I noticed some questions that were at the bottom line a 'how to write' or 'instead of using my imagination should I ...' questions. I would have to guess that these questions are on topic so not flaggable. ? The answers given were what was expected so perhaps it's my expectations of the community that's the question.
Should we answer questions even if we think the questions are not up to par?


2 Answers 2


Generally speaking, the reason the community has decided that "how do I write X" is off-topic is that they are "what to write" questions. "How do I write a family of knights with minimal servants" (first one off the top of my head) is about that person's specific story. It's not really applicable to anyone else. Conversely, "How do I explain the pronounciation of a constructed language in the story without an infodump, glossary, or cabbagehead character" could be more widely applicable, because constructed languages could be in any setting, and the stated restrictions are the easy answers.

Part of the goal of Stack Exchange is to be an online repository of information which can be broadly accessed via search engines. The more widely applicable (that is, generic) the question is, the greater chance it has to hit more popular keywords. But a very specific question for a single story has a low chance of helping other people, because it's unlikely that many people will have the same problem about knights and servants.

The consensus is that we try not to answer questions which are off-topic, but rather either ask for the OP to edit them or close them. Sometimes a question can be improved and made on-topic with some focus and editing. Comments are a good place to ask clarifying questions, or you can try to edit the question yourself. Your rep will play a part in determining how soon the edit is accepted.

Reasonable people can discuss whether something is on- or off-topic, and I've certainly answered my share of questions which were later closed for being off-topic, so it's not like you're going to get dinged for doing so.


The problem for Writers SO is that writing does not have the kind of concrete reusable solutions that programming does. Every generality in writing is an abstraction, but most people don't want abstract answers, and the only concrete answer that could be given would be to a specific text. We simply can't provide reusable text in the way that SO can provide reusable code. Answers to writing questions are either specific editorial suggestion or abstractions.

The family of knights question that Lauren references could easily be generalized to "how do I reduce the size of my cast" question, which is actually one of the more pervasive questions in fiction. The county house story, the ship at sea story, are devices to reduce the size of one's cast to a reasonable level where you can isolate relationships and focus on them. Almost every novel practices cast reduction in some way.

But this is an abstract answer. The country house story is a trope that solves the cast reduction problem, but how you get the reader to accept as natural the cast reduction that goes with it is a matter of the whole of the telling of the story, and the way in which it honors the conventions of its genre. You can't give a single concrete generalizable answer to a question like this. The most practical advice you can give to such questions is often to read a bunch of books that do this well and try to get a feel for how it was done.

The SE network was created by generalizing the model of SO, which was built for programmers. One of the key characteristics of software development is that it generate lots of reusable concrete solutions: bits of code and algorithms that can be dropped into many different programs. The rules of SE are built on that model.

But that model does not fit writing. Writing has tropes and genres and techniques and conventions and allusions and metaphors, but it does not have generalized reusable algorithms or code. There are no subroutines or API calls in writing. The SE rules don't really fit the craft and thus the interpretation of those rules for questions here is always going to be difficult and usually open to dispute and interpretation.

My question is, can we modify those rules, or at least their interpretation, to fit the nature of the writing craft better?

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