How to Write Perfect Survey Questions for Your Paper

I’m guessing the type of survey questions you’re most familiar with start with Steve Harvey (from Family Feud) saying, “Top six answers are on the board … ”

If you’re working for Family Feud, you might survey college students about “something they have in their refrigerators at all times” or “how many minutes a day they spend watching cat videos online.”

But If you’re conducting a research study and need to write survey questions for your paper, these might not be the types of questions you’ll need to ask.

So take a break from watching cat videos (or Family Feud), and learn how to write the perfect survey questions for your paper.

survey questions
“Lil Bub 2013” by Iamlilbub, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) /speech bubble added

How to Write the Perfect Survey Questions for Your Paper

Writing the perfect survey questions for your paper is essential if you want to gather the information you’re looking for.

For example, if you want to know how many hours college freshmen spend watching TV versus how many hours college seniors spend watching TV, you’ll need to make sure you ask people whether they’re freshmen or seniors.

Without that information, the rest of your survey is useless.

It would be like telling the guy making your sandwich to make you any sub. If you don’t tell him what kind of meat, toppings, or bread you want, you might end up with a meatball sub on white when you were hoping for a ham and swiss on rye.

See, the right information is crucial (especially if you hate meatball subs!).

So let’s get to the “how to” of how to write survey questions. Here are four basic steps to get you started.

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Step #1: Decide what type of questions to ask

Survey questions usually fall into two categories: open-ended and closed-ended. (Most surveys will contain a balance of both open-ended and closed-ended questions.)

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions usually ask people to write some type of short answer and do not provide respondents with a set of options to choose from. These questions allow readers to simply express their opinions.

Open-ended questions include a comment section in which people might answer questions like these:

  • “How do you feel about the new camera on the iPhone 6s?”
  • “What are your thoughts on the new Quesalupa at Taco Bell?”

Closed-ended questions

Closed-ended questions include a list options to choose from. Respondents aren’t free to write what they wish. Instead, they are only allowed to select from a fixed set of choices.

Closed-ended questions might include these types of questions:

  • Multiple choice questions
  • Yes/no questions
  • Rating scales
  • Demographic questions (questions about one’s background, such as age, race, gender, income, or education level)

Step #2: Choose your words (and your question type) carefully

People taking your survey need to read questions quickly. If your writing is too wordy, confusing, or grammatically incorrect, readers might not bother to respond.

Also, keep your audience in mind, and ensure you use words they can understand. This doesn’t mean you should talk down to people, but you do need to use appropriate word choices. In other words, avoid jargon, slang, and terms respondents might be unfamiliar with.

Let’s say you’re surveying 13-year-old girls about a new line of jeans.

Don’t write a question like this:

  • Based on your initial interactions with our new line of FlowerPower Jeans, please explain your thoughts about the desirability of the price point, material choice, and design elements present in this latest product launch.

This open-ended question is too wordy and doesn’t speak the language of a 13 year old, so you’re likely not going to obtain any useful information from this question.

A more appropriate survey question in this case would be a closed-ended question.

Your question might look like this:

  • What do you like most about your new FlowerPower Jeans?
    • They’re amazingly comfortable.
    • The low price is awesome.
    • The pocket designs and stitching are super-cute.

This closed-ended question is short, to the point, and allows respondents to select from a set of options. This not only makes the survey easier for people to complete, but will also give you more accurate data.

Step #3: Keep your questions short, simple, and specific

survey questions
“Keep it simple, stupid (and short)” by Jegi, (CC BY 2.0)

Long, involved survey questions generally require long, involved answers. People probably don’t want to write an essay just to take your survey. Besides, long, involved questions can make it difficult for you to collect results.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you ask this question:

What did you think about the characters, the believability of the plot line, and the cinematography elements used in the film?

This open-ended question asks people to answer more than one question, and it allows for a range of answers. What do you do if some people answer, “I liked it,” or “It was believable,” or “It looked cool”? These results don’t help because they don’t provide any useful information.

Instead, separate the questions.

You might write questions like this:

  • Did you find the character Dr. Z to be a believable villain? (Completely/Mostly/Somewhat/Not at all)
  • Rate the believability of the plot line from 1-10 (with 10 being the most believable and 1 being the least believable).
  • Which of the following special effects did you enjoy the most: intergalactic fight scene, animation, or computer-generated imagery (CGI)?
  • Why did you find this particular special effect most interesting or enjoyable?

By separating the questions, people can finish your survey more quickly, and you’ll be able to collect more accurate and complete data.

Step #4: Maintain a balanced tone

survey questions
“Tightrope walking” by Wiros, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

You don’t want your survey to be biased, so the tone of your questions is crucial.

If you’re surveying college students about the food on campus, don’t write: “Tell us why you hate on-campus dining.” This question automatically assumes that students hate the food and leads them to a negative response.

Maintain a more a balanced tone, and try one of these instead:

  • How would you rate the on-campus dining options (with 10 being great and 1 being miserable)
  • What do you like most about on-campus dining?
  • What do you like least about on-campus dining?

These types of questions allow respondents to offer more genuine feedback and result in more complete survey data.

If you need a few sample survey questions to help you get started writing your own questions, check out two types of questions for your research paper (it gives plenty of examples!).

Collecting and Analyzing Data

survey questions

Once people have taken your survey, what do you do with the results? You’ll need to collect and organize the data in some way, of course.

If you’ve administered your survey online, most of this work might already be done for you. If, on the other hand, you have to gather results from a handwritten survey, you’ll want to design charts, or perhaps spreadsheets, to help you organize the information.

That leaves the final part of the survey process: writing up the results. Your results might appear in your paper as charts or graphs or might appear as written text explaining your goals and final results of the study.

So analyze the data and see what the survey says!

When you have the data from your survey questions incorporated into your final paper, don’t drop the ball after all that hard work! Have a Kibin editor give it a solid edit to help ensure you get the grade you know you deserve.

Good luck!

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