Most people write how they think, meaning researchers often structure and word survey questions in a way that make sense to them, without thinking about how their respondents might interpret the question differently.


Research has consistently demonstrated the importance of phrasing and structuring questions – asking the same question in a different way is very likely to lead to different data. Understanding this and taking steps to reduce possible differences in interpretation can make your data more reliable and valid. We’ve identified four guidelines that can help you write better questions:


#1: Use the dictionary


This simple, but effective, advice is almost never followed. Use the dictionary to find words that have a single definition or meaning. Words with multiple meanings are likely to be interpreted differently by different respondents, resulting in unreliable and potentially invalid data.


#2: Look at word familiarity ratings


Using words that many people are not familiar with will frustrate your respondents and result in low-quality data. Fortunately, there are many databases online (both free and paid) that will show you the familiarity ratings of a word and how frequently it’s used. Using familiar wording is important because you want your respondents to spend their mental energy on answering your question, not on trying to understand your question.


#3: Use simple words


Whenever possible, word your questions as simply as possible. Count the number of letters in a word to get an idea of how complex it is; fewer is generally better. Additionally, you can use a thesaurus to find simpler words in place of more complex words. For example, instead of using a word like “currency,” consider using “money.”


#4 Use simple sentences


In addition to using short and simple words, it is also best practice to make each sentence as simple as possible without changing the meaning. Look for ways to cut out words or clauses that may not be necessary. After you simplify each question, remember to pre-test your survey to be sure each sentence is still interpreted correctly – a short question that is vague or imprecise is worse than a longer question that is easily understood. As a general rule, keeping sentences short helps reduce the risk that your respondents will misinterpret your questions.