I've understood questions of the form "What are examples of X in existing fiction" to be off-topic for us.


  • By definition, they're list questions, which work really poorly on SE
  • They're low-quality questions -- anybody can ask a hundred of them; "examples of horses," "examples of shoes," which is bad for the site
  • They're generally unhelpful to anybody besides OP
  • They're also awfully near brainstorming/what-to-write questions, since their primary purpose is "I'm writing X and I want some inspiration."

Examples of questions of this form that have been closed:

However, I'm not finding a specific meta discussion of this type of question. It's also not in our On-Topic Summary.

We do have this:

The community has decided that questions about existing literary works, except in a writing-specific context, are off-topic. For more information, see this meta answer.

-- but I think newcomers do interpret "examples of X, so I can write X" as being "in a writing-specific context"; and the meta link is discussing literary analysis, which also is not helpful here.

I feel this makes votes-to-close confusing, and there's no good place to point new posters.

So! Are "What are examples of X in existing fiction" on- or off-topic for us?

  • As an aside, we're already using our standard three custom close reason slots. So if we decide that this type of question is off topic (which I think would be reasonable), we need to work it into one of our current custom close reasons, or petition Stack Exchange for an additional slot.
    – user
    Dec 25, 2018 at 10:52
  • 2
    @aCVn : Yeah, I feel that pain :-/ I wish we could make our on-topic rundown more visible.
    – Standback
    Dec 25, 2018 at 11:01
  • 1
    At any rate, even a handy "Here's where we decided this and why" would be better than nothing :)
    – Standback
    Dec 25, 2018 at 11:02
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    Before it even gets brought up: No, Literature.SE does not want this type of question.
    – Mithical
    Jan 6, 2019 at 0:23

2 Answers 2


"What are examples of X" questions are Off-Topic.


  • By definition, they're list questions, which work really poorly on SE.
  • They're low-quality questions -- anybody can ask a hundred of them; "examples of horses," "examples of shoes," which is bad for the site.
  • They're generally unhelpful to anybody besides OP.
  • They're also very much near brainstorming/what-to-write questions, since their primary purpose is "I'm writing X and I want some inspiration"; they're problematic for the same reasons.

I think that

  • the SE format is perfect for list questions; there are countless list questions of SO and other sites, and often they are some of the highest voted questions
  • lists aren't necessarily low quality; it will be quite easy for us to discern the quality through our votes
  • list questions are the most helpful questions that exist; I cannot imagine anything more helpful than a list of sites where one may ask for critique or a list of the most useful how-to-write books
  • I think that either brainstorming questions should be on-topic on this site or a site for brainstorming stories should be allowed on SE; that Robert C. keeps closing such site proposals is not because they don't work in the SE format (there are many discussions sites in the SE network and they work fine) or aren't useful for anyone besides the asker (Worldbuilding.SE features mostly questions that only the asker wants to know the answer to), but because SE is primarily concerned with SEO

So really, I don't see why anything that has to do with writing should be off-topic on this site. And actually I believe that the limits that come from SO are what keeps many users who would be interested in writing away from this site, because the "scientific" approach to questions runs counter to the essence of writing.

  • So, ever since we started, there's been an ongoing tension between "anything helpful to writers should be on-topic" and "we should only permit strict Q&A, in the style of Stack Overflow." We've mostly decided to go for the latter -- why and how is an important (and ongoing!) discussion, but probably too much for this small comment thread :)
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 7:52
  • I can offer some pointers to our previous discussions on this topic, though -- and, I encourage you to post new Meta questions if there are points you think should be reopened or considered for the first time :) I'd look first and for most at all our meta discussions about critique; that's always been a primary focal point for these discussions.
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 8:01
  • I'd also point you at writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/437/… , which was when we decided to move away from "try to welcome as wide a range as we can" towards "let's be stricter about question quality/on-topic-ness" -- because it was becoming a real problem. Those are good starting points, and we're always happy to discuss further :)
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 8:01
  • @Standback My quarrel with the decision for what in the discussions about what is on-topic on SE is commonly called "quality" is that the interest behind those decisions is not to better help the users of a site but to rank higher in search results. That is the only reason why duplicates need to be closed, because Google penalizes duplicate content. That is the only reason why links to outside resources are off topic, because Google penalizes links farms. In his blog posts, Jeff Atwood is very open about his SEO concerns.
    – user34178
    Jan 4, 2019 at 8:18
  • @Standback The things writers need most are feedback on their writing, help with brainstorming story, character, and plot ideas, lists of helpful ressources. None of that is on topic here, and that is why this site will never attract significant numbers of writers.
    – user34178
    Jan 4, 2019 at 8:22
  • 1. None of the community members here, on Writing.SE, care about search ranking, except inasmuch as we feel it makes the site better, larger, more helpful. And we're the ones making on- and off-topic decisions, as you'll see in the discussions I linked. I think you'll find that a lot more thought, care, and deliberations have gone into these decisions than you might be assuming.
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 10:38
  • 2. I agree with you that those are the things writers need most. Those are also the things that already have a hundred websites and discussion groups and online workshops. Which are great, you should totally use those! But SE has a very different format, different model, different strengths. We would do way worse than most of those hundred sites -- and, we wouldn't manage to engage a userbase enjoying the site enough to keep answering stuff well. Instead, we focus on our strengths, and create a kind of content that's sometimes amazingly useful and on-point, that nobody else does.
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 10:43
  • 3/3 And if that's not what you're looking for or enjoy -- that's fine! Really! Honest to goodness! I'm on sites for beta reading and feedback and just plain discussion, too! But trying to shoehorn Writing.SE into those formats is not something I think will end well -- and, when we did try to run the site that way, we were really unhappy with the results. /fin
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 10:46
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    @Standback Then explain to me why after eight years this site still cannot attract (and keep) a significant number of regular users and almost no (semi-)professional users at all. The site cannot be as "amazingly useful" as you seem to think, or many more writers would come here.
    – user34178
    Jan 4, 2019 at 11:35
  • Sure, but let's take that to chat?
    – Standback
    Jan 4, 2019 at 11:40

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