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This site is intended to provide well-supported (preferably sourced) answers which are helpful to the original askers of questions and also to other readers.

In light of the goal of being helpful, the quality of an answer can be measured in three aspects: content, style/tone, and formatting. Generally, content is the most important and style/tone is more important than formatting; but extremely bad formatting can make an otherwise good answer too difficult to read. An offensive tone can likewise keep an answer from being read. Obviously, an unread answer is not helpful.

An excellent answer will excel in all three aspects.

These guidelines are derived from the principles of communication, considering the message (what is being communicated: answers to questions), the medium (Stack Exchange, a collaborative question and answer website), and the audience (the original asker, readers brought by search engines and other links, and the local community). These guidelines offer collected wisdom from the community, but the goal is helpful communication.

Note: The format of this question and its answers is not a good example for the main site. (Meta is different. [This should be linked to documentation on the difference between the Meta site and the Main site.])

  • The answers were quickly copy-and-pasted from the other Q&A. Extensive editing and content addition is necessary. (I do not know how to make a question community wiki, so for now editing access to the question [with its "table of contents" is restricted] and care must be taken to make additional answers community wiki.) – Paul A. Clayton Jun 15 '13 at 18:25
  • I've made it community wiki now. – Monica Cellio Jun 16 '13 at 18:54
  • 1
    The section on answering questions in the FAQ for SE sites, particularly How do I write a good answer to a question?, provides some good content. Some of the other FAQs linked there may also be helpful for this question. – Paul A. Clayton Jun 17 '13 at 13:44
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Explanation of Content Guidelines

Answer the question actually asked.

This can include addressing a more general problem—if all or at least most of the answer also applies to the more specialized problem. In some cases, answering the question can include answering a question of which the original poster was not aware.

Do not simply post your opinion; show your reasoning.

Not only does this allow the community to evaluate the validity of the answer (which incidentally will encourage readers to upvote the answer), but it can also help the original asker recognize how appropriate the answer is to the particular problem (which may not have been precisely communicated) and can help readers answer other similar questions.

Unlike many sites, Stack Exchange sites are not looking for opinions and discussion. Answers should be focused and open to independent evaluation of the evidence provided.

Provide a sufficient but not necessarily exhaustive answer.

For some questions, even a book might not be long enough to provide a complete answer. Providing links or references to additional resources can be helpful for addressing such complex questions.

Provide references.

For questions with less subjective answers (concerning, e.g., citation standards or copyright law), references should be provided.

For questions with more subjective answers, it is sometimes possible to reference the opinions of recognized experts. However, be careful to choose appropriate experts (e.g., a writer of action-adventure scripts might not be a good expert on clarity in technical documentation, despite being an excellent writer) and not to take such expert opinions out of context.

Include relevant quotes from references rather than just a link.

Aside from issues of link rot, forcing the reader to follow links to reach the answer is less helpful. An answer should be complete on its own.

Provide links rather than just citation information when possible.

Making the reader work harder than necessary to access additional information or confirm the accuracy of a reference is not helpful. When recommending a book, linking to a book seller is acceptable and can be helpful. Links to amazon.com will be converted to use Stack Exchange's affiliate program (as suggested here), so providing amazon.com links may help fund Stack Exchange.

Do not be afraid to edit your answer.

Stack Exchange sites are dynamic and collaborative. An answer might go through several revisions. This is normal. Do not be afraid to edit an answer to increase clarity, correct mistakes, and add new information.

Since edits to an answer bump the question to the top of the recently active questions list, it is generally preferable to make fewer substantial edits. However, it is generally better to correct mistakes and clarify substantially confusing writing sooner rather than later.

Embrace the collaborative ethic.

Others may edit your answer to clarify what you have written, correct simple errors (grammar, spelling, word choice, etc.), provide links, or otherwise enhance your answer without changing its essential content. Understand that they are trying to help.

Similarly, comments may be posted to your answer seeking clarification, suggesting additional content, or pointing out problems with your answer. In general, such should be taken as encouragement to improve your answer. Clarifications and other enhancements should be place in the answer, not in a responding comment.

Even when a comment expresses disagreement, it may be appropriate to clarify what is being stated or to strengthen the supporting arguments. Sometimes disagreement is unavoidable, but often it indicates a misunderstanding or a perception of an unsubstantiated belief.

Do not be afraid to incorporate content from comments (or even—to a some extent—other answers) into the answer. When such content is included, provide attribution to the source. Including a link is generally encouraged for references to other answers. Comments (being more ephemeral) are not as conveniently linked, so not providing a link is not problematic.

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Style/Tone

Use a polite, professional tone.

in particular avoid sarcasm. The primary purpose of an answer is to teach, not to show how cleverly one can mock others.

Be concise but not cryptic.

If an answer is necessarily long, providing an overview at the beginning is helpful even when such increases the total length. If a long answer cannot be easily summarized (e.g., list answers), avoid an extensive introduction.

Organize content for quick reference

Answers at a questions and answer website should make the core content obvious from a cursory reading. Not only does this allow the reader to quickly evaluate whether the answer is likely to be helpful, but such organization also tends to make understanding the answer easier with more attentive reading.

Avoid chatty content

A concise answer will avoid chatty content, but it can be tempting to include tangentially related material and to seek a more readable presentation by using a less formal style.

While readability and completeness are desirable features in an answer, care should be taken to avoid drifting into the style of a discussion.

Provide examples when appropriate.

Concrete examples can greatly clarify an answer.

Place less critical information near the end of the answer.

If such information is particularly significant in an earlier portion of the answer (e.g., a noteworthy exception that requires significant explanation), indicate that additional, significant content is presented later—e.g., "(one exception is explained near the end of this answer)".

Prefer the use of internationally accessible language.

English is not the native language of some readers and, even among native speakers, dialect (or cultural) differences can make some words or phrases more difficult to understand. While some localization of language is unavoidable, an awareness of the readership is important.

Do not end your answer with a signature.

Information that would be placed in a signature can be included in your profile page. A link to this page is automatically provided at the end of each post.

Avoid running links together.

Placing multiple links adjacent to each other making recognizing the presence of multiple links more difficult. For devices such as tablets and smart phones which do not support hovering over links, running links together may be even more problematic. In addition, such generally makes the nature of the links less obvious, particularly for users of text-to-speech software.

Narrative flow is somewhat less important in an answer than in a blog (where such link usage may be acceptable). Furthermore, as a reference resource, clearly distinguishing and identifying the nature of links tends to be helpful for the primary use.

Prefer readability and helpfulness over conforming to guidelines

While these guidelines are based on valid principles, the goal of providing helpful answers is primary.

  • I am actually not bothered by "I am not a lawyer" hedges... because occasionally we can get a lawyer to answer. If the guideline suggested above is just about where to put that hedge, I think that's nitpicking. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 17 '13 at 13:09
  • @LaurenIpsum I tend to agree that such is a weak example, though if a reference is provided such would seem to be just fluff. I think some addressing of the issue of those like me who are excessively tempted to use weasel wording. "I think maybe this is the case, but I am not a professional writer. I do hope this is at least a little helpful."--I would be naturally drawn to writing such a 'statement' even when giving substantial reasoning for my view. IANAL might be merely an indication of an (acceptably) less researched answer. – Paul A. Clayton Jun 17 '13 at 13:26
  • @LaurenIpsum For a lawyer answering a legal question, autobiographical information may be appropriate (e.g., "as a lawyer") to establish authority/expertise. I agree that this can easily degrade into nitpicking, but not all elements of the guidelines are equal in weight. "Unhelpful" was used to indicate fluff contrasted to providing meaningful content. As noted, "Needs work." BTW, thanks for providing feedback. Please add and edit these answers. Lots of work is needed to make these substantially better than the existing SE FAQ material. – Paul A. Clayton Jun 17 '13 at 13:36
  • I'm not sure why you feel so strongly about hedging or weaseling that it needs to be in the FAQ. Can you point to five examples on the board which have caught your eye? I can't think of one. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 17 '13 at 16:53
  • And I want to discuss changes like this particular one before making them, because it's not an obvious fix. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 17 '13 at 16:54
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The Guidelines

Content

  • Answer the question actually asked.
  • Do not simply post your opinion; show your reasoning.
  • Provide references when possible.
  • Include relevant quotes from references rather than just a link.
  • Provide links rather than just citation information when possible.
  • Provide a sufficient but not necessarily exhaustive answer.
  • Do not be afraid to edit your answer.
  • Embrace the collaborative ethic.

Style/Tone

  • Use a polite, professional tone.
  • Be concise but not cryptic.
  • Organize content for quick reference.
  • Avoid chatty content.
  • Prefer the use of internationally accessible language.
  • Do not end your answer with a signature.
  • Avoid running together multiple links.
  • Prefer readability and helpfulness over conforming to guidelines.

Formatting

  • When appropriate use emphasis (italic).
  • Sometimes strong emphasis (bold) is appropriate.
  • Avoid SHOUTING.
  • Use block quoting for long quotes, sample text for criticism, and example text.
  • Provide breaks using punctuation and paragraph spacing.
  • Use headers to clarify division of content in long answers.
  • Use list formatting for lists, not for separating paragraphs.
  • Preferentially use Markdown rather than html tags.
  • Format the content for quick reference.
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Explanation of Formatting Guidelines

When appropriate use emphasis (italic).

This can be done by placing an underscore or an asterisk at the start and end of the emphasized text. Excessive use of emphasis tends to confuse the reader as to what is actually important and reduces the impact of the emphasis.

Sometimes strong emphasis (bold) is appropriate.

When a longer quote is necessary to provide context, strong emphasis of the most relevant parts may be helpful; lighter emphasis is more likely not to be recognized when rapidly reading a longer quote.

Avoid SHOUTING

Since boldface is available, the use of capitalizing all letters should generally be avoided when not part of an example text that uses such by convention or lack of support for boldface in the target medium. Such use of capitalization should be particularly avoided for single words since that use can be mistaken as indicating an acronym (or other abbreviation).

Use block quoting for long quotes, sample text for criticism, and example text.

This can be done by beginning a line with a greater-than sign (>). For poetry with varying indentation, preformatted text can be used by placing four spaces at the start of each line. Line breaks can be indicated by ending a line with two spaces.

Provide breaks using punctuation and paragraph spacing.

Run-on paragraphs, like run-on sentences, can be difficult to read.

Use headers to clarify division of content in long answers.

A header can be indicated by starting the line with the header text with the number of hash marks (#) equal to the level of the header. Alternatively, a primary (level one) header can be indicated by starting the line immediately under the header text with an equal sign (=); similarly, a level two header can be indicated with a hyphen (-).

Use list formatting for lists, not for separating paragraphs.

List formatting provides a distinctive separation of individual textual elements, but it should be used when brief elements form a collection of two or more items of comparable weight.

If one or more items in a list become excessively long, it may be desirable to shorten such items and provide the list as a summary or outline. Text outside the list would provide the additional content.

Preferentially use Markdown rather than html tags.

Preferring Markdown tends to make posts more accessible to later editors and avoids the jarring display of different markup languages in a single document.

An overview of Stack Exchange Markdown provides further help on the mechanics of formatting posts here.

Format the content for quick reference.

Since answers on Stack Exchange are generally quick reference material not textbook narratives, formatting that would be jarring in a longer text may be preferred.

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Contributors

Lauren Ipsum:

  • Answer the question actually asked
  • Use a professional tone
  • Use paragraph breaks
  • Use headers for long answers
  • Do not just post a bare link
  • When applicable include examples

Monica Cellio:

  • The idea to use the format shown in this question to present the content
  • Show your reasoning
  • Extensive explanation of several points
  • General editing

Michael Kjorling:

  • Edited for gender neutrality

Paul A. Clayton:

  • Some content and editing
  • First draft (always the hardest!) and momentum

Standback:

  • Asked the original question to get us all talking about this

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