In this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Shayne Bushfield, aka Thorsten A. Integrity, of LearnedLeague, the online trivia empire he founded and runs. They discussed the ins and outs of how the league works, its quest to diversify the topic of “trivia canon” and the different methods of writing solid trivia questions. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: When you sit down to write questions on the LearnedLeague, what’s the first thing you do?
Shayne Bushfield: I have these notebooks. I printed them specially, just because, I don’t know, it’s almost a matter of vanity. There is a clown ball on it, the LearnedLeague logo. It’s a perfect size for writing a trivia question.
How many questions do you write there?
A. It’s a question.
It is maybe half the size of my head. I’ll show you some old questions. I just need to make sure these are questions we’ve seen before. These are all this season, so I’m going to hold them back so you can’t read it. But that’s just a big stack of papers.
This is a stack of about 165 sheets of paper, and on each of them is a trivial question that I wrote down. To get to the bottom of the process, different types of questions require different approaches, but generally I sit on my desk chair with a pad of this paper and a book. It is not a book that a normal person would particularly like to read. It is rather an encyclopedia or a dictionary of sciences or, I look at my library, a geographical dictionary, Oxford companion to food. I just revealed one of my sources there. It’s okay, I have a million more.
I’ll have this book, and open it, and flip through it, and just wait for something to grab my attention. Basically what I’m looking for is a subject. This topic is often an answer, but it doesn’t have to be the answer. Besides, I have to chew it.
What’s the first thing you write? Do you write down what is going to be the answer, or do you write them down as a question?
I write them down as a question. This is a draft question, so on a lot of these pages you’ll see a lot of stripes, lines, and arrows: Add this part, remove this part. But I basically start by asking a question and then I have the answer written at the top. I think, “Is this working? I think about it from my experience. It is too hard ? It’s too easy ? It’s interesting? Is it correct ? Do I understand the information on the page correctly? It’s all in my head. I didn’t do any support further research. It comes later. But are there other ways to answer this question? Things of this nature to think about how the question can be structured. Then sometimes you flip it over, like, “I’m not asking for the right thing. That should actually be the question, and the answer should be this part. I chew it like a cow, I just work on it. Then I will eventually have a draft question. I spent time there. I might have been lucky and spent five minutes on it; maybe I spent 45 minutes on that one question alone, and I took the piece of paper and threw it across the room because I just can’t do it. It also happens, and it’s really frustrating.
Once I have that sheet of paper, I put it into the book, then move to another random page and you just start browsing. After a while, I’ll have a book with a bunch of sheets of paper in it. Then I’ll put that book aside, and take another book, and I’ll do it until I run out of stamina, or time, or have other things to do.
I’ll have a stack of books, maybe five, ten, twenty books, with these sheets of paper in it. This is when we go to the computer. Then I bring it to the computer, and I have this sheet of paper with a book open on 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 book that I own, and every book that you own, and every book that has ever been written is filled with mistakes. So you have to research everything, you have to find other sources, and you have to find other information to make it more interesting. Sometimes I write a question and I’m like, “Ah, that’s a simple version of a question. I have to add meat to this. Then I shape it into something that works.
To listen to the full interview with Shayne Bushfield, subscribe to Working on Apple podcasts Where Spotify, or listen below.