One of the ongoing issues for this site is that it is attracting only a fraction of its intended audience. In particular, it is attracting mostly questions related to fiction and very few questions related to professional or technical writing. This has become more of an issue due to the proposed Technical Communication site that is currently in the commit phase in Area 51, since everything that would be on topic there would also be on topic here. So the question is, how do it make it clear that technical communication questions are on topic here.

This is a problem of information scent. Information scent is part of Information Foraging theory, which posits that people search for information the way wild animals forage for food -- using tactics that maximize calories with minimizing the expenditure of energy. Part of information foraging behavior is that the easier it is to find different sources of information, the less time the reader will spend assessing any one source of information before moving on.

This means that information scent is an important part of attracting readers and users to a site. Information scent is essentially the impression that the site gives to the visitor that the information they need may be here. The more competing sites there are, the less time the visitor will spend sniffing for the scent of their information on any one site before moving on. Thus the more competing sites there are, the stronger the information scent must be to attract and hold visitors.

This also means that advertizing the site does very little good if the information scent is wrong when the visitor arrives. There is enough false advertizing on the Web that people give only seconds for a site to look like what it advertised itself as being before they dismiss it and move on.

A new Technical Communication site would have a much easier time establishing information scent for technical writers because it would have "Technical Communication" written across the front in large friendly letters. Of course, it would not present any information scent at all for aspiring novelists, but those questions would be outside of its scope.

Our scope is broader, and "Writers" is clearly does not create a sufficiently strong information scent for all the kinds of writers we want here. So the question for us is, how can we improve the information scent of this site to attract technical writers and everyone else who is within our scope?

Some measures have already been proposed to improve our information scent:

But perhaps we need to think about our information scent in more holistic terms. Unfortunately, as a beta site, we cannot change our design. That is a problem because site design is a huge component of information scent. (I am imagining something along the lines of a right-brain / left-brain graphic showing the range of writing types we cover.) So, the question is, given the limitations we have as a beta site, what can we do to broaden our information scent to bring in the broad range of writers we were chartered to serve?

3 Answers 3


(Just the experience of a random user, me) I am here for fiction and have no interest in technical writing. I would be happy to see all the technical questions go and have the site more focused on writing, narrative, and storytelling applied as widely as those ideas go from books to video games.

I am not sure how publishing fits in all this. Some of these questions are interesting, others are not. They seem very different than writing question, but in order to less splinter the community I understand why they are here.

I understand that the site is having problems getting good questions as it is, and narrowing the scope would not help this, but to em everything on technical writing is noise

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    Fair enough. The counterpoint is that Stack Overflow caters to Python and C and XSLT and Fortran. Most of its user are not interested in most of the questions and answers it contains, which is fine because in the nature of the thing, you only look for answers on the question you are actually interested in. If this site was operating in a way that required all its users to be interested in all its questions, we would have a problem. I'm interested to know, though, if you come here to get answers to specific questions of if you end up surveying the entire site when you visit.
    – user16226
    Oct 26, 2017 at 22:41
  • @MarkBaker That is a very good point. On SO i follow tags,but most of my interaction is through Google. Sites like this one, I tend to read every question.
    – Andrey
    Oct 27, 2017 at 13:26

I would love to see Technical Writing without the Fiction. If I am feeling creative or want to see what is going on there, I will go and visit, but when I come here, I just want to see posts related to my profession. Thanks

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    Do you know about marking tags as favorites? If you mark technical-writing and (if applicable to you) api-documentation as favorites, questions using them will be highlighted when you visit the site. You can even get email notices. (There are other tags you might care about too, but I'd start there.) Sep 26, 2017 at 22:24
  • @MonicaCellio I didn't know about marking tags as favorites and I have been an active user of the site for a year and a half. One of the things we know about web users is that they rarely learn anything about how any site or its navigation system works. They take what their search results give them and make a five-second assessment based on the information scent of the page they are looking at. The hint-of-the-day feature that some sites and many apps use is an attempt to overcome this, but even then, if most people learn anything at all about how a site works it is how to turn off hints. :-(
    – user16226
    Sep 29, 2017 at 13:53
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    @MarkBaker yes, there are a lot of not-very-visible things in the SE interface, which is why I linked to some documentation to help Rachel (and anybody else reading this). I started by looking for something in the help center here and didn't find it, and most people are not going to know to go to Meta.SE. There's a "subscribe" link if you mouse-over on a tag, but it's easy to miss. Providing the right amount of information (not too much, not too little) in a complex UI is challenging. Sep 29, 2017 at 16:25

This might fall into similar aspects that sports have. We have a generic sports page, but there are also shoot offs of sports like cycling. Questions about cycling are perfectly on topic in the main sports page so why does it need it's own?

For the same reason technical writer's need and want their own. It's different enough where they can argue for their own club house. While we have Multiple languages that can be talked about on SO, many are starting to get their own pages as well even though they are on topic in SO.

They want their own club house specific to them. Not all languages are the same. a C# writer can't help someone code COBOL or even Assembly. Some principles are the same but it is vastly different.

The same goes for technical writing vs novel writing. While writing is still writing, and many aspects are the same, there are many that are different. Questions that get asked that the average novelist could only speculate on and thus providing little to no answers appropriate to the question.

I have no issues with technical writers being in writing just as any programmer can be in SO, but I feel that having a separate technical writing page is probably needed. We can't be a jack of all trades and also expect to grow the site. We will just end up average in all areas instead of strong in a select few. This again ties into the main problem of needing to define, and redefine what we are all about in writers.

  • Part of the problem is that there are people who are already here specifically for technical writing. It feels rude to tell them "you should go over there, and give up the stake you've already built in this site". Especially when that site isn't a result of people trying their TW questions here and failing to get answers. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:27
  • @MonicaCellio that's why i stated in the last paragraph that they are more than welcome to stay, but it might not be a bad idea to give them their own channel like many other sites are starting to do. This doesn't mean that they need to go away. Just that they can have their own area.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:30
  • Yeah, I understand. It's just that we shouldn't write off that part of our scope here, so in thinking about naming, positioning, on-topic lists, etc, we still need to consider types of writing other than fiction. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:37
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    @MonicaCellio Yes of course, I don't mean to sound like I am trying to eliminate anything not fiction. It's just that right now we cover superficial topics of all writings, instead of indepth analysis of anything. We get the same 10 questions asked and reworded 100 times. So we are going to have to start going deeper into fewer areas or really start working to provide good questions for all which may include opening some areas that were once off topic as on topic to enable better quality of questions.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:47
  • @MonicaCellio I feel like we are getting the same 10 questions over and over because of our limitations to what is on topic. Literary elements and writing techniques. Pretty much anything outside of that gets flagged as too broad, opinion based, or off topic. This pretty much forces people to re-ask about how to make plots, how to start writing, how to write create suspense, how to show not tell 100 times cause that's basically all that is allowed.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:49
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    Thanks for clarifying. And I agree that we should look at our scope. I don't want the main site to be full of opinion surveys, so if we're going to re-re-think critiques we need to be careful. "Here's my text; what do you think?" is IMO a poor fit for SE just as it is for code. Looking at Code Review's rules could be helpful here. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:51
  • @MonicaCellio definitely agreed. There is a fine line between opinions and concrete objective posts. Critique's may not be the solution or even be part of the solution, however as you stated looking at our scope I think should be a priority. I have seen several questions (no example on hand), where it generated a whole bunch of views and interest only to be closed down as opinion based or too broad when it could have been a really good question for our site growth and variety. There are only so many questions about plot lines you can ask before they become duplicates.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:55
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    I think the problem with the on topic rules here goes a little deeper. SO was designed to capture small reusable solutions, of which there are millions in programming. Programming is the expression of algorithms and there are millions of algorithms and often dozens of ways to express each one. But writing is not like that. There are a handful of principles, but no small reusable solutions. We deal in stories, not algorithms. There are a few basic stories but an infinity of ways to express them. Technical writing is the form of writing most resembling programming in this respect.
    – user16226
    Sep 28, 2017 at 4:06
  • @MarkBaker it sounds like you have ideas about how we could modify our scope to be more appealing to our under-represented constituencies. I hope you'll make a specific proposal in an answer here. It's hard to talk just at the this high, abstract level; how should we modify our scope? (This invitation goes for everybody else, too. For those who want critiques, how should we structure them so they're more useful than "here's my chapter; what do you think?"?) Sep 29, 2017 at 2:20
  • @MonicaCellio I wish I did. I noted the other day that we are in the Life/Arts category. The new tech com proposal is in the Professional category. We are trying to establish a scope across two top level categories. It's tough, especially when you have only seconds to confirm to these diverse communities that you are the relevant place for them. A graphic is the best way to convey an impression of diversity at a glance, but apparently we can't have one until we graduate.
    – user16226
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:18
  • @MarkBaker we're Life/Arts? Wow, I never noticed that. That seems very wrong. (I almost never look at the categories.) Sep 29, 2017 at 3:22
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    A quick glance at our front page most days would give the impression that we are a site for aspiring fantasy fiction writers. Appearance is reality. No matter what we say we are, we are what we look like we are. A change in our on topic rule (for instance, to allow critiques) would only affect people who already come here, which only make the site look even more like a site for aspiring fantasy fiction writers. About the best I can say for it is that it might get our QPD up enough so we could graduate and have more control over what we look like.
    – user16226
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:23
  • @MarkBaker we just might have to so we can increase traffic. We can’t do much until we graduate
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:24
  • @MonicaCellio I'm not sure how many people do look at categories. (Content strategists have a naive and abiding faith in them for which I can see no substantial justification.) But it does sort of frame the problem. I suspect Rachel speaks for many. Even those of us who do both tend to treat them as separate. Not that you can't separate them within one site, as SO separates languages, but first you need to establish the basic information scent for both, and that is hard to do without design control and with few posts from outside the fantasy fiction genre.
    – user16226
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:31
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    @MonicaCellio Actually, if we were going to change the on topic rules, the one I would suggest changing is the "what to write" rule, not the critique rule. Allowing critiques will drown us in bad prose. But what to write questions are a much better fit for the Q/A format and the answers are much more reusable in professional writing (I've commented on this disparity before.) I think what to write questions would actually help our information scent for commercial/professional writing. And it might get our question volume up enough to graduate, giving us more control of our information scent.
    – user16226
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:41

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