Quizzing and the art of writing good quiz questions

A bit about me and quizzing

As an inveterate quizzer, and setter of quizzes, I love testing myself against quiz shows on the small screen and radio, and doing quizzes from my quiz books shelf. I applied for ‘Brain of Britain’ (on R4) this year, but didn’t get through – the audition questions were multiple choice – which are simple if you know the answer – tricky when you’re trying to do your best guess. I made the classic mistake of not going with my first gut instinct and changing my mind on at least three of them and getting them wrong, when my gut instinct picked the right answer. I’ll try again next year!

Many years ago, I applied to Mastermind but didn’t get an audition. I did manage to get on one quiz show though – in 1988 – that was the primetime ‘Connections’ on Granada, hosted by a young and cocky Richard Madeley! I lost on the buzzer in the final round. What amazed me was how many people I knew watched it – in my job at the time I visited a lot of customers to sort out problems, and they’d all seen me on the programme too!

In the late 1980s I was also in a Pub Quiz team – and we lost one key match in the league on a disputed answer – the question had been ‘What is unique about Roquefort cheese?’ The answer on the cards was it’s made from sheep’s milk – we said it was the specific caves it is matured in, obvs – and gave a list of other cheeses made from sheep’s milk – feta anyone? The question-master was unable to accept our answer as he didn’t know anything about sheep’s cheese and we lost.

The Fine Art of Writing Quiz Questions

One more aside, before I come to the main thrust of this post. Have you noticed that the questions on Mastermind are getting longer and longer. It’s as if the question-setters are afraid that brevity and succinct language will lead to too much ambiguity in the answer they want. So they trowel on the detail unnecessarily in the question – which means you can only get a maximum of around 10 in your time in the specialist round these days, as so much time is taken up by Humphrys reading them very fast! I know that Mastermind also used to time all the question sets to ensure fairness – I’m sure they still do, maybe that’s why the questions are now so wordy, but it keeps all the scores down and it’s not so exciting.

There is a definite art to writing and setting quiz questions. That would be a dream job for me! Apart from fact-checking, the wording is so important. Then there is assessing the difficulty and getting the variety right within a round. Let’s look at some examples from a new quiz book I got.

How not to Write and Compile Quiz Questions

I received (via Amazon Vine) a new quiz book from one of the big publishing imprints known for their illustrated factual books from travel to encyclopaedias. I won’t identify the book in question as I’m going to use some of the questions in it to illustrate poor quiz-setting/question-writing. Like many quiz books, this one has 10,000 questions in themed and graded quizzes on specific topics within the usual broad categories. I’ve done a selection of quizzes from it, and here is what I found:


Type 1: I did an easy quiz on ‘musical instruments’ and scored 23/25. (One I got wrong was a True/False question about Polynesian Nose Flutes, the other wanted the harp-like instrument associated with ancient Romans and Greeks – I got distracted and forgot the simple (Apollo’s) lyre – and said Aeolian Harp.) Then I did an easy quiz in the pot luck section – it was on musical instruments – and quite a few of the questions were repeated word for word, or reworded slightly, but with the same answer! I would expect no repetition of this sort in a quiz book.

Type 2: I came across this several times too. In a medium difficulty Film & TV quiz on Science Fiction, one question asked about something in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, quoting the full film title. Further down the page a question asked: ‘Complete the film name: Close Encounters of…..’ That’s such lazy editing.

Type 3: In a difficult quiz in Art & Literature on the subject of Great Literary Journeys, there were two questions about the same author. One asked ‘Which Cormac McCarthy thriller features the postapocalyptic journey of a boy and his father?’ (I wouldn’t call ‘The Road’ a thriller). Then further down the page, ‘Who wrote the tale of three boys riding into Mexico and manhood in ‘All the Pretty Horses’? (I got 18/20 on this quiz).

Assessing the Difficulty

In that same medium SF Films and TV quiz above, there was one question that far too easy – ‘Who does Mark Hamill play in Star Wars?’ and there were several rather difficult ones of which the most difficult was ‘Which series of hit films is based on the books of Pierre Boulle?’ (Answers: Luke Skywalker and Planet of the Apes respectively). I’d have put the latter which I did know, but only because I’ve read one of Boulle’s books, in a difficult quiz.

Likewise, a medium Art question: ‘Which artist famously damaged his ear?’

Bad Wording

Type 1: Not being specific enough. A medium quiz on Great Artists simply asked ‘Where was Leonardo da Vinci born?’  Did they mean Italy, or Tuscany, or Florence, or the commune of Vinci (within the metropolitan city of Florence), or Anchiano – the specific hamlet in Vinci?  The answer given was Tuscany, so the question should have been worded to achieve that answer, e.g. In which region of Italy…

Type 2: This question also exhibits the worst sin of all – GETTING THE FACTS/ANSWER WRONG. From an easy quiz on British TV soaps … 

‘Who plays Head Nurse at Holby City Hospital?’

Derek Thompson as Charlie in Casualty for 30 yrs

The answer given was ‘Charlie Fairhead’. WRONG!

Charlie is a character – played by Derek Thompson (right, for over 30 yrs) in ‘Casualty‘. Charlie has never been head nurse either. He started out as charge nurse, and was at one stage Clinical Nurse Manager in the Emergency Department. Casualty has never had a Matron character that I can remember.

Now Casualty’s sister soap set in the same hospital – ‘Holby‘, does have a ‘Director of Nursing’. That’s Adrian ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, who worked his way up from Casualty moving different wards in Holby. Fletch is played by Alex Walkinshaw (left), so that was my answer – which is closest to the question’s wording.

Yes, this quiz book has many faults, but I’m still enjoying doing the quizzes in it to reinforce my general knowledge.

This all shows that there are many points to consider when setting questions and compiling quizzes:

  • One of the hardest things is getting the range of difficulty right, and assessing questions as easy, medium or difficult is not straightforward. I do like a fiendishly difficult quiz for personal me vs the question-setter purposes, but in company getting a good range of difficulty in a quiz is better. A wholly medium quiz is not simple to compile.
  • Choosing your words carefully to remove ambiguity is an absolute must, but you don’t need to go the full Mastermind.
  • Fact-checking. It’s not enough to say the quizmaster’s decision is final these days – people will get on their phones during the interval!
  • The art of supplying just enough information in a question to enable an educated guess is often desirable to include, you don’t want all questions to have a straight-forward you know it or you don’t binary response.

Do you quiz or set quizzes? I’d love to talk about this further!

16 thoughts on “Quizzing and the art of writing good quiz questions

  1. Simon T says:

    I see the injustice of the cheese question has stayed with you for decades! I have been a contestant on Eggheads, and thankfully got Literature/Art because I only know about books and celebrity gossip, and more or less nothing else.

    For the past year, I have been joining in a regular Zoom quiz that my brother organises, which I’ve really enjoyed -largely because nobody there cares particularly about how well they do. I have found that specialist rounds are the least fun to do – e.g. if you don’t know the answer to one question on Disney or mountains or whatever, you probably won’t know the others – so when I’m writing rounds I try to get a good mix of topics. My Dad always says a good round is where people get an average of 7 out of ten, and that is what I tend to aim for.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I don’t even eat cheese and I knew about all about Roquefort!!!

      I remember you on Eggheads! Another show I would have loved to get a team together for but didn’t manage. I’m still working on my brother and sister-in-law for Only Connect.

      On question setting, I’ve always aimed for average 70% too.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    You must have an excellent memory, Annabel. An old friend of mine managed to get on to Mastermind when Magnus Magnusson was still the quizmaster. His specialist subject was Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      My specialist subject was going to be Arthurian Myths and Legends back then. Nowadays, I’d probably choose Beryl Bainbridge or Iain Banks or the music of Tom Waits.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Really interesting post, Annabel! I don’t quiz socially, but I watch the occasional Only Connect and Chase. And I saw Simon on Eggheads too. Recently, we somehow ended up watching a random episode of Mastermind and I was stunned by the length of the questions – they seem ridiculous to me and as you say it limits the number of points contestants can get. A bit silly, really!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The more I think about the length of the MM questions, the more I think it’s a timing thing to ensure fairness in number of questions asked in the time. Makes it easier for the specialist question setters – fewer to set!

  4. Margaret says:

    I love quiz programmes, especially Only Connect – rarely get the answers though! The length of questions in Mastermind is irritating- often the contestant knows the answer well before Humphrys has finished gabbling it out. And I don’t know if it’s that I take more interest in general knowledge now than I used to do, but those questions seem easier these days – especially in the celebrities version. I like University Challenge too, but the science questions usually defeat me – I’m okay with literature though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Coming from a quizzy family, I would have applied for University Challenge, but at Imperial when I was there, they never advertised the audition dates. (Imperial being formed from three separate colleges – I was in the Royal School of Mines bit and we were written off as being too unconformist in a boozy/rugby way, I think the other two always sewed it up between them). Shame, I’d have been good on the team!

      I love Only Connect. When you get a connection or series etc, you do feel a thrill. Practice does help though, remembering to look for wordy / coded ones etc. I would love to be on a team for that.

  5. Dark Puss says:

    You make some good points Annabel. I do watch University Challenge and Only Connect and I am competitive. I have only taken part in one pub quiz (with my wife and son) in a remote pub in Devon where we were the only non-locals. We won but I am not sure that was really very politic, however they were all very nice about it and the £30 first prize paid for the excellent Rioja we had just consumed 🙂

  6. Laura says:

    How annoying re. Roquefort! I’m also annoyed with the wording of that Holby City/Casualty question especially as it’s one of the few popular TV things I watch. Having said that, I would probably have gone for ‘Derek Thompson’ not knowing the ins and outs of nursing grades… also Fletch seems to keep changing his job!

    I’ve written a few quizzes for family and friends during lockdown and I agree that it’s much harder than it looks. Ultimately people are always going to have different definitions of what questions are ‘hard’ or ‘easy’. I know nothing about music, sport or celebrities so I usually do very badly on pub quizzes. I also think there is a general trend for the science questions to be much easier than the humanities questions on more ‘highbrow’ quizzes – can usually be answered with GCSE or at the most A Level knowledge.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Gotta love Charlie and Fletch though, such great characters.

      I agree, science questions in many quizzes (Uni Challenge excepted) are often very easy. Sport is a challenge for me too!

  7. BookerTalk says:

    I’m impressed you even went as far as entering those competitions – sounds like you were just plain unlucky with Brain of Britain. Yes we’ve noticed the length of those MM questions – some of them are like essays and you’re just begging Humphrys to get to the end. He also tends to swallow some of his words so we miss the answer. Most frustrating.

    On a completely unrelated note – I worked with Ann Hegerty of The Chase fame. She was our junior reporter and the most introverted character you could ever encounter. Super intelligent – her idea of relaxation was to read academic history books. Never in a million years would I have imagined her on prime time tv….

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