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The Advanced Guide to Writing a Survey

This guide will teach you more tips and tricks on how to make a good survey into a great survey, so people will want to share it with all of their friends.

Here are some of the topics we cover in our advanced guide:

Asking Good Questions

Writing Good Response Options

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Asking Good Questions

Even if there's no such thing as a stupid question, some questions are better than others. A bad survey question is hard to answer. It might be unclear what you are looking for, it might ask too much at once, or it might make no sense at all! There are a few common tricks to making sure that your question is the best it can be.

Ask one question at a time

Sometimes, concepts go together so well, it seems silly to split it into two questions. Unfortunately, that's what you have to do. Make sure you're only asking people about one thing per question.

For example, don't ask "Would you rather walk or ride your bike to school than drive?" Here, people can say either "yes" or "no," but what if they would rather ride their bike, but not walk? What if they would rather walk, but not ride their bike? It forces people to choose an answer that isn't completely true. You want people to feel 100% confident in their answers!

Use direct language

Have you ever had someone say, "Well, I don't not like him." That's just a little confusing. You understand if you think about it, but when you're writing survey questions, why take that risk? Instead of asking "least easy," ask "hardest." Instead of "not good," ask "bad." If you have to ask a question using "not" or "least," consider making that word bold, using all uppercase letters, and take special care that your question is short and easy to understand.

Instead of asking, "Which is the least good?", ask "Which is the worst?"

Avoid getting complicated

If you can say something using words that the average 10-year-old can understand, then you're on the right track. If you're an advanced reader or writer, that's fantastic, but a survey is not the place to try out all your new vocabulary words! Someone taking your test should not ever have to use the dictionary to figure out how to answer a question. Also, try to use as few words as possible while still making sense!

Instead of asking, "Were you allowed to ambulate to school during the primary grades of K through 6?", ask "Were you allowed to walk to elementary school?"

Don't be judgmental or biased

Be careful that your question doesn't give away the answer that you are looking for or make it obvious what you want ot hear. Your question shouldn't put any pressure on anyone to respond a certain way. Use objective language that doesn't give away your feelings.

For example, you don't want to say, "Don't you think that swearing in public is disgusting?" It's pretty clear how the person asking that question already feels. It might make people with a different opinion feel too embarrassed to be honest. Instead, phrase your question more like this: "Should people be allowed to swear in public?"

Another example is to assume things about the people taking your survey that might not be true. For example, "When you were in elementary school a long time ago, who was your favorite teacher?" Some of the people taking your survey might still be in elementary school. This question could make them feel uncomfortable, or they might not have a favorite teacher yet.

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Writing Good Response Options for Close-ended Questions

You want to make it easy for people to choose just one answer for each question. That's why many of the rules that apply to writing good questions also apply to writing good options for multiple choice questions. Here are some examples just for responses:

Give one option per response

If someone can't relate to all of an option, it won't feel right to them.

For example, if your question was, "What's your favorite dessert?" and one of the responses was "Cake and ice cream," but someone only likes ice cream and not cake, they won't feel comfortable choosing that option. Instead, you would want to list "cake" and "ice cream" separately.

Use simple, direct language

Just like with asking questions, if you confuse people, they won't want to answer your question! Also, if you make really elaborate responses for every single question, they might get tired of reading. Consider this question and three responses:

Would you rather...

(a) Eat a cold pickle on a summer day on your back porch while wearing a sundress and singing songs by Frank Sinatra with your grandmother

(b) Circumnavigate the globe with a swashbuckler and a giant mastiff by your side

(c) Not have to have no lack of socks on the foot that isn't the right one only, and only on Sundays

It might be amusing for a single question, but that would get old fast! They're confusing and tedious. Avoid long, run-on sentences. Avoid jargon and advanced vocabulary when simpler language will do. And don't beat around the bush! Get straight to the point in as few words as possible. Here's a better revision (although it's probably not a great question!):

Would you rather...

(a) Hang out with your family on the porch while eating cold pickles and singing

(b) Travel the world with sailors and your pet dog

(c) Only be able to wear socks on your left foot on Sundays

Don't be judgmental or biased

Just like with asking questions, you don't want the responses to give away your feelings. Even if you ask a question in an objective way, like "Should be people be able to swear in public?" If your responses are:

(a) Yes, of course! It's a free country and people should be able to do what they want.

(b) Yes, I don't know why because I don't like to think about things.

(c) No, because I don't believe in free speech.

When you do that sort of thing, you make only one option look good -- but people might not agree with it! Someone might not like swearing in public, but they don't agree with your reason. One thing you can do to fix this is to let the answers speak for themselves:

(a) Yes

(b) I don't know

(c) No

Another thing you can do, if you want to be creative, is to try to make every answer sound as positive as possible:

(a) Yes, it's freedom of speech.

(b) I don't know, I'm undecided

(c) No, it might offend someone

Be careful with this last option because, again, someone might not agree with your exact reasons!

Cover all your bases

You don't want to leave someone hanging. Make sure you provide enough answers to cover all of your options. If that's going to be impossible, consider adding an "other" response, making the response a short answer or long answer instead of multiple choice, or stepping out and making larger categories.

Here's an example of adding an "other" response:

Where's your favorite place to relax?

(a) At home

(b) Outside

(c) At the store

(d) Other

Here's an example of making larger categories:

What's your favorite dessert?

Instead of...

(a) Cake

(b) Ice cream

(c) Fruit

(d) Pudding

(e) Jello

(f) Pie


(a) Confections, like sugary hard candy, taffy, or licorice

(b) Baked desserts, like pie, cookies, or cake

(c) Milky desserts, like ice cream, pudding, or smoothies

(d) Other

There's more to look out for. When you're asking people to rate something on a scale, like their feelings about something or how often they do something, include all the options! If you're asking people if they agree with something or not, use the following:

(a) Strongly agree

(b) Somewhat agree

(c) Not sure

(d) Somewhat disagree

(e) Strongly disagree

And if you're asking them about frequency, such as, "How often do you smoke?", make sure to include "Never" as an option.

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