On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Shayne Bushfield, aka Thorsten A. Integrity, about LearnedLeague, the online trivia empire that he founded and runs. They discussed the ins and outs of how the league operates, his quest to diversify the subject matter of the “trivia canon,” and the various methods for writing solid trivia questions. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: When you sit down to write some LearnedLeague questions, what’s the first thing you do?
Shayne Bushfield: I have these notepads. I got them specially printed, just because, I don’t know, it’s almost a vanity thing. It’s got a clown ball on it, the LearnedLeague logo. This is a perfect size to write a trivia question on.
How many questions do you write on there?
One. This is one question.
It’s half the size of my head, maybe. I’m going to show you some old questions. I just have to make sure they’re questions we’ve already seen. These are all this season, so I’m going to hold them far back so you can’t read it. But this is just a big stack of papers.
This is a stack of probably about 165 sheets of paper, and on each one of them is a trivia question that I’ve written. To get to the nitty-gritty of the process, different types of questions require different approaches, but generally speaking, I’ll sit down in the chair in my office with a pad of that paper and a book. This isn’t a book that a normal person would particularly want to read through. It’s more like an encyclopedia or a dictionary of science or, I’m looking at my bookshelf, a geographical dictionary, Oxford Companion to Food. I just revealed one of my sources there. That’s OK, I’ve got a million others.
I’ll have that book, and I’ll crack it open, and I’ll go through it and just wait for something to catch my eye. What I’m looking for basically is a subject. That subject is often an answer, but it doesn’t have to be the answer. Plus, I have to chew on it.
What’s the first thing you write down? Do you write down what’s going to be the answer, or do you write them in the form of a question?
I write them in the form of a question. It’s a rough draft question, so on a lot of these pages you’ll see lots of scratches and lines and arrows: Add this part, take out that part. But I basically start by just throwing down a question, and then I have the answer written at the top. I think, “Does that work?” I think about it from my experience. Is that too hard? Is that too easy? Is it interesting? Is it accurate? Am I getting it right from the information on the page? This is all in my head. I haven’t done any supporting research yet. That comes later. But are there other ways that you can answer this question? Things of that nature to think about how the question can be structured. Then sometimes you flip it, like, “I’m asking the wrong thing. This should actually be the question, and the answer should be this part.” I chew on it like a cow, just work through it. Then eventually I’ll have a draft question. I’ve spent some time on it. Maybe I got lucky and spent five minutes on it; maybe I’ve spent 45 minutes on this one question, and I wad up the piece of paper and chuck it across the room because I just can’t get it. That happens too, and that’s really frustrating.
Once I’ve got that sheet of paper, I slot it in the book and then I move on to another random page and you just start going through. After a while, I’ll have a book with a bunch of sheets of paper in it. Then I’ll put that book over to the side, and I’ll grab another book, and I’ll do that until I run out of stamina, or run out of time, or have something else to do.
I’ll have a stack of books, maybe five, 10, 20 books, with these sheets of paper in it. That’s when we go to the computer. Then I bring it over to the computer, and I have this sheet of paper with a book open to the page, and then I do some research. I think, “OK, I’m not going to trust this book. I don’t care how trustworthy it is.”
Every single book that I own, and every single book that you own, and every single book that’s ever been written is filled with errors. So you’ve got to look it all up, you’ve got to find other sources, and you’ve got to find other information to make it more interesting. Sometimes I’ll write a question, and it’s like, “Ah, this is a bare bones version of a question. I’ve got to add some meat to this.” Then I craft it into a thing that works.