Avoiding Biography Bowl: Writing “From the Bottom Up”

Author: Dwight Wynne

Level: Intermediate

This article was originally published through PACE’s now-defunct Freelance Quizbowl University program.

Introduction

Most good biographies do a good job of explaining why an individual is important. That is, those books often spend significant time discussing the events for which their subjects are known; e.g., how a scientist developed a theory or how a politician maneuvered an important bill through Congress. Many biographies delve into their subjects’ thought process, inasmuch as they can, and answer not only the how but the why.

Biography Bowl questions, on the other hand, read like a bad biography. They contain clues that are at best trivia and at worst irrelevant. Biography Bowl questions are difficult and boring to play, and they make it difficult to engage the listener and prompt players to learn more about the subject. In this article we will explore:

  • The kinds of clues commonly found in Biography Bowl
  • Common question-writing mistakes that lead to Biography Bowl
  • How to avoid Biography Bowl and other bad tossups by writing them “from the bottom up.”

What is Biography Bowl?

Here is a stereotypical Biography Bowl tossup:

Born in Bluefield, West Virginia on June 13, 1928, this man won the 1999 Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research. R.J. Duffin wrote a letter of recommendation for this man that stated simply, “This man is a genius.” Although he wanted to go to Harvard after getting a Master’s at Carnegie Tech, he earned the John S. Kennedy fellowship, which convinced him to pursue his doctorate at Princeton. He was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics after a group of mathematicians convinced the award committee that he was sane enough to receive the award. For 10 points, name this schizophrenic mathematician whose namesake equilibrium is important in game theory.

Common staples of Biography Bowl include:

  • Anecdotes related to the subject’s childhood, which may include the date and place of birth, the subject’s education, and the subject’s father’s profession. Often these anecdotes show up at the beginning of the tossup. While these details are likely important to the subject, it is rare that these details give important information about the subject’s significance.
  • Awards received by the subject, with no indication of the work rewarded by the award. Especially popular is the [year] Nobel Prize in [category] clue, which usually just rewards people who memorize lists of Nobel Laureates and do not know anything about their work.
  • Quotes said by or about the subject, with no context attached. Famous quotes are usually acceptable as later clues, but most quotes are neither notable enough to use later nor informative enough to use earlier.
  • Vague descriptions of the work done by the subject. This often takes the form of weasel words such as “important in” and “associated with,” or textbook-style phrases describing an artistic or literary style.

Go through the above tossup and find an example of each of those four common flaws.

A common misconception is that any tossup to which the answer is a person is Biography Bowl. This is not the case. The answer line does not determine the question; the clues do. Focus on the importance of a person, not on his or her personal life, when writing a question on a person.

Using Clues Indiscriminately Leads to Biography Bowl

Let’s say we want to write a question on Charles Coulomb. We know, very basically, that he is the namesake of Coulomb’s Law (and we know what Coulomb’s Law says) and that he is the namesake of the SI unit of charge. However, that does not give us much to work with for a tossup, so we need more clues. A basic internet search turns up the following facts:

  1. He was born on June 14, 1736 in Angouleme, France
  2. He was a military engineer stationed in the West Indies
  3. He invented the torsion balance
  4. Late in life, he served as an Inspector of Public Instruction
  5. He did some work on friction
  6. He applied the calculus of variations to engineering

Now, the first inclination of a typical new writer is going to be to just use all the facts, and put them together. You might see something like this:

Born on June 14, 1736, in Angouleme, France, this man served as an Inspector of Public Instruction late in life. He applied the calculus of variations to engineering while serving as a military engineer in the West Indies.  This man studied friction and invented the torsion balance, but is best known for a namesake law relating the force between two charged particles to the distance between them. For 10 points, name this French physicist, the namesake of the SI unit of charge.

While this is not a pure Biography Bowl question, there are several uninteresting details left in the question, as well as extremely vague descriptions of Coulomb’s actual work. This question would not be fun for people to play. Let’s use the same set of facts to write a better question.

Writing “From the Bottom Up”

Step 1: Figure Out Your Late Clues Before You Start to Write

The first step in writing a better question is to make sure there are enough clues to actually write the question. Before writing, make a list of three or more things that the individual in question is known for. For a military figure, you might list battles he prominently commanded in. For an author, you might list his widely-read works. For a scientist, you might list concepts he studied. If you can’t name at least three things someone might know the person for, you are more likely to include Biography Bowl-style clues to make the length “look right.” It’s okay to do some research to find that third or fourth thing, but you should already have an idea of what your last (giveaway) and second-to-last sentences will look like.

Once you have those last couple of sentences, start outlining the question. If you know more-or-less what words you want to use in the sentence, write the sentence. Otherwise, use parentheses or brackets to indicate what clue(s) you want to use in those places. Keep a bracketed line for clues you haven’t found yet. So our basic structure might look something like this:

[leadin and middle clues]
[description of Coulomb’s Law]
For 10 points, name this French physicist, the namesake of the SI unit of charge.

Step 2: Do the Research and Filter Clues

The second step is to do research to find those earlier clues, if necessary, and to fact-check everything else you think you know. I’ll use the list of six facts in the previous section (plus I need to fact-check what I think I know about Coulomb’s Law and the SI unit of charge). Once you have a group of facts, or concurrent with finding them, you should mentally consider whether each fact is “possibly usable” or “unimportant or irrelevant.” As a newer writer, this can be hard to do. At the beginning, you can use the “Does this look important enough that people might know it?” test. If you’re in doubt, list the fact as “possibly usable” and decide if there are enough other “possibly usable” facts that you don’t need to include it.

Let’s analyze which of these facts we can use. Fact 1 appears to be an unimportant biographical detail. We won’t use that. Fact 2 might be an insignificant biographical detail as well, but you might get away with including it if you explained how it related to Fact 6. We’ll put it in the “possibly usable” category for now, along with Fact 6. Fact 3 is clearly “possibly usable,” since the torsion balance is what enabled him to perform the measurements that led to the derivation of Coulomb’s Law. Fact 4 just gives another biographical detail, and it doesn’t appear to be related to Coulomb’s scientific work. We won’t use that either. Fact 5 may or may not be important, but it passes the “it looks important” test. So we’ll use facts 3 and 5, in addition to the other two facts at the end of the question.

Step 3: Order and Explain Your Facts

At this point, we have the following question:

[clues about friction and the torsion balance]
[description of Coulomb’s Law]
For 10 points, name this French physicist, the namesake of the SI unit of charge.

We need to do two things here. First, we need to decide whether the friction or torsion balance clue should go first. Second, we need to do “additional” research so that we are explaining the clues, not just giving them. By explaining, I mean filling the space around your “buzzwords” (friction, torsion balance) with words that can either help a knowledgeable person get the question before the buzzword or describe the importance or relevance of the clue.

Often, explaining the facts will lead to clear transitions between clues, and you should use those transitions in ordering your clues. If you’re trying to which of two clues to put first, you should always put the most difficult one first, but if you’re not sure or you think they’re about equal, order them so that there is the most logical connection between either the first clue and the clue before that, or the second clue and the clue after it. In our particular case, we might not know whether Coulomb’s work on friction or his invention of the torsion balance is better known, but we can create a seamless transition into our description of Coulomb’s Law by placing the torsion balance clue second.

Using precise language to describe the “buzzwords” in your question allows you to meet length requirements in a productive way, engages the player, and ensures the elimination of Biography Bowl clues. After doing research to expound on my four chosen facts (friction, torsion balance, Coulomb’s Law, giveaway), I might write the tossup as:

This man was the first to derive a mathematical equation for the frictional force exerted between two sliding dry surfaces. His experiments placing the needle of a compass on the end of a wire led to his invention of the torsion balance. He used that device to derive a law stating that the force between two point charges is proportional to the product of their charges over the square of the distance between them. For 10 points, name this French physicist who lends his name to the SI unit of charge.

Step 4: Adjust to the Length Requirement

The last step is to make sure your question is short or long enough to fit your requirements. This new tossup is about the same length as the original tossup that just threw together all the facts we found, and at a little over five lines in size 12 Times New Roman font, it is a perfectly acceptable length for a high school tossup. However, if I was writing for a tournament that preferred six-line tossups, I might do additional research to explain the clue about Coulomb’s application of the calculus of variations to engineering, and throw that at the beginning. It is always better (and easier!) to write a well-written question and tack a leadin clue onto the beginning than it is to write a bunch of leadin clues and try to construct a well-written question in the remaining space.

This question is also slightly too long for NAQT. If I were submitting it to NAQT, I’d have to cut out one of my clues. Often the “too long” problem shows up because you started with too many clues to begin with, in which case you should cut either the lead-in clue(s) or the clue(s) that fits least with the others. If the tossup is just a little bit over the length requirement, a better way to write to length is to use the transitions as your explanations and just give a clue or two. For instance, I might chop out some of the second sentence and restructure it as:

This man was the first to derive a mathematical equation for the frictional force exerted between two sliding dry surfaces. He invented the torsion balance and used that device to derive a law stating that the force between two point charges is proportional to the product of their charges over the square of the distance between them. For 10 points, name this French physicist who lends his name to the SI unit of charge.

The major point here is that you can write a reasonable-length high school tossup by just explaining two or three facts, plus a giveaway. If you have those, you don’t need to resort to Biography Bowl or legions of obscure leadins to fill out your tossup.

Additional Advice

A lot of non-scientists resort to Biography Bowl questions on scientists not because they don’t know better, but because they can’t understand the science necessary to write science questions. The best advice I have for non-scientists is to focus on equations, laws, models, or other things that involve math. Most of the time you can find these things stated mathematically, and with a little bit of digging, you can figure out what each variable in the equation stands for. The most important thing when writing a tossup on a person is to make a good faith effort to describe the work for which that person is famous. It’s usually okay if you don’t say something exactly right or you make a mistake in figuring out what a letter stands for in an equation – that’s what editors are for.

More importantly, the basic steps presented in this section – visualizing the giveaway before writing, judging the importance of clues, explaining a smaller number of clues in depth rather than listing a bunch of disjointed clues, adjusting for length only after you’ve written a solid question – can be used for any type of answer, not just a person. I have just used Biography Bowl as a convenient example, since it often has the most striking differences between a poorly-constructed and well-constructed tossup. You can try the same techniques on a work of literature or art, on a scientific concept, on a geographic place – on anything.

Summary

  • Biography Bowl is named because the clues in the question contain biographical information that is usually irrelevant to why we should care about the person today.
  • You don’t need to use every fact you find about a person. If you can find and explain three to five clues, that’s usually enough to fill out a high school tossup. If not, write that question first, and only then add more clues for length.
  • After you read an information source, or as you get better, while you are reading it, you should filter facts you pick up into clues you might use and facts that aren’t useful enough to put as clues. When in doubt, ask yourself whether the fact looks important enough that people might know it.
  • The technique of writing tossups “from the bottom up” eliminates many flaws, including overly long leadins and Biography Bowl clues. The technique can be generalized to any type of answer.