Survey Writing Tips

September 16, 2019

Writing surveys isn’t something that comes easily for most people, but with practice, you can write effective concise surveys.

The Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension has produced an easy reference, step-by-step guide for writing surveys. Read A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Effective Questionnaires and Survey Procedures for Program Evaluation & Research for some great tips to get you started.

Do’s and Don’ts

Regardless of the type of survey, there are some pretty clear “do’s and don’ts”:

DoDon’t
  • Give clear instructions
  • Keep question structure simple
  • Ask one question at a time
  • Maintain a parallel structure for all questions
  • Define terms before asking the question
  • Be explicit about the period of time being referenced by the question
  • Provide a list of acceptable responses to closed questions
  • Ensure response categories are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive
  • Label response categories with words rather than numbers
  • Ask for the number of occurrences, rather than providing response categories such as often, seldom, never
  • Save personal and demographic questions for the end of the survey
  • Use jargon or complex phrases
  • Frame questions in the negative
  • Use abbreviations, contractions or symbols
  • Mix different words for the same concept
  • Use “loaded” words or phrases
  • Combine multiple response dimensions in the same question
  • Give the impression that you are expecting a certain response
  • Bounce around between topics or time periods
  • Insert unnecessary graphics or mix many font styles and sizes
  • Forget to provide instructions for returning the completed survey!

(University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, 2010)

Labeling is Everything

When participants are responding to your survey, the labels listed in your survey are actually putting words in participants’ mouths. Use clear, nice words. For example:

  • very dissatisfied
  • somewhat dissatisfied
  • neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
  • somewhat satisfied
  • very satisfied

…are some of the most common labels. The article Three Tips for Effectively Designing Rating Scales at Qualtrics offers some great insights for writing rating scales.

Also, read Wording for Rating Scales from the University of Wisconsin. This document lists some common wording for scales that will ensure surveys are easy to read and understand.

Follow Through

Write clearly and concisely… and don’t forget cognitive testing before you let that survey out into the world!

References

Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension, NJAES, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (2004). A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Effective Questionnaires and Survey Procedures for Program Evaluation & Research. Retrieved September 27, 2017 from http://cahnrs.wsu.edu/fs/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/09/A-Step-By-Step-Guide-to-Developing-Effective-Questionnaires.pdf

University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents (2010). Survey Fundamentals: A Guide To Designing And Implementing Surveys. Retrieved September 27, 2017 from https://oqi.wisc.edu/resourcelibrary/uploads/resources/Survey_Guide.pdf

dennischeatham

Associate Professor

Miami University