This site is supposed to be about all forms of writing equally. But, as has been noted before, it is actually dominated by aspiring and hobbyist fantasy fiction writers. We have discussed how to attract other writers in How do we encourage participation by non-fiction authors? and How can we attract questions from all the OTHER writing domains that are on-topic here?, but the response to this question, Documenting the no-args call of a command line program leads me to think that a big part of the problem may lie in the on-topic rules, or at least the interpretation of them.

For fiction writers, the prohibition on critique requests and what to write questions make perfect sense. Without those rules, the site would be inundated with bad fiction samples.

But fiction is different from other writing disciplines. It is the most free form of all writing disciplines, and along with so called "creative non-fiction" and poetry, the only form that people do without a defined objective in mind other than vague dreams of fame and fortune.

All other forms of writing serve a specific purpose, usually a commercial purposes, and they are done by professional people with professions goals. There are no amateur technical writers. The many professionals for whom written communication is an essential but secondary job requirement are not amateurs either.

One of the biggest differences between commercial writing and what we might call art writing is that most commercial writing follows, or can follow, well defined rhetorical patterns. It is possible to ask very specific questions about how to handle a specific rhetorical problem in commercial writing. Documenting the no-args call of a command line program is an example of this. It is asking how to handle the specific case of documenting the default behavior of a CLI utility when no arguments are specified.

This is a rhetorical structure question of a kind that really cannot occur in fiction because fiction does not follow a highly structured rhetorical forms. There is no way to answer a question this specific in fiction without proposing actual language. But in technical writing, you can propose a very specific ad hoc rhetorical structure and explain the reasons for its use without actually writing the content itself, which is what I did in my answer to that question.

Because it is a field based on highly structured rhetorical structures, questions like this are the bread and butter of technical communication and related commercial communication disciplines. They can only be asked and answered with highly specific cases. If we rule this kind of specific question off topic as either a request for critique or asking what to write, we might as well rename the site "Fiction Writing" because the on topic rules will make it impossible to have useful questions and answers about most forms of commercial writing.

Nor do I believe that there is any need to apply these rules to questions about commercial and technical writing. We are simply not going to see the same kind of floods of critique and rewrite requests we would from vast hoard of aspiring novelists. Commercial and technical writing questions will only ever come from working professionals trying to solve real business problems.

I think we need different rules for technical and commercial writing. Either that, or we should rename this site and throw all our support behind the Documentation SE proposal on Area 51 so we have a place to transfer technical writing questions to.

2 Answers 2


Parsimony is desirable when defining a site's topic. If we cannot parsimoniously include technical writing questions which we are justified in thinking should be on-topic, the rules we are using to approximate our domain need review.

I may be wrong, but it appears to me that the aim of the rules you refer to is to prevent a certain kind of bad question. I think that the ways we are going about preventing that kind of question at present are problematic.

I propose that rather than banning 'what to write' questions prima facie (i.e. in a sense where that ban would prohibit the kinds of technical writing you are referring to) we instead ban idea generation.

The SE network does not do idea generation well. Idea generation is well suited to forums and other discussion-y, everyone-put-in-their-two-cents formats. Worldbuilding allows idea generation, and appears to be the fate we would like to avoid (no expert participation, very low quality Q&A, little to no value for persons seriously engaged in worldbuilding). RPG does not allow idea generation and, at least from my experience, has a good mix of professionals in addition to knowledgeable non-professionals. So I think this could serve our purposes well.

Idea generation questions generally ask "How can I..." or "What should I...". Rather than a single correct answer, it is clear from the outset that many possible responses exist, and there's no clear, objective/Good Subjective way to evaluate them in terms of quality. These questions are a problem and should be off-topic.

Currently, our blanket ban on 'What-to-write' seems to (at least according to your post) include questions that, while also being "What should I..." questions, have a clear value criterion and expect a single, correct answer. These questions are questions of technique or norms, and should be on topic for fantasy writers as well (if/when relevant).

The technical writing question linked is a good example; no-arg behavior documentation has a single standard way of being done, and (if we presume that the question is asking about that-- ideally it would be required to word itself that way in the future) we can provide that as the answer to the question. The distinguishing feature is that rather than looking for a list of random ideas, the question is a real question looking for a single correct answer.

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    I think idea generation is an excellent determining criterion. The no-arg question turned out to be about technique — "I need to solve this type of problem" — which is very much on-topic here. The question could be answered in a clear way which is applicable to future readers, also exactly what we want. I am all for this. Mar 2, 2017 at 19:42
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    I like this idea too. I think it captures the intent of the "what to write" rule much better. It says we are not in the business of helping you with your subject matter. We are in the business of helping you with your rhetoric. Suggestions on how to fix your rhetoric may require suggestions on what to write, in the sense of how to structure your exposition, but that is not the same as suggestions on what to write about. We are about how to write, not what to write about.
    – user16226
    Mar 3, 2017 at 20:43
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    This is a great distinction. Have added the idea generation concept to our help pages. Mar 6, 2017 at 6:47
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    By GS, do you mean Good Subjective?
    – user
    May 20, 2018 at 13:11
  • @MichaelKjörling Yes. Looking back, I realize that abbreviation could have been handled better ^^; May 21, 2018 at 5:57

I'll address your particular example first and an overall answer second.

That example question is poorly worded and hard to understand. It took a couple of read throughs to really "get it" and that is further than a lot of SE user's go. I find it difficult to believe that this quality of question wouldn't get blown out on a more popular SE. However, it got a pretty good answer that covered for the lack of quality so it is still a useful question.

I feel like this question fails, not because of a problem with the site's rules, but because it, in general, violates the purpose of stack exchange. Because the way it's asked isn't particularly answerable. Anyone could come up with an example to contradict any other answer, because it isn't a standardized thing with standardized answers and, personally, I believe that technical writing requires a standardized answer to be useful to others. Otherwise you end up with 15 competing standards.

However, in the broader sense, I would love to see more technical writing questions on here. My coworkers are basically awful at writing and I think this site would be helpful to them. But, again, it is a very different arena. Where fiction tends to be more free flowing and creative, technical writing has rules, restrictions, guidelines, and so forth. A good technical writing question would provide all of those alongside a glowing example of what they expect from an answer, preferably with references to the style guide, and a VERY specific statement of their objective. That's the difference between creative and technical writing, and that is what should be enforced here.

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    Personally, I did not find the question I referenced in the least hard to understand. It was perfectly clear to me. To someone outside the field of API documentation, it may not have been clear, but that is the nature of most questions. We can't expect that we will understand every question that is asked, and not understanding a question because we don't have the background experience of knowledge it supposes is not a reason to downvote it or recommend it closure.
    – user16226
    Mar 8, 2017 at 16:50
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    Jake, perhaps you might ask some tech writing questions? The site could certainly benefit from it. Mar 13, 2017 at 2:59

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