I came across an off-topic question where someone had asked for help tightening up a piece of prose. It was flagged as off topic and I found it peculiar. In other exchange sites you might have a software developer show a section of code and ask what is wrong, or have an answer include a string of psuedo code to demonstrate how to do something correctly. This ability to get into the details of code in a transparent, public, and interactive manner is (in my opinion) the key to the success of the StackExchange format. It works really well for code. Why has the writer's exchange decided to ban this sort of thing with prose?

4 Answers 4


Aric's answer here covers current policy well. And Mark's answer makes a very good point about reusability. As for the history - Writing critiques have been off-topic for quite some time here. Part of the problem is that a critique is something for which there's no "correct" or canonical answer possible. Critiques on writing are also far more subjective than code critiques, so it doesn't fit the format well. The history of critiques here is involved and you can, if you like, feel free to wade through the discussion here on meta (under the critique tag) but be prepared for a bit of reading.

There's a lot to be said for both sides - it's difficult to imagine a writing site without a critique function, something that's pretty integral to the writing experience. We tried critiques here and they didn't work out well.

If you can think of a way to incorporate critiques into this site, we'd certainly welcome the suggestion. Chat? Meta? A related blog? Perhaps a system that combines all these things?

We try and allow questions that use prose to illustrate a problem, but it's a fine line and some of those questions get close-voted. Proposals about how to make this more clear would also be welcome.

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    Neil, I would probably link Mark's answer as well as I think he does a really nice job to thoroughly explain the difference between code and prose and why the 2 "critiques" are treated differently.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 23:26

Code has a high degree of reusability. If I run into a problem in my code and I ask for a solution to that problem, chances are a number of other people will have the same problem and will benefit from reading the answers to my question. In fact, 98% of the time I have a coding problem, someone else has already had that same coding problem and asked about it and I can take the answers they received and use them to solve my problem. And that is the point of SE: reusable answers that build up a useful knowledge base.

Fiction has a very low degree of reusability. If I run into a problem in my story and ask for help on it, it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone else has had the same problem in their story. If I type my story into Google and press search it is vanishingly unlikely that I will find anyone else has already asked a question about the same text. There are no reusable answers to fiction critique questions.

The issue, then, is not objectivity, but repeatability. The SE model is not set up to solve unique problems but to solve problems that come up repeatedly. Fiction critiques do not fit that mold.

However, in technical writing, there are cases of repeatable texts which can be reused in other instances. Indeed, it is considered good practice to repeat known good forms of expression in technical writing since this consistency helps readers understand the text and act correctly. This cause problems with our on-topic rules in regards to tech comm, as you will see from other meta posts.

Also, while questions and answers on specific pieces of fiction are not repeatable, there are principles, tropes, patterns, etc, that are repeatable. Every writer has to execute them uniquely, so the reusability is not at the text level but at the level of principle. Thus we have many questions about principles and practices which people have illustrated with their own writing. This is on topic because the answers on principles and tropes are repeatable.

  • I think this should be the one marked as the answer. It nicely addresses the issue and explains why it is allowed with programming but not writing. This is pretty much what I was going to say as well and is really the fundamental difference between the 2.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 23:25

According to a meta post on this topic:


Critique questions are off-topic, because they will be helpful only to you and the text you post. Questions using your writing to illustrate a question, however, are on-topic.

  • I've followed plenty of debates between programmers about the virtues of "readability" versus efficiently written code, the virtues of in-code commenting, and lots of arguments that in many ways boil down to style and preference and generally accepted architectural standards (today spaghetti code is considered unmaintainable, in the past, it was considered performant in many cases). On the other hand, writing prose in English is objective enough that there are such things as "classics of literature" which 99% of English speakers consider "really good".. why is one objective and the other not?
    – JBiggs
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 14:52
  • Just done a quick search on stack overflow for the keywords "Improve readability". I only looked at 7 questions, but of those 3 were closed for being too broad. The other 4? Two of them only quoted 2 and 3 lines of code respectively and had a single accepted answer. One of them had a comment asking to post it on CodeReviews SE instead, and the last one contained an answer which implicitly stated that it was a subjective question, but answered nonetheless.
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:10
  • "readability" seems to be fine, provided there's only a small amount of code. This is the same on writers, where a single sentence or phrase with the "improve readability" question is generally acceptable.
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:11
  • While that is all very interesting, the point of my question was why has writing exchange decided to limit this kind of discussion? (For more talk about code readability and style, look on the architecture SE by the way) it's a matter of what the SE decides to allow. My point was simply that this same debate can occur when looking at Java or C++ as occurs when looking at English prose. Clearly, a programming language is MORE objectively correct or incorrect, but it is not completely objective and English isn't completely subjective either.
    – JBiggs
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:15
  • @JBiggs Okay, I think I made the wrong point to support my argument, but I'm still convinced that critiques are off-topic
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 15:17

I think critiques are possible and constructive for the community if do it right. Let's look at how the programming section does it.

A. They have their own site, CodeReview. I don't think we need a separate site but just to avoid confusion between questions posted on SO vs CodeReview

B The reviews are extremely narrow. In our case i think someone posting "can you look at this poem i wrote" should always be off topic. On the other hand "here is a sentence describing an apple, does it successfully convey gloom?" could be on topic. THis would be a lot more useful to the community as it would focus on simple common ideas in writing

C THe goal of these questions would be, how do I express myself better, not "is this good"

  • Actually, that is pretty close to the intent of the new rule on what to write questions described here: writers.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1401/…. The policy is in place but we are still working through the wording changes etc.
    – user16226
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 21:23

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