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This post is to capture our new rules on what to write questions, as proposed in Getting Writers out of its Rut.

There are several kinds of questions that can be characterized as "what to write" questions. Some of them are on topic for us, and some are not. This post describes each of the types and provides the rationale for why it is on topic or not.

"How do I express this idea?" questions: on topic

This is the change to our previous rules. Questions that describe an idea that you want to get across and ask for help in expressing it well are on topic. This includes questions like this one: In a formal syntax notation, how should I indicate many optional elements?. Finding the best way to express an idea is one of the most fundamental skills of writing and such answer are potentially useful to other people trying to express similar ideas, as well as illustrating general principles of good communication. A good "express this idea" question should describe the idea and identify the audience to whom that idea is to be communicated.

"What's the right word for X?" questions: off topic

Choosing a single word is more about definitions than it is about writing. The answer to an "express this idea" question is often to rewrite the entire sentence or paragraph. Writers work at the sentence level. Individual words are the business of lexicographers. Single word requests are on topic for English SE.

Idea generation questions: off topic

An idea generation question is one that ask us to help the author generate ideas to write about. It includes question like, "I have to write an essay on squirrels for class, what should I write about them?" and "My fantasy world is inhabited by giant mushrooms. How should they celebrate Christmas". These questions are off topic for us because they are not fundamentally about writing itself, and because they are not likely to be of interest to anyone else. Some of these questions may be on topic on Worldbuilding SE.

"Please rewrite this sentence for me": off topic

The distinction between this and the help me express an idea questions may be a little fuzzy, but basically an "express this idea" question will contain a description of the idea to be expressed. It may or may not contain the authors current idea of how to express that idea. A rewrite question, on the other hand, tend to just contain the sentence in question, with no background. Questions that ask for a rewrite without describing the subject matter or identifying the audience can only be addressed as proofreading questions, which are off topic.

"Please proofread this for me": off topic

Questions that are essentially asking for proofreading, for fixing grammar and spelling for instance, are off topic as they are not likely to be of use to anyone else.

"Please critique my work": off topic

Questions that ask us to critique a piece of writing remain off topic.

  • I updated the main site help files and linked to this thread. – Neil Fein Oct 23 '17 at 14:44
  • Love it Mark! We need to find a way for everyone to see this so that we all can be on board with this. Love that we are going to allow some form of this into our site in a very controlled and objective way. – ggiaquin16 Oct 25 '17 at 16:39
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    I believe this question is one allowed under these new guidelines, and is a good test case: Explaining a major-studies change – Neil Fein Oct 27 '17 at 3:24
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Here are the proposed revisions to the off-topic reasons used when you vote to close a question. Comments and suggestions welcome.

  • This question does not appear to be about the craft of professional writing, within the scope defined in the help center.

These will also contain links to appropriate meta posts for more information, but we will identify the most appropriate posts to link to once we nail down the reason statements.

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I would add one that irks me:

  • This question appears to be an attempt to provoke a debate with those that answer it.
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    Doesn't "primarily opinion-based" cover that? – Monica Cellio Oct 27 '17 at 2:48
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    I didn't think so, we have a poster criticizing a Stephen King novel and the character Pennywise, then saying he is going to write a character like Pennywise, and how does he write what he claims is a stupid character that makes no sense. But he is disguising a critique of King that he wants to debate as if it were a question. And he has done similar things multiple times, asking self-contradictory troll questions. – Amadeus Oct 27 '17 at 3:02
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    If there's a problem with a single user, it's better to address it with the user rather than trying to fix it globally. We get three custom off-topic reasons. – Monica Cellio Oct 27 '17 at 3:13
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    Well, perhaps we could have something to indicate when we believe a poster is actually trying to abuse the site and intentionally use it for their own purposes, as opposed to making an innocent mistake. I see many things that are "off-topic" or malformed but I do not suspect the poster is engaged in malicious misuse. A way to show when I DO suspect that might attract more attention and close such questions more rapidly. – Amadeus Oct 27 '17 at 16:02
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    Flags should work for that -- any time you see something unusual and in need of moderator attention, flag to let us know what's going on. Thanks for helping to maintain the site. – Monica Cellio Oct 27 '17 at 16:10

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