “of the city”
Not clue, but helpful: “this invasion” (We remind players of the pronoun in each sentence.)
My version: Air strikes destroyed 10% of Warsaw.
My version doesn’t give a pronoun, but it’s also short enough that it can find a home with another short clue in a larger sentence, and they can share a pronoun.

The tossup so far:
In this campaign, forces defended Wizna against an army 40 times larger. According to myth, the defenders in this campaign charged enemy tanks on horseback. Air strikes destroyed 10% of Warsaw. For the point, name this invasion that began on September 1, 1939 and started World War II.

There is definitely room for more clues now – and high on the priority list is expanding sentence 3 with another clue, because at the moment it doesn’t say “this campaign.” This lesson is just about condensing clues, though, so we’ll leave it at this.

The vast majority of NHBB tossups have answers like “the Battle of Gettysburg,” “Richard Nixon,” or “France”. These tossups can, without any worry of confusion, use phrases like “This battle,” “This person,” or “This country” to indicate what type of answer is being sought. Those answer lines will usually be very brief; there’s very little need for specific directions to the moderator on what to do with alternative acceptable answers.

Some NHBB tossups will ask about events that don’t have widely accepted names or titles. In these cases, the player doesn’t have a clearly expected response to give; they’re essentially expected to explain the answer to the moderator; by writing “Description acceptable” at the start of the tossup, players are made aware that such explanations are OK for this question.

The “Description acceptable” tag is not terribly common; after all, that reassurance is *not* what most tossups want to give, because the answer has a specific name. In addition, the “Description acceptable” tag is not used 100% of the time; there are plenty of answer lines that give the moderator leniency in accepting descriptions but don’t feel the need to give the players advance warning. An example is helpful; this tossup was used at the International History Olympiad in summer 2016.

Description acceptable. One of these works asks for the NPR channel on Long Island, as the writer’s Google searches had been unsuccessful. The alias “Eric Hoteham” was used to facilitate the creation of these works, and a man known as “Guccifer” revealed their existence. The phrase “What, like, with a cloth or something?” was sarcastically uttered by the writer of these works when questioned if a private server had been wiped by her. FTP, name these digital communications made and controversially stored on a private server by a former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential nominee.
Answer: Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (accept elaborations; prompt on partial answers)

In this tossup, the phrase “Description acceptable” is used to indicate that the player doesn’t necessarily need to recite the exact listed phrase to get credit for this tossup. If a player gives more information – “the e-mails stored on Hillary Clinton’s private server” – they are equally correct. If a player rephrases the answer – “e-mails sent by Hillary Clinton” – they are equally correct.

Another example comes from 2016’s US History Bee.

Description acceptable. This object was damaged by the Armistead family’s habit of cutting pieces out of it and sending them as gifts. Mary Young Pickersgill was commissioned by Joshua Barney to create this object. It survived a siege by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and bombardment by the HMS Erebus, which shot carcass shells and Congreve rockets at it; shortly after, a man aboard the HMS Tonnant observed that this object had not yet been taken down. FTP, identify this object that, during the Battle of Baltimore, flew above Fort McHenry illuminated by “the rocket’s red glare.”
Answer: the Star-Spangled Banner flag (or descriptions of the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key; accept the American flag above Fort McHenry before “Fort McHenry” is read; accept the Great Garrison Flag; prompt on flag; prompt on American flag by asking “which one?”; do not accept Old Glory)

This example shows the second primary reason why “Description acceptable” may be used; something may have a name, but the question writer is willing to give the players credit without knowing the exact name. In this particular case, the writer felt that saying “the American flag that Francis Scott Key saw” was worthy of points, not just a prompt. When we playtested this tossup as requiring “Star Spangled Banner,” players who said “the Key flag” and got prompted had a hard time figuring out what “name” we were looking for, so the leniency of “Description acceptable” was added.

A similar example from the same tournament asked for “In Event of Moon Disaster,” the contingency speech prepared for Richard Nixon in case the Apollo 11 astronauts became stranded on the Moon; the name of that speech is nowhere near famous enough to require for an answer, so the tossup allowed players to either give the official name, the nickname “Fate has ordained” (based on the opening phrase), or a description of what the speech was for (in case Apollo 11 was stranded on the Moon). Admittedly, these last two examples are particularly challenging for players to process; they were reserved for national finals, and tossups of similar difficulty would generally not be suitable for regular season play. In a tournament like B Set or A Set, the tossup would probably just be written on “Francis Scott Key” or “Apollo 11.” As the head editor of NHBB sets, I’ve been using “Description acceptable” to allow more variety in how we ask new questions on familiar topics, while still trying to keep the game accessible to new players who are still learning how the rules of quizbowl work.

In summary, “Description acceptable” is used when the tossup wants to reassure players who know what the tossup is asking for but aren’t sure if they’ve got the right words for the answer.

NHBB-centric Lessons

The following is a guide to how NHBB writes its cultural history questions. It’s presented to NHBB writers as a means of explaining the job, and is presented to players more for “how to prepare for NHBB competition” purposes than any sort of real writing lesson.

Somewhere between 15 and 25% of each NHBB packet is cultural history. Our full list of cultural history topics is Science & Technology, Sports & Pop Culture, Visual Art, Auditory Art, Religion & Mythology, Philosophy & Social Science, Literature, Recent History, US Geography, and World Geography; each topic will get one tossup in each packet.

The “extra” consideration in writing NHBB cultural history, as opposed to regular all-subject quizbowl questions in the same categories, is that the NHBB question must involve something historically significant in its own right. Simply being famous within the study is not enough to make it NHBB material. Instead, the tossup must do one of two things: either tie those primary clues in to the broader historical significance outside the work, or use primary clues that themselves are derived from history. An example of the former would be a tossup that describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s impact on abolitionism, possibly including the clue that Abe Lincoln apocryphally called Harriet Beecher Stowe the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” An example of the latter would be that, in his late career, Mark Twain wrote a biography of Joan of Arc.

Sports provides another good set of examples for “historical significance.” A tossup on Jackie Robinson describing his breaking baseball’s color barrier is obviously OK — that had broad social ramification. Any additional clues could be directly historical or not, as desired by the writer. On the other hand, a tossup on Babe Ruth that only describes his batting statistics is not OK, even if it says “hit a then-record 714 home runs.” Those stats may be highly famous within baseball, but the numbers themselves are not historically significant — it’s up to the writer to tell the quizbowl player why they matter outside of baseball. (And if they don’t, then the writer either needs to find something that does or scrap the tossup.)

The following is a brief description of how we approach writing a “historical” tossup in each subcategory. The examples are drawn from clues that are highly famous in quizbowl already; don’t take them as guarantees that they will or won’t come up in future NHBB questions!

Literature
The requirement for “historical content” is quite probably most onerous in literature. A good literature quizbowl question usually focuses entirely on plot elements of the work; that often won’t fly for NHBB, if the work in question is entirely fictional.

Our preferred method for literature questions is for the subject of the question to already have some sort of direct tie to historical events. Some common examples: a tossup on Kurt Vonnegut that uses the firebombing of Dresden as a Slaughterhouse Five clue; a tossup on Robinson Crusoe that uses the Alexander Selkirk marooning clue; a tossup on Keats that uses the “‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ claimed Cortez saw the Pacific, but that’s wrong, oops!” clue.

It is also possible to write a tossup that mentions how the work influenced history; the Harriet Beecher Stowe example above works along those lines. You could also write a tossup on the Harlem Renaissance using works and authors as well as other historical clues; quizbowl might have debates on whether that tossup would fit in the literature or history category, but NHBB gets to call it historical literature and move on.

What you should never, EVER do is mine an author’s biography for a “historical” clue. Knowledge of the literature is what we’re testing, not trivia about the authors. If a fact from the author’s life is broadly important and directly impacts their literature (for example, Vonnegut surviving Dresden), it’s OK, but only because the literary work itself describes Dresden, making it fall in the previous paragraph’s domain.

Religion and Mythology
There are three primary ways to write RM questions: asking about a system’s beliefs, practices, and general history. The third option is obviously fair game for us. The second option is easy for us to incorporate – think of a tossup on Passover that uses clues from the seder as well as the historical inspiration for the holiday. The first option is somewhat dicier; clues on beliefs are often derived from primary literary sources. We can’t toss up Athena based on just textual clues from The Iliad or Adam and Eve off of just clues from Genesis. Like in literature, focusing on primary sources is important, but NHBB questions need to explicitly tie in those primary sources to their historical context. The good news is there’s usually no shortage of interesting history about how people worship and express their beliefs, so you can (and should!) incorporate belief clues with history clues.

Visual Art & Auditory Art
Use similar judgment in these two categories as with literature. A tossup on Beethoven’s fifth symphony can use the “signaled victory in World War 2” clue. A tossup on Handel can use any number of clues describing his work for King George 1, but can get by with as little as one historical clue and the rest musical. A tossup on the Mona Lisa that only describes visual aspects of the painting does not work; describing its 1911 theft would help.

Philosophy and Social Science
Use similar judgment here as with literature and arts. These categories are naturally inclined to have close relations to history, so writers often won’t have to “stretch” nearly as hard to make an otherwise-good question historical. You won’t be able to write a tossup on The Interpretation of Dreams by just grabbing random concepts from the book, but you can do things like tossing up Heidegger using Nazi references and tossing up Samoa using Margaret Mead and other clues.

Science and Technology
We consider this the second-hardest category for applying historical content. Good science quizbowl questions usually focus on the concepts and how they work. On occasion, they describe the historical development of the concepts; for example, a tossup on the nucleus based on the various models that have been proposed explaining it. The latter falls right in our wheelhouse and is by far the most “normal” way to pull this off, but under no circumstances should writers forget that the former is vastly more important. Our preferred method for science questions is to incorporate one or two clues about the history of the concept while using explanations of the science itself everywhere else.

Geography & Recent History
Writing good current events or geography questions isn’t terribly difficult, and incorporating historical context is not onerous either; the problem is that it’s really easy to write boring current events or geography questions. Our Recent History category encompasses everything since the year 2000, making it less reliant on “what happened in the last 6 months” than normal quizbowl questions. The important thing to note is that such questions must, like all other tossups, include academically significant and interesting information.

As far as the historical necessity goes, if you write a good CE or geography question, it will almost automatically have enough historical context to work. If you write a bad CE or geography question, it will get rejected by the editor.

Pop Culture and Sports
Pop culture and sports questions (often known as trash questions) often don’t have a “primary source” to rely on. Writers of these questions must focus on the discussion about “internal vs. external importance” from the start — we can’t just ask for a famous singer, we have to ask about a singer’s broadly, historically important impact (think Whitney Houston’s legendary “Star Spangled Banner” performance circa the Gulf War) or about a singer’s discussion of historical topics (think U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”). A tossup on Abbey Road that talks about how they made the cover art is historically famous within pop culture, but it didn’t draw on any history or have any broad historical impact, so it wouldn’t work well. The Sgt. Pepper’s album cover does make use of historical figures, so a tossup on that could work.

To wrap up this discussion, a note. Cultural history questions, and especially trash questions, require a fair bit of finesse to pull off for a particularly unfair reason. Whether it’s a trash question in any academic quizbowl, or a non-history question in NHBB, these questions are a diversion from the normal content, which means they have to be really creative and entertaining to be worth the space. If you write a boring question on the Chicago Cubs, it doesn’t just “exist” in the game and get forgotten; Cubs fans get angry that you apparently don’t understand their team, and everyone else gets annoyed that their quizbowl game was interrupted for something dumb. The audience for this tossup isn’t there to show off their knowledge of the Cubs; they’re there to play history questions. We have to work hard to make sure the question is worth listening to by both fans and non-fans.

An NHBB sixty-second round is designed to gauge how much a team can quickly recall about a certain subject. The philosophy behind writing sixty-second rounds is very similar to that for writing tossups: we want to reward depth of knowledge while keeping the game competitive for new and novice players. Pyramidal clue ordering makes that happen for tossups; in sixty-second rounds, the job is done by differentiating the difficulty of the answer lines. A tossup will get easier toward the end; a sixty-second round will start easy to warm teams up before getting harder with the last few parts.

Each NHBB Bowl round has 3 sixty-second rounds; generally, it’s one American history, one European history, and one World history, though some packets may differ from this template. The categories aren’t completely quarantined from each other; a World history round could include some American content, and vice versa.

Each sixty-second round generally goes from easy parts to hard parts. There may be some situations in which, for example, part 5 is a little harder than part 6. If so, they’ll either be close enough in difficulty to not be that weird, or be written in that order just to make the round make more sense – say, by going chronologically through an event.

We try to make all three sixty-second rounds in a packet of even difficulty, so that one team isn’t given too much of an advantage from a “lucky” set of questions. With that said, not every sixty-second round will be the same difficulty level for every team. If a packet offers sixty-second rounds on the American Civil War and World War II, and a team has a Civil War buff and nobody who is interested in WW2, there’s a natural bias there that makes one easier than the other for that team. The “luck of the packet” will give you categories you may or may not like; we want that to be the only meaningful difference between the categories.

We also try to make sixty-second rounds “studyable;” after all, you’re putting in the effort to learn more, so you deserve to be rewarded for that effort! We want you to feel like you can pick a sixty-second round category comfortably. For example, a sixty-second round on “Otto von Bismarck” feels like something that a player can be prepared for; a sixty-second round on “The Year 1900” feels, instead, like an unpredictable “grab bag” of questions. The team that chooses Bismarck knows essentially what they’re in for; 1900 might be anything, and that sense of randomness doesn’t make for a great game.

So, generally speaking, our sixty-second round topics try to ask questions about a specific topic (a la “Bismarck”) as opposed to naming a broad topic and going from there (a la “1900”). We will very rarely do the latter; if we do, it’s because the broad topic leads itself to an interesting set of questions, and the topic’s name provides enough insight into the round to let players feel at least a little confident that they will know what’s coming up. To that end, “The Year 1900” is probably a no-go, but “Europe in 1900” could work – it gives a little better insight into what’s coming – and “The British Empire in 1900” feels better still.

Here’s an example sixty-second round, taken from NHBB C-Set in 2015-2016.

Middle Eastern Conflict and Protest
Which Middle Eastern country…
(1) Had a 2013 coup d’etat remove Mohamed Morsi from power in Cairo?
ANSWER: Egypt
(2) Has lost territory to ISIS but is still led from Baghdad?
ANSWER: Iraq
(3) Attacked the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to its west in 2014?
ANSWER: Israel
(4) Signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, limiting its nuclear production capabilities in exchange for relaxed sanctions?
ANSWER: Iran
(5) Is torn by civil fighting in and around Aleppo?
ANSWER: Syria
(6) Is the base of the militant group Hezbollah?
ANSWER: Lebanon
(7) Was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990, triggering the first Persian Gulf War?
ANSWER: Kuwait
(8) Was the site of the 2000 USS Cole bombing in a port on the Arabian Peninsula?
ANSWER: Yemen

This sixty-second round goes easy-to-hard, as usual. The first two questions each provide the capital city as an additional clue, helping make them somewhat easier. Questions 3 through 8 provide clues that get progressively harder. Depending on your team’s strength, the geography clue in #3 may be less helpful than the current events clue in #4, but they’re relatively close. Each clue is short and to the point; teams will know quickly whether they know the answer or not, and can move through the round swiftly.