Six things I learned from writing trivia

For the past three and a half years I’ve been co-writer and host of a monthly trivia night. What better way to take a break from your day job of setting and grading questions than by… wait.

Our trivia is quite hard and quite nerdy and academic. (Yes, trivia is inherently nerdy, so you can imagine.) Our constituency is quite college-y and we are super generous with prizes so it all kind of works out.

I thought I’d write down some things I’ve learned on the job about how to write better trivia questions. I don’t think any of them are super insightful, but sometimes one has to learn the obvious stuff for oneself, right? Something I think is kind of interesting is that some of them have parallels with things I do when teaching and some are completely different, so I’ll write about that a bit too.

  1. Include something in each question to kill ambiguity.

What I mean here is that you want to minimize disputes over answers. So you can include things like “according to [x], what is [y]?” or “what [y] has [x], and also has this other excluding factor [z]”?

This is something I definitely don’t do when I’m setting exam questions. This is partly because I don’t set multiple choice questions (my classes are small enough that I can get away with this). I find open-ended questions really helpful in examining students. How you interpret a question is itself interesting, and can lead to new and unexpected places. In an exam, I want you to manipulate the question in your favor, to be creative and nuanced.

But that is hell for trivia.

2. The best questions admit educated guesses.

It’s boring if you either know the answer or you don’t. The best trivia questions are ones that create brainstorming, collaboration, or heated debate among a team. For this reason, I love questions about:

a. wordplay (anagrams, word origins, words with fun properties)

b. lists (name the whole set, complete the sequence, top 3 things)

c. knowledge mash-ups (spell a word with chemical symbols, sportspeople whose uniform numbers are interesting somehow)

This is also the reason why I find picture rounds the hardest to write. I haven’t come up with many picture rounds that aren’t totally bi-modal: either you get almost all of them, or almost none of them. The picture round that admits educated guesses is my white whale. The closest I think we’ve come is name the shaded countries on a world map, but a) that’s a bit boring and b) people do astonishingly well at that for some reason.

A corollary of 2 is:

3. Flip the question and the answer.

I don’t mean Jeopardy style. (Sidebar: Jeopardy is great but its buzz-in format means that good Jeopardy questions don’t make good trivia questions.) What I mean is that if you have a question concept but it seems a bit off, you can sometimes make it whole by flipping it. A fake example: instead of “name the president of [country x]”, use “of what country is [person y] the president?”. The second one can be guessed at, the first one can’t.

When I write exams, I often use the construction “show me why [x] is the answer, and why [y] doesn’t work”. De-emphasizing the answer is a useful way to prove how little I care about it relative to the process. I also obsessively tell my students to just make up and explain a fake answer if they weren’t able to derive the right one. There’s nothing worse than the feeling that a student was held back from showing me what they knew because they forgot some equation or another.

4. Don’t fight your audience.

I’m thinking particularly here about the lessons of writing music rounds. I am—I admit it—of a different generation than many of our players. They get understandably cranky when all of the music in the music round was created before they were born. The dilemma, of course, is that one wants to ask about “canonical” music but the canon takes time. Recent stuff that’s famous enough to be gotten is more often than not too famous.

So what to do? We’ve gotten much more relaxed about including recent music. Sometimes the whole round. I buy a lot of music across a bunch of genres and an epiphany I had was that if an old geezer like me is with it enough to have heard of it, surely some of the trivia players have heard of it too. That sounds very obvious in retrospect. Oops.

Another thing that words as an ex post apologia is that I reveal the answers to the music round by playing a second clip from the song with its most famous bit. Everyone gets to sing along, and they forget to be mad about how hard some of the other questions were.

To soften the difficulty by some small degree, we do thematic music rounds—some word or concept links the songs or the artists. That’s an effort to admit some clues and a small amount of educated guesswork to a category to which those don’t come easy.

By the way, I love writing music rounds but I am absolutely terrible at answering them when I do other people’s trivia. In fact, I would be terrible at answering ours too. It’s really annoying.

The link to teaching here is a bit more wishy-washy, but I really do try hard to see things from my students’ perspective. Remember what it feels like to have to absorb and recall new ideas in short order? Remember what your priorities and life experience was when you were in college? Generosity is requirement 1A for good teaching, I think.

5. Everybody loves trivia.

Trivia is the quintessentially nerdy pastime, but—whisper it—everyone loves trivia. Everyone’s nerdy about something. The more playful and tongue-in-cheek you can make the contest and the questions, the more you can bring out the natural trivia nerd in anyone. Deep pop culture cuts, categories that admit various completely different types of question, and a few well-placed vulgarities can help a lot here.

In academia, I’m a theory person. I like abstract nonsense and I don’t get hyped for the real world. If you need someone to increase a student’s hype for theory from like a 3/10 to a 5/10, I’m that person.

But! The average person is already more like a 7/10 for facts and figures. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to routinely use simple facts and figures about the real world as a staple of my teaching. Biographies of famous players mentioned in the textbooks also works well here. This is a thing that I only got better at after having to teach the relatively non-technical econ 101, but now I think about it all the time.

6. Consciously diversify it.

It is so, so easy to write trivia ends up being about Great White Men, just like everything else seems to end up being. Screw that!

Trivia staples like heads of state, writers, Nobel Prize winners, movie directors are super easy fallbacks, but they are not useful for this. As a matter of fact, they’re doubly cursed because they are very Anglo and Western. Solving this “problem” is a pleasure, not a burden, and to be honest all it really requires is being conscious of it and making some minimal effort.

At the end of the day, if you’re writing the questions, you’re the one in charge. Not only is diversified trivia likely to be less predictable and more interesting, it’s a total no-brainer that it is the right thing to do.

Hey, that sounds an awful lot like diversifying a syllabus! I really think that all it takes to diversify a syllabus is a awareness and will. Stubbornness just makes you look sad.

And those facts and figures I said earlier I like to use in teaching now? Those are more often than not about gender, race, and power disparities. I’ve written here a lot over the years about de-emphasizing “efficiency” in economics, and this goes hand in hand. The kind of crutches that shut down an honest reckoning with inequalities are the same things that make economics seem out of touch and boring. Don’t do that!

Some categories

I’ll sign off with some of my favorite categories that we’ve used over the years. We do six rounds of trivia: three are questions read out to the room, one is pictures, one is music, and one is a puzzle round with questions on paper.

  • One letter: each answer is a single English letter. This is funny because it’s extra annoying to get these questions wrong.
  • Words and wordplay: a staple. But it takes ages to write well, so we only do it every few months.
  • Really long titles: people, places, things, works with really long names. This is just plain funny.
  • Songs by solo: only instrumental bits. Even better if it’s either a) a song that samples another song or b) a saxophone solo. Everyone loves that, right?
  • Take an incomplete: stuff that was never finished. We did this one around the deadline to file for students to file for an incomplete. Trolling.
  • Songs with parentheses in the title: a classic music round category for a reason.

If any Providence folks want details of how to play our trivia, send me a message!


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