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The Stack Exchange websites are intended to provide specific answers. In general, their purpose is to discover the one best answer to any given question. Their purpose is to resolve objective questions. That is why Stack Exchange was invented.

The first three Stack Exchange sites had to do with programming, servers, and computers in general. In those domains, there is very often a clear one best answer. That is the Stack Exchange model.

In the world of writing, especially fiction writing, are there really very many questions of that nature?

"When is it OK to use the passive voice?"

"How do I combine short chapters into longer ones?"

"How do you go about inventing a character?"

These are great questions and a lot of fun to discuss, but they are all matters of opinion.

There are some questions within the realm of writing that are objective and answerable:

"How can I find an agent?"

"What are my options for self publishing?"

"How much money is it possible to make from writing a book?"

Those question do fit the Stack Exchange model. But are there enough of them?

In computer programming, objective, answerable questions come up all day long. You can't code for ten minutes without running into one. And they also are very often obscure, extremely specific, and difficult to answer using Google. For that reason, a programming Stack Exchange site makes awesome sense.

But the world of writing does not produce a lot of questions of that nature. And what objective questions it does produce, usually yield to a quick Google search.

The problem we keep running into, I'm noticing, is that someone will post what they think is more-or-less objective question, and then someone else will say, "subjective!" And then there's some debate, and what emerges is that the subjective vs. objective itself is an arguable matter of opinion. It's because we're talking about writing here, which is an art form. How do you resolve questions about art?

I kind of hate to ask this, because I've been having a blast this last week asking and answering questions on here. But my sense of reality compels me to ask it.

Perhaps a better subject area for a writers Stack Exchange site would be Writing Careers -- questions about becoming a professional writer and advancing your career as a writer.

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

How much should I budget for promoting my book?

Is the format for a graphic novel script the same as for a film? Where can I find a format guide for graphic novel scripts?

What are some good books about how to get published?

I've posted my mystery novel online. I want to build an audience. Are Google Adwords a good way to go?

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I have been thinking about this question ever since you posted it, and I've reached the conclusion that so long as we're okay with discussion and subjectivity, then Writers is okay - but there are very few questions that are truly objective enough to have any single meaningful answer that I've seen so far. In fact, probably the biggest concern I've had with the site is that oftentimes people tend to choose the "correct answer" based on (from what I can tell) what they want to hear, rather than what always makes the most sense (though, here again, we have subjectivity coming into play). I'm not just pointing the finger here - I have a strong tendency myself to want to choose answers that I agree with, without stopping to really consider alternatives that I disagree with.

The problem and strength with SE is that there's really only room for each question to be asked once. So once a question has been asked and a "correct answer" chosen, that's set pretty much forever. And for writers, who have different personalities, styles, approaches, etc., that just doesn't cut it.

The flexibility of the answers given (that they can be voted up and down) is also a strength and weakness. It's a strength, in that hopefully the vest answers will be voted toward the top. But it's also a weakness, because there are times when it might be beneficial to have a long response to a given post, but that's impossible due to the limited comment space under each answer, and if you post your own answer, it could very well end up voted up above the answer you're responding to.

I'm not saying that there aren't strengths to Writers SE. But I am beginning to think that the weaknesses are very serious, and I'm not sure some of them can be overcome. Of course, I hope I'm wrong. But I think some very serious consideration needs to be given here, or else we're not going to find Writers SE lasting beyond the Beta.

  • whatever input you have on play up the strengths and down the weaknesses, as you come to it, please share on meta. – justkt Dec 22 '10 at 14:07
  • 'People tend to choose the "correct answer" based on ... what they want to hear.' So true. I agree with your assessment in the final paragraph. – Ethan Dec 24 '10 at 21:44
  • From your first sentence: "discussion" is not okay on Stack Exchange sites. – Neil Fein Feb 20 '12 at 19:08
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My not-so-useful opinion is: too soon to tell. The main reason all Stack Exchange sites go through this beta period is to figure that out. We're still very small, and we don't have a large backlog of questions to pull new people in from Google yet. With a limited population, you're going to get a limited set of questions and answers.

Subjectivity is a concern, but to a certain extent we get to decide for ourselves how subjective we want the site to be. We could be pretty serious about avoiding subjectivity, like the Trilogy sites. I'm active on Gaming.SE, where subjective questions get closed or edited very quickly, and it has worked well there. But this is a different site with a different audience, and it is up to us to decide how much subjectivity we're willing to allow. Other sites, like Programmers.SE have proven that you can do well with much more subjective content too.

I am probably the "someone" who has been shouting "subjective" lately, specifically in regards to questions on genre. My opinion is that they're subjective in a way that makes them difficult to answer usefully. However, that's only my opinion. I'm human, and fallible. I am willing to look at contrary evidence and change my mind. And if I'm in the minority and the site comes to a consensus that I disagree with, I'll still be a team player and follow that consensus decision.

Ultimately, we should allow as many questions and answers as we can without compromising the quality of the site. We're all going to have slightly (maybe wildly) different opinions on that. Great. We shouldn't be afraid to talk, discuss, or even argue, so long as there's no malice in it. Discussing the scope of the site is #1 on the "top seven" meta topics we're meant to work on in this beta period.

I want this community to succeed. I love writers. I think they tend to be great, interesting people, and they like to help each other. I also know that they have a lot of questions, as evidenced by the many agent and editor blogs out there. I think we can answer those questions and become a central location where writers of any experience level can come to learn.

  • 1
    I think seasonedadvice.com might be a fairly good analogy for Writers. Cooking has some science and some art, just like writing is an art with many guidelines or rules. They've managed a really tight on-topic definition over there that works really well. – justkt Dec 20 '10 at 14:34
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I do not like subjective questions on Stack Overflow. I'm not a fan of code golf questions. For me they are all noise. But Writers is not a side for cold-hearted, logical-driven programmers.

I will not discuss, what subjective means here, because inevitably someone will mention good subjective, bad subjective and that blog post makes me cry.

Let me pick your first example (because I've answered passive voice questions already):

"When is it OK to use the passive voice?"

You argue, that this is a matter of opinion. Is it? The question shows, that the asker is uncertain, why the "avoid passive voice" rule was actually invented. There is a reason and this reasons matters when you want to sell your book. Too many passive voices reduces your chances to sell your book. It's a matter of the masses and writers have to understand why.

We can give one single answer, why the rule is important. When to follow the rule and when not, is totally up to the author. That's correct. But he can only answer it himself, after understanding the rule.

Another example:
The first time I had to write a synopsis, I googled the forums for writers to get hints how to do it. I found a pretty good German forum discussing the topic. If you follow the link, you'll find six pages with at least 10 posts on each page. I've read them all to get as much useful information as I could. Most of them do not add any value. Stack Exchange was made to solve this issue. I hope we can use it for exactly these things.

Even if you have a "good subjective" question, where opinion matters, and you get ten different opinions and they get rated by votes, I think it is much more useful, than the alternatives out there.

So, yes, it does make sense.

  • 1
    I'd be curious why the good subjective, bad subjective blog post makes you cry. I appreciated your analysis on the value of subjective answers getting voted on. I think the key that we need to focus on is asking questions and providing answers that provide embedded criteria for voting. – justkt Dec 20 '10 at 14:35
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As we continue to go through our beta, we are in a flexible period for defining the site's . Please continue to ask, answer, and vote on such questions. Help the community come to a consensus. As the answers begin to cluster around a consensus, we want to start creating questions that are CW that provide a definitive answer about what is and what isn't an appropriate question for this site. That means we might end up deciding that yes, writing careers questions are the bulk of what we want to allow. It might mean that we want to include genre-list questions and "what genre is this writing sample?" questions. It might mean something in between.

A writing SE site does make sense, I think. As long as there is a body of knowledge worth collecting that can be phrased as a question with maybe five to six valuable answers or so, this site will be worth it. What will make this work is an impassioned community thinking carefully about what is helpful to them as writers.

To that end, discuss this on meta. Talk to your writer, agent, professor, and editor friends. Publicize the community. Most especially, vote on questions and answers.

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I'm also a member of Roleplaying.SE and that's got a real subjective question problem as well. There are, ironically, many rules questions that can be answered definitively but this has led to some people believing there is a bias towards those game systems with many (and confusing) rules. The RPG people have made Community Wikis an admin only privilege and are discouraging people from turning too many questions that way early in their life.

As long as the Q&A site in question provides something of value I don't think the subjective nature of the question is too important. I think the criteria need to be clear about what's supposed to be there and what isn't and people need to understand that Writers.SE != Stack Overflow in the model of what can be termed "useful" and "relevant".

  • FYI the community wiki change was across all SEs. It was decided to improve Community Wiki. It's good to have lots of experience from the other SE's represented here, so whatever you learn over on Roleplaying, please pass on! – justkt Dec 20 '10 at 16:14
  • Ah, I see, that wasn't clear in the post I read. But I think the RP people are also discouraging admins from CWing questions unless specifically requested to do so. Not that they can't just the perception seems to be that they should have a very broad definition of "benefit of the doubt". – One Monkey Dec 20 '10 at 16:35
  • Seasoned Advice has an entire similar policy on CW for questions. It's actually never used there unless the system rules kick it in. The question has to be good enough to stand alone or it is closed. It works really well. – justkt Dec 21 '10 at 13:48
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One con to a writing StackExchange is that professional fiction writers are usually discouraged from participating in discussion forums like these. The risk is that any content suggestions (plot points, character ideas, setting, etc.) that they read immediately become off-limits for them to write about for fear of copyright infringement.

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Well I've seen a few good questions (meaning questions I liked and considered the answers useful) and a ton of useless questions. So I definitely see your point.

However I'm a hopeless optimist. I'd decide this question at the end of the beta by looking at the collection of "best" questions (that is the highest voted questions) - at SO there are also tons of useless questions but the crown jewels make the site worthwhile.

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    Over on SeasonedAdvice we ended up doing this when a community outsider came in and challenged the validity of the site. We collected a list of our best questions for Jeff, and realized that there were some really solid answers that no other site could provide. Crafting really good answers, even to questionably valuable questions, is going to help us a lot. – justkt Dec 20 '10 at 14:36
  • @justkt - I agree with this, though in that case, what we really need is seasoned authors and editors, people who have been in all aspects of the writing industry, from as many fields and genres as possible. We do have some, but not nearly enough I don't think. I've read a whole lot of books on writing and studied it in detail in college - but even I'm not a published author and have little experience in the industry as a whole. So the best I can do is reference other books. We need more people working in the industry to answer questions. I don't know how to attract them, though. – Nathan Fischer Dec 22 '10 at 16:41
  • @Nathan - there's a publicity thread in general on meta for discussion, and I have a thread trying to collect a list of blogs we can send e-mails too. If you know of any, add them over there. – justkt Dec 22 '10 at 16:48
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I have to agree with John Smithers (not that he has a gun to my head or anything). It comes down to value. It can be argued many writers are writing for monetary purposes, but it can also be argued many writers do it for the pleasure. There is another element to consider: Attention Economy.

I have never met a writer who doesn't write for the pleasure derived when others read, or pay attention.

And who can argue with the value of Attention when the entire multi-billion dollar ad business (Google for example) revolves around it? The only difference is that the value writers attribute to their craft is not only monetary, but ego-centric.

Hand me ten dollars for a novel, or hand me a thank you note from a fan of my writing. I might still take the ten dollars if I'm hungry, but I can't say I wouldn't be poorer for it.

(subjective argument for the objective value of Writers.SE, I'll leave the logical fallacies to someone else).

  • I'm unclear on this; do you think this site is useful? Are subjective questions here valid, or against the Stack Exchange model? – Neil Fein Oct 18 '12 at 1:58
  • Yeah coherent rational debate isn't my strong point apparently. I was arguing for the value and usefulness of Writers.SE based on not merely the monetary value of writing aided by advice, but the value of the attention garnered or pleasure derived by readers of a narrative...one that may or may not have been completed had advice not been available through Writers.SE – James F. Oct 18 '12 at 2:26
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I think the best thing that could happen to Writers.SE is that tick mark below the score getting disabled. There are great answers and there are poor answers, but there are no "best answers". That doesn't mean everything is worthless without the checkmark or that it's a true obstacle. Simply, the visitor to this site should learn to treat the green checkmark as a very rough guideline "look at this, it's one of the better ones", not as a law "this is the correct one, others are wrong"

  • 1
    I disagree that the other answers are looked at as "wrong", but you raise some good points. However, we have no control over this on the site level. You can raise it with Stack Exchange, but I think they'll decline the suggestion. Part of the whole point of these sites is that questions should be able to be answered with a single answer. – Neil Fein May 15 '13 at 22:10

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