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”:

  • 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.


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Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

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