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In a comment on Can Writers Graduate? Correlation between voting and progressing?, Mark Baker wrote:

[W]riters is very clearly not doing everything else right because the participation by professional writers is very low and the subject of the vast majority of the questions is fantasy fiction, a tiny sliver of the total writing market. [...] I think we need to talk about ways to broaden the appeal and get more professionals on here.

As a technical writer (professionally) who dabbles in fiction (as a hobby), I, too, wish we had more questions about non-fiction, and more participation from writers in other domains. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy fiction too, particularly science fiction and fantasy (which has heavy representation here); I'd like to see our community serve writers of other types of material as well as we serve SF&F.

Our on-topic documentation says (emphasis mine):

Questions on these topics are welcome here:

  • Non-fiction, technical, scholarly, or journalistic writing.
  • Writing fiction, poetry, or song lyrics.
  • General copywriting, style, and organization.
  • Professional-level blogging.
  • The publishing and editing process itself.
  • Questions about specialized writing tools.

We have some relevant, populated tags: , , , , , , , , ... and also , , and some fiction genres other than SF&F.

Our scope is a lot broader than it looks from the front page. Without diminishing the good content and community we already have, how do we broaden our reach? How do we get those other types of writers to bring their questions and answers here?

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    You state questions about Professional Level Blogging is on topic here. What about Non-Professional Level Blogging? I've started a blog a few months ago. I'm doing well and keeping up with it. Not your standard blog, but mainly about some automotive work I've been doing ... a project. Anyway, if I were to ask technical questions about about the blog, would that still be on topic ... I'd assume "yes" ... but it's not "professional level". – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 17 '17 at 1:50
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    @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 good question. I don't know (or remember, assuming I was there :-) ) the history of that entry, but in practice, any blogging has been fine so far, so long as the question is otherwise in-scope (e.g. not "what should I write?" or the like). Community, should we revise that line in the on-topic list? – Monica Cellio Jan 17 '17 at 1:52
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    I've always taken "professional level blogging" to mean, more or less, people who take it seriously, i.e., bloggers who proof their work and try to post a quality product. We can't really do much to help bloggers who are fine with posting random thoughts or rough stream-of-consciousness text, where the types of questions we can pose and answer aren't wanted or needed - indeed, that would defeat the point. – Neil Fein Jan 17 '17 at 5:46
  • @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2, Monica - I checked the history of the relevant help page and looks like the "professional-level blogging" text was entered on Jun 3 2013 by a Stack Exchange employee when the page was created - i.e., it's original text from the creation of the site. No reason we can't change it. – Neil Fein Jan 17 '17 at 14:47
  • @NeilFein thanks. The Help Center was preceded by a FAQ, which is probably where that text came from, so there might be old discussions on meta about it. But it's been 3.5 years; if that text isn't serving our needs now, we are free to change it. We could probably make both bolded entries better by removing journalism from the first and combining journalism and blogging (just blogging, no modifiers) in a bullet. We can discuss in Writing Chat. – Monica Cellio Jan 17 '17 at 19:34
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    @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 It says "professional-level", not professional. We are not limited to writing as a job, but we are limited to writing that aims at a high level of quality – as if you wanted to make money with it or as if you wanted to top the bestseller lists. Whether you write for your own pleasure and never show your writing to anyone is irrelevant. – user5645 Jan 18 '17 at 11:55
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    I'm not sure if "professional level" is the right word, but would the intent not be blogging with the intent to create meaning, as opposed to mere click bait? – user16226 Jan 20 '17 at 21:17
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    I find it hard to believe that anyone thought those six bullet points belonged on the same SE site! At the very least, I would separate creative writing from non-fiction/technical writing, with a separate site for writing tools, publishing, organization, etc. – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 2 '17 at 8:47

10 Answers 10

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I think we should start by rethinking the site.

Compared to forums for writers, writer blogs with discussion in comments, Google+ and Facebook groups for writers, and other writing communities, this site has a specific functionality that impose some severe limitations on what writers can do with it. Many things that writers want are off topic here.

Most aspiring writers don't need a knowledge base but want help with very specific problems that they often cannot name ("What's wrong here?") and general productivity tips ("How do I write more / better?"). Professional writers want to network (and not with aspiring writers).

We need to come up with what this site can do for writers that other sites cannot – and what kind of writer that is most suited for.

Then we can market that unique selling point.

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    This seem to me to hit on the crux of the matter. How well does the Q/A format, particularly SE's emphasis on reusable solutions, fit the needs of writers? – user16226 Jan 20 '17 at 0:37
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    @MarkBaker and on the flip side, how well does a site that focuses on one-off problems without much generality fit the needs of the user community? That is, will people show up and answer those kinds of questions? It might be worth looking at how Code Review is doing what they do, and how they got there. – Monica Cellio Jan 20 '17 at 15:53
  • @what do you think what you say is true of all writers, or primarily true of writers of fiction? – Monica Cellio Jan 20 '17 at 15:54
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    @MonicaCellio I think all one-off questions about writing are answered by reference to principles. Otherwise it is simply co-writing. So the answer is much more general than the question. Actually this happens on SO as well. There are a lot of questions marked duplicate there because the answer is the same as that for another question, even though the questions are completely different. But of course, people search for questions, not answers, because they know the question, not the answer. Also, much of the value of an answer lies in how it relates a solution to the specifics of the question. – user16226 Jan 20 '17 at 16:02
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    It is in the relationship of questions and answers (which are texts) to principles and solutions (which are ideas) that all the difficulties for people lie. Principles and solutions are reusable, but questions and answers are always to one extent or another specific to the individual asking and answering. (Which is what makes writing so challenging in the first place.) The whole SE model really fails to take this distinction into account, but the difference is more starkly felt for writing questions than programming questions because the effects are less constrained and less testable. – user16226 Jan 20 '17 at 16:07
  • @MonicaCellio I think that what I say is primarily true for writers of free-form narrative texts, both fiction and non-fiction (e.g. travelogues, biographies, popular science, etc.). Writers who work in genres that have very prescriptive formats, such as writers of technical documentation, scientists writing journal articles, possibly journalists writing for newspapers, that is, writers who work in a less idiosyncratic process (and often team-work) probably have other kinds of questions and could likely profit from a clear and prescriiptive structure like SE. – user5645 Jan 20 '17 at 18:29
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    While I don't ascribe to your view of fiction and narrative non-fiction as free-form -- I believe they are as structured as any other form of writing -- what you propose is an interesting conundrum since it suggests that Writers is attracting precisely those who can benefit from it least. It raises questions about why your frequently-expressed anti-structure, anti-technique views should attract so many up-votes on a site nominally devoted to structure and technique. If writing is as unstructured as you often suggest, why should anyone ask for help with it? What did they really come for? – user16226 Jan 20 '17 at 23:45
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I wonder if a very slight change of name might make some difference. "Writers" suggests a profession, and one most often associated with fiction. "Writing" is an activity that almost every professional has to do as part of their daily work lives. It might make no difference at all, of course, but sometimes these subtleties send signals about who is and who is not welcome in a place.

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    That's a good point. At the time this site was created I think SE was pushing somewhat for names that describe the users where possible -- Writers, Programmers, Webmasters, Super User(s), Android Enthusiasts... But now many sites have names that describe the activity in either its gerund or noun form -- Software Engineering (a rename of Programmers), Worldbuilding, Bicycles, Project Management, Linguistics... I think it's worth exploring this. – Monica Cellio Jan 20 '17 at 15:50
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Along the lines of this answer, we might consider targeted ads on other SE sites. Sites that have graduated can run "community promotion ads". We've been running an ad on Worldbuilding for the last year. (Don't worry; we have much better art prepared for the coming year thanks to Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2.) We could submit an ad to Software Engineering to advertise our tech-writing questions, to Academia to advertise our academic questions, and probably other sites. It's up to the other communities to accept our ads, but we can try. An ad can point to the main site (like the Worldbuilding ad) or to a more-specific URL, like a tag.

How well do ads work? Hard to say. The Worldbuilding ad has generated 1300+ clicks, but we have no way to know how many of those clicks turned into new (or re-engaged) users. But, hey, probably not zero!

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    You know I'm down with this! I just need your vision and I'll put it in order. :o) – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 28 '17 at 19:55
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We could try to go back to contests and question-seeding initiatives. We've done that in the past (e.g. Writers.SE's Genre Q&A Contest! , Scope Expansion Project , Would there be interest in a promotional "question drive" of sorts? ), and it gave us an uptick -- even if not a lasting one.

Those might be worth revisiting -- especially as I see more of our questions being picked up now for SE cross-site promotion.

  • The thing about promotional/contests is you have to be consistent with them. If you want to vary them, that's a good idea, but they need to come regularly. If we do these types (and I assume others) regularly (ie: monthly?) we should see a dramatic uptick in Q/A's as well as driving people here. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 19 '17 at 18:08
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The vast, vast majority of pageviews on this site come from search engines. The only way I know of to make the site attractive to tech writers and pro bloggers is to populate it with questions interesting to them so when a writer types a question into Google they see this site as one of the hits.

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    While I like the idea of this, I can say from my experience on Graphic Design SE that the most Googled questions tend to be too localized. On GD it's reams of "My Adobe Be Broke™" and "Teach Me Adobe," and here it's either "Fix my story," "Critique my story," or "This is my unique story and I've written myself into a corner I can haz halp?" We'd have to work hard to concoct on-topic questions for tech writers and pro bloggers, which, Catch-22, would be easier if more members of those audiences were already here with questions. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 11:30
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    Not saying we shouldn't do this, I might add; just pointing out the challenges. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 11:30
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    @LaurenIpsum good point about what people Google for. We have questions for tech writers (a few hundred of them) and bloggers; I'd like to see a lot more, of course (I'm running out of things to answer :-) ), but we should look at the ones we have now and figure out whether they can be improved. I wrote this self-answered question as an attempt to fill a gap, for example, but I didn't write it with SEO in mind and clearly didn't stumble into it on my own. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '17 at 14:16
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In the process of writing an answer to When discussing fiction, should there be more effort to clarify and/or acknowledge the writer's overall goals?, it occurred to me that what we really need on this site is an agent.

An agent could answer all the marketability questions we get with much more authority than anyone else here, and the agent's persense would attract more serious writers.

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Some suggestions:

1) It seems to me that Q&A / Guides to using LaTeX could be a quick win. Many (most?) scientists (myself included) use LaTeX for writing publications or theses. There are lots of students that are encouraged to use LaTeX by their professors/colleagues and need a place to ask formatting questions.

2) This might make the site explode in the 'wrong' direction, but we could encourage Q&A style discussion on literature. Take a look over at the SciFi/Fantasy exchange and the number of questions on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc. This site could offer the same for any genre of fiction.

  • 1) But formatting isn't about writing. You can write in LaTeX, Word, Scrivener, Libre Office, InDesign, NotePad, BBEdit, pencil and paper, or coal on the back of a shovel, and that's all still writing. If there isn't a stack for LaTeX, then those would go on, I dunno, Stack Overflow? Not us, anyway. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 15:01
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    2) There's already a proposed Literature stack area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/93238/literature which is going to launch any day now, actually. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 15:02
  • 1) But isn't presentation/structure an aspect of writing, especially in non-fiction? Which stack is most relevant for discussions on writing a CV? A thesis? A paper? 2) To me, that seems like a missed opportunity for this stack, unless 'writing' is specific to the act of writing and is not intended to encompass discussion of written works. – Rapscallion Jan 18 '17 at 15:29
  • Presentation/structure of writing would be close to what Stack Overflow calls a "boat question." I can find you a link to the archived, deleted original, but it essentially said "What do I need to program if I want to live on a boat?" And the answer is "the same things you'd need to program anywhere else. This isn't about programming." You can create paragraph indents in Word, Scrivener, InDesign, and crayon in different ways, but they all do the same job: make an indent. None of that has to do with the creation of a story/blog/report. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 16:08
  • If you want to format a thesis or a paper, you ask on Academia. For a CV, try Workplace. If your question is about writing a persuasive essay regardless of the audience (thesis, paper, blog post, memo, note to mom), then Writers is the place. Writers is about the message, not the medium. Does that make more sense? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 16:10
  • @LaurenIpsum questions about specialized tools are in scope; consider all our Scrivner questions. I think LaTeX questions would be comparable, though there's a "TeX and LaTeX" SE site where those questions would get better answers. We also have the occasional question about tools like Javadoc and Doxygen, which are used in technical writing to produce API documentation. Sure, just being about a tool doesn't make a question on-topic (I don't think we're going to take questions about automating Javadoc builds), but they're not automatically off-topic either, based on past practice. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '17 at 17:04
  • Also, we have questions arising from academic writing about things like citations and thesis structure, and those are welcome here. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '17 at 17:05
  • @MonicaCellio I wasn't aware that some of those things were on-topic! good to know. Thanks! :) – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 18 '17 at 17:18
  • There is a Latex.SE. Questions on one topic should be collected on one site, otherwise expertise will get spread and the quality of answers will be diluted. – user5645 Jan 20 '17 at 8:01
  • @what there's always going to be overlap among some sites. "It's on-topic on some other site" should never be a reason to reject a question if it's also on-topic here. (We can, of course, direct people to other sites too.) There are a lot of questions on SO about emacs; they didn't start banning them when Emacs.SE started. Ubuntu isn't off-topic on Linux & Unix just because Ask Ubuntu exists. Seasoned Advice (cooking) didn't shut down its "coffee" tag when Coffee.SE started. I don't think you can ever "put all the stuff in only one place" on any community-curated site(s). – Monica Cellio Jan 20 '17 at 16:00
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    @MonicaCellio We can use the English language as an example: once a question is more focussed on the use of language in the context of writing, then it is better asked here, but as long as it is not specific to writing it should be asked on English.SE. This means, in my opinion, that all questions asking how to do something in LaTex should go on Latex.SE, but questions about how to make LaTeX a part of the writing process should be asked here. We don't usually have problems in recognizing which Qs need to go to English.SE, and I don't think we will have with LaTeX. – user5645 Jan 20 '17 at 18:35
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Another issue we have to confront here is that there are very different interpretations of what literature is and how it operates. This is exemplified by the debate about what subtext is in the answers to this question: Where in the writing process do you work in subtext?. And what that debate reveals is a still more fundamental debate about meaning and intention in literature.

It is very hard to know how you answer questions at a practical level when a portion of your user community has been educated to believe that the creation meaning in communication is not a deliberate act. This turns the entire study of literature into a psychological exercise rather than a semantic one. And this attitude affects much of the advice give on how to write as well, for those who believe that meaning is created unintentionally, or is only created by the reader, tend to recommend a kind of thoughtless unplanned automatic writing, as sort of emptying of the subconscious, as opposed to the deliberate and careful crafting of meaning for a particular audience.

There are dozens of questions were some form of this debate runs through the answers and comments -- all of which is, I suppose, strictly speaking off topic.

But how do you have a Q&A site about the deliberate creation of meaning -- a subject I believe to be of widespread interest, where many of the more active voices actively deny the the deliberate creation of meaning is possible?

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As a suggestion, I've been trying to formulate questions about the writing process itself, instead of about specific writing problems. See my two most recent questions:

I've seen some other questions that seem to come from the same direction as well.

I'm not sure how to lead the SE in this direction, but I feel it's much more valuable than the very specific, how do I do this in this piece, questions that we seem to attract.

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I believe that this issue can be said the same throughout ALL SE sites. Programming for example, will mostly have the junior level software developers posting their code for someone to look through and fix. A lot of the questions are also revolving around programmers in college looking for help on an assignment. Rarely will you find someone with the VAST experience of a seasoned vet posting questions, but rather answering/replying to questions asked. They know the resources and people they can go to. Someone that is aspiring will not have this kind of knowledge.

It seems from reading through the answers that the issue is we don't have enough cross platform exposure. Frankly, I didn't even know about this page until someone told me on WorldBuilding that my question was better asked here. Honestly, I didn't even know there was many other pages to this site outside of programming even until I started viewing and exploring the hot topics on the side of the screen.

Our site here has relatively lower traffic than others. This means that our "hot topics" are not being viewed enough to make the cut and in turn, do not get the provided attraction the site offers through hot topics. We may have to consider advertising through Facebook and social Media. Consider having us go through the other SE sites trying to promote writers SE as someone did with me. If SE has an internal advertisement for their pages, see if we can get added to the list.

As far as there being too many fantasy/fiction, fortunately or unfortunately that is what a lot of people enjoy reading. I would not be willing to risk in saying the majority because I don't know actual statistics of the various genres. Look at mainstream media, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, Narnia, X-men, avengers, batman to name a few fictional works. It is what powered the entertainment business for the last 15 or so years. So naturally, there will be a significant amount of aspiring fictional writers as many of them are now becoming of age to do so. Not stating this is good or bad but simply an observation.

  • Relevant stats are fairly easy to find. Per publisher's weekly (publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/…), fantasy fiction is a tiny percentage of the total book market and only about 5.4% of the adult book market. And that is just the book market. The full spectrum of journalism, marketing, and technical writing in scope here. Fantasy is grossly overrepresented on this site, if we measure in terms of works published. – user16226 Feb 3 '17 at 4:45

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