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For pretty much all of the time I've been active here (more than three years now), we've allowed critique questions and I've wondered if they're a good idea. Let me recap:

The on-topic summary says this about critique questions:

Critiques:

You can ask a Q&A question concerning your own work, but you can't just ask for feedback. Critique questions must be phrased in such a way that answers can be objectively voted on.

Suggested format:

"I tried X but had problem Y"
- Excerpt (or a link to one)
- specific question about your sample or specific guidelines for the critique.

This links to the general critique guidelines and a clarification.

We get a lot of questions that don't follow these guidelines -- people posting an excerpt and asking for general feedback, or asking about some aspect of it but in a way that's hard to answer. These generally get put on hold, but even when they're brought into line with our guidelines, I find myself wondering if they are a good fit.

What's the problem?

You might say: "Monica, if you don't like critique questions then just skip them; some people obviously like asking and answering them, so what's the harm?"

My concern is that we give the impression of being a writing circle, a general-support site for people who want subjective feedback on their work. While outstanding answers to these questions can help others sometimes, the norm is that the only beneficiary of the answers to a critique question is the asker. That's not the model that Stack Exchange is based on; we want to help the asker and the next ten or hundred or thousand people who have that problem and come to us via Google.

Meanwhile, if we give the impression of being a writer's circle more than an internet resource for answers to questions about writing, I worry that we make it harder to attract the kinds of questions that are really Stack Exchange's strength, and that we make it harder to attract the users who will ask and answer those questions. No SE site flourishes without expert users asking and answering good, durable questions.

You get what you build. Are we building a site for experts?

I don't want to give the impression that I don't care about helping people get their work read and critiqued. I do care about that; it's one way of building a community of people who care about each other. Chat seems well-suited to this, both for formal sessions like the weekly writing challenge and for more-spontaneous, "drop-in" feedback. People come to chat with a link and a request to look, and people do that sometimes. (We could stand to increase the use of our chat room, and I stand guilty here, but it does happen.)

So what do we do about it?

That's what the answers to this question are for. I'm going to propose one approach, and I hope others will add theirs as well.

  • I'd like to point out that the original post that declared critiques on-topic received quite a few upvotes. I think whatever gets decided here needs to get comparable community buy-in, at least in the same ballpark. – Neil Fein Sep 2 '14 at 16:56
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    @NeilFein we need more buy-in than we have now on this post, but I suspect a lot of the upvotes there were "sure, let's try it!" votes. Now, three years later, we have the benefit of experience. Also, probably, a different user base. So I don't think we need to reach net +24 to change the policy, but we do need more than +4. – Monica Cellio Sep 2 '14 at 17:52
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    To put this another way, 4 votes implies the mod writing the post, the other two mods, and 2 other community members. That's a poor basis for a major change to community policy. SO: Have an opinion? Please vote. Conflicted? Please answer or comment with your thoughts. Bored out of your mind with discussing critique questions? Hey, let us know that too. – Standback Sep 3 '14 at 6:27
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TL;DR: Critique questions are off-topic, because they will be helpful only to you and the text you post. Questions using your writing to illustrate a question, however, are on-topic.


The main problem with critique questions is that they focus too much on the specific passage at the expense of the broader question. Only one person will be helped by improvements to that passage.

To make critique questions acceptable at all we say that they must be about something specific -- like writing realistic dialogue, or building suspense, or obscuring the gender of the POV character, or whatever. Those are all great topics for questions here -- but they don't need to be framed as critiques!

My proposal is that we, essentially, flip the focus on critiques. We don't do critiques, period. We do welcome questions on specific aspects of writing that might be best illustrated with a short passage. That's fine. But answers need to be free to focus on the question, addressing or not addressing the example as they see fit.

Consider the difference between:

[Three paragraphs]

I'm worried that I'm not being evocative enough in my description of the setting. How can I better make the reader feel like he's there?

And:

What are the keys to writing evocative scene descriptions without going on at length or presenting a visit from the exposition fairy? What aspects should I focus on to help the reader get a clear mental image of the scene?

For example, I feel that the following is not descriptive enough:

[sample paragraph]

But when I tried to improve it by adding more adjectives -- which I've heard is good -- it now seems pretentious and wordy:

[another sample paragraph]

What are the best ways to describe a setting?

That second question feels like one that's solidly in scope for Writing.SE and will help others in the future. Answers will probably talk about choices of adjectives, about sequencing a description, about using all the senses and not just sight, and about knowing when enough is enough. None of that is specific to the passage that the asker is trying to write, but all of it will help him.

That's the kind of question I want to see here. And it's nothing like a critique, even though it includes excerpts from the work being written.

11

I might just be rephrasing Monica in other words, but here's my take.

I think critique questions are very poor in Stack Exchange's Q&A format. We've been trying different variations and requirements, but ultimately, all we're doing is hobbling both the Q&A format and the concept of a writing critique.

I don't think Writing.SE is well-served by dozens of "Does this opening grip you?" questions. And I don't think writers are well-served by picking out a few paragraphs of their work, and choosing one single element of it to get feedback on.

Here's the thing: writers can get real, full critiques at other places without all the trouble. There are, in fact, some truly excellent websites available which thrive on mutual feedback and critique circles; I don't see any benefit to anybody in forcing critique requests into a Q&A format.

Therefore, I believe Writing.SE's policy should be: Critique requests are off-topic.


That being said, if you have a Q&A question about your own writing , then that's terrific. My formulation for a good question looks something like this:

I'm trying to accomplish [GOAL]. But I'm not succeeding, because when I try I encounter [PROBLEM].

Having a goal you're trying to reach, actual attempts to get there, and a concrete problem on the way - that's practically an ironclad guarantee that you've got a real, answerable Q&A style question.

That means that:

  • Instead of "Does my opening grab you?", you might get "I'm trying to write a catchy opening, but I have too much exposition to get through."
  • Instead of "Does this scene seem romantic to you?", you might get "I'm trying to write a romantic scene, but every line I have seems cliche."
  • Instead of "Are my metaphors working for you?", you might get "I'm trying to use metaphors, but I can't tell if they're any good."

Notice how each of these questions sounds like it might be useful to other writers, because it's a solution to a problem - not just personal feedback for the one person asking.


Bottom line:

Critique questions should be off-topic. Good Q&A questions referring to your own work are not critique questions. If you need to say "This isn't quite a good, clear question, but it does fall within our critique guidelines," then it isn't a good, clear, question, and it shouldn't be on-topic for us.

  • I've previously explained my misgivings with critique questions at greater length: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/a/510/1046 – Standback Aug 27 '14 at 20:44
  • Thanks for pointing out that link. I see I upvoted that, presumably back when you posted it. – Monica Cellio Aug 27 '14 at 22:28
  • Tentatively, I think this is the best way to move forward. – Neil Fein Sep 2 '14 at 16:51
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I agree that critique questions have a problematic "too localized" nature, but some critique questions seem difficult to express while avoiding being "too broad".

Examples (from questions I have answered)

"Am I using too many adjectives/adverbs in the following piece?" would probably be too broad as "How can one tell when one is using too many adjectives/adverbs?". However, breaking this general topic into more specific questions may form awkward boundaries where several questions are closely related.

For example, "In a scene of natural wonder, how can one tell when one is using too many adjectives/adverbs?" (answers would deal with exciting wonder where extra words would tend to work against the desired pacing and the original question's peaceful wonder where extra words would tend to work with the desired pacing) might be too similar to "In a scene of ceremonial splendor, ..." even though answers to the latter should include significantly different advice (for ceremonial splendor, more sophisticated/artificial adjectives/adverbs would be more appropriate), though "In describing a crime scene investigation, how can one tell when one is using too many adjectives/adverbs?" would only be loosely related.

"Does my poem convey the character of the (fictional) author well?" seems like a very difficult question to generalize. "What traits in a poem would express the frustrated compassion of its fictional author?" would not be able to touch on the significance of etiquette (which would impact the use of form in the poem) and might still be "too localized". ("What traits in a poem would express its fictional author's compassionate frustration with certain mortal follies?" would be even more localized.)

"How to better describe “jet-black (pitch-black) darkness”?" might not lose too much with a change to "How can one avoid overuse of a specific noun-adjective pair?". Adding "In a translation" would include some additional considerations but would also significantly localize the question. (My rephrasing of the question is substantially biased by my own answer, though roughly half of my answer was critique-oriented advice specific to the examples.)

None of these questions are highly rated (which may relate to their more localized nature, the fundamental problem with critique-type questions), but even though all of them seem to contain what could become a "useful question" forming that question such that answers would still answer the original poster's question reasonably well seems difficult.

My own biases

I enjoy answering critique-oriented questions because such questions seem to make focused analysis easier and can sometime use my less tuned lyric sense. I am also somewhat proud that I tend to provide somewhat broader answers, though my answer to "Am I using too many adjectives/adverbs in the following piece?" is very much like a writing circle response and my answer to "Does my poem convey the character of the (fictional) author well?" is only moderately less so (the second half of my answer to the third question is also very like a writing circle response).

Dropping the critique aspect would seem to severely limit the lyrical fun in answering questions (I enjoy coming up with and sharing alternative phrasings), though, as noted in the question, Stack Exchange is not about indiscriminately providing fun to users but about providing good answers to more broadly interesting questions.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful response. And you're one of the people I tend to notice giving broader answers that would be useful to people other than the OP; how do we "bottle that" and get more of that from others? – Monica Cellio Sep 7 '14 at 22:20
  • If critiques were done through chat rather than as main-site Q&A, how would that affect your participation? Would that be too limiting because of the small message size? Would the interactive nature of it help? – Monica Cellio Sep 7 '14 at 22:21
  • This is not an answer to the question but a contribution to discussion. For Meta sites, the SE Q&A constraint seems inappropriate (as others have mentioned). A "question" tagged [discussion] should not be discouraged from discussion! – Paul A. Clayton Sep 7 '14 at 22:21
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    I appreciate the contribution to the discussion; if I said anything that implied otherwise, it was a failure on my end. This kind of discussion is exactly what meta is for. – Monica Cellio Sep 7 '14 at 22:23
  • @MonicaCellio One problem with chat (as currently used) is that few people use it. There is also the requirement of 20 SE-wide total reputation, which would exclude complete newcomers. The message size would also be an issue. Posting an "answer" on a blog or website would avoid this issue but would fracture the wholeness (aside from greater link-rot issues and inconvenience). Chat is also less search-friendly (I suspect). A sister (possibly Discourse-based?) site might allow such related discussion to flourish with good cross fertilization (a bit like 'talk'... – Paul A. Clayton Sep 7 '14 at 22:31
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    ... wiki pages). BTW, I did not feel any implication of discouraging discussion, I just wanted to point out that my post was not directly addressing the question (which also gave the opportunity to rant about the unsuitability of the SE Q&A format for Meta discussion "questions"). – Paul A. Clayton Sep 7 '14 at 22:33
  • Thanks for weighing in! If I understand you correctly, you're saying you find critique questions to have value because (a) some are practical questions which simply can't be scaled to a "non-localized" form, and (b) they're fun and give opportunity to discuss writing at a very immediate level. But at the same time, you also feel like they don't fit into the SE format very comfortably; in other words, you're somewhat in agreement with the criticism of critique questions, even while you do find them valuable. Is that an accurate summary? – Standback Sep 8 '14 at 10:13
  • Let me ask a follow-up question: have you had much participation on other writing sites which encourage critiques and feedback? Forums or message boards or online writing groups? If you have - how do those compare to our critique questions? What do we offer that they don't, and vice versa? – Standback Sep 8 '14 at 10:14
  • @Standback That is a reasonably accurate summary (I am not sure about "can't be scaled"; "very difficult and beyond my ability" is not the same as "impossible"). I have not participated on other writing sites (I have considered it for poetry). The SE Q&A emphasis is very useful (I think a wiki-like cooperative building of content would be nicer, avoiding redundancy and having a single flow of knowledge, but the required social engineering—and software support for such—seems difficult). – Paul A. Clayton Sep 8 '14 at 10:32
  • @PaulA.Clayton: Let's agree on "is unlikely to be scaled by typical posters" :) – Standback Sep 8 '14 at 10:39
  • @Standback "typical poster" may be a bit of a low standard.☺ The median poster has probably only made one post to Writers and might not have much if any other experience with SE. Writers does not seem to have a huge "eternal September" problem (newbie influx increasing noise:signal; the Q&A format helps since most first posts are probably questions and answers outnumber questions 3.1:1), but I suspect many posters post a question before reading the About page or reading a largish number of posts. Writing is also more subjective than programming, so good Qs and As are more difficult to write. – Paul A. Clayton Sep 8 '14 at 11:41
  • @PaulA.Clayton : Actually, that's part of my issue with critique questions - they require a huge amount of maintenance, because they're hard to write well on the one hand, and shouldn't be closed (since they're on-topic) on the other. That means it falls to the mods, and other hyper-committed members who are very comfortable with the guidelines, to constantly provide guidance and feedback and decide every single time where they're going to draw the line. – Standback Sep 8 '14 at 12:22
  • I think it's better for us to have a clear guideline, that almost everybody can understand, follow, and enforce, than to have a hazy, subjective guideline that's poorly understood and takes a lot of constant effort to maintain. Even if that means losing a small number of valuable questions, I think it's worthwhile in the cause of having our policy being clear and simple. – Standback Sep 8 '14 at 12:25
  • @Standback I agree, but a sacrifice for the common good is still a sacrifice even when small and when the loser is part of the common (so there may a net gain even for that user). I don't like eating my vegetables even though a healthy diet makes me feel better. – Paul A. Clayton Sep 8 '14 at 12:31
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    @Standback The sacrifice is "[possibly] losing a small number of valuable questions"; the common good is avoiding "a lot of constant effort to maintain" and the frustration of new users when the grey area evaluation goes against their questions (arbitrary closing appears unfriendly and "hazy, subjective guideline"s introduce arbitrary closing). Furthermore, the general health of a SE is helped if the limited resources of effort from skilled, experienced users is applied to more worthwhile purposes than bailing water out of the boat (declaring critiques off-topic is "fixing the leak"). – Paul A. Clayton Sep 8 '14 at 14:05
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If I understand this correctly (and I'm really not sure about that), than the main concern here is about presenting the question.

Monica, you and Standback give examples of bad question, reorder and rephrase them and then say these questions would fit that way. If I get the chain of thought behind that correctly, you say the regrouped questions give other users a better clue what the questions are about.

If that is your argument then here we go:

  1. If you can improve a question, then please do it. We do not have to ban critique questions for that.

  2. Learning (not only for writing) is best done (IMHO) when the lesson is accompanied with examples. A critique question gives us the example for free. Even other users looking at that example can learn from it and adapt it to the problem they have.

  3. I have the feeling that you have a user in mind who scans our Q&A list in the search of help. Because only then the reordering (see above) would really benefit him. But that's not the case. Users find us via Google. They see in the Google overview their keywords highlighted. Then they decide and click the link. So the order/grouping of the question parts isn't that relevant (even though I would prefer it the way you suggested, but I stay realistic here).

So, all in all, I do not see harm for our site due to critique questions. Leave the guidelines in place.

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    Two thoughts. First, if critiques are on-topic "as is" then people could rightly object to that kind of edit as changing the nature of the question. Second, I think these questions need more input from the posters than we usually get; I can't just rewrite a critique question to a technique question with examples because I usually don't know the writer's intentions (what are you trying to do and why) or what he's already tried. We just get a bunch of text and "is this scene evocative" or some such. – Monica Cellio Oct 3 '14 at 21:42
  • I wasn't trying to rephrase critique questions; I was trying to demonstrate the difference (IMHO) between an off-topic critique request, and an on-topic question (which happens to be about your own writing). I think that most critique questions are not convertible to an on-topic question - and as Monica says, even a question that can be focused by OP cannot be focused by community members trying to improve the question. – Standback Oct 4 '14 at 18:53
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    A major difference for me is this: if ten different community members, who have some sense of how the site works, have the same question, do they each open their own "Does my story opening grab you" question? Or do they all refer to the single "How do I write a grabby opening when I have all this exposition to get through?" question? – Standback Oct 4 '14 at 18:56
  • @Standback, and if you have a 'how do I write a grabby opening' question, the answerer must provide an example. Which we already have and can work on with the existing critique format. – John Smithers Oct 4 '14 at 20:53
  • @JohnSmithers I'm sorry, I don't understand your comment. Could you please rephrase that with more detail? – Standback Oct 5 '14 at 10:25
  • Learning by example, @Standback. We have an example in the current critique format (provided by OP) which we can built on. Other readers can adapt it to their situation. With a more general approach (like you describe) the answerer normally has to come up with an example to make his point clear. I think it is more useful to use the example from a person who has the actual problem instead of a made-up one by the answerer. – John Smithers Oct 5 '14 at 19:24
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    Ah, got it now. I disagree with that, thought, on several counts. One is, people search by question, not by example. Saying that "new example == new question" makes information very hard to find. Second is, I think the community gives great answers; making it "easy" for them by saving them the "trouble" of inventing illustrative examples doesn't strike me as helpful or necessary. Third is, allowing a question to focus on the specific text rather than the problem naturally steers users towards poor, undirected, "what do you think of this piece?" questions. – Standback Oct 5 '14 at 21:28
  • So, I think allowing questions to focus primarily on the specific writing snippet at hand does a great deal of harm. – Standback Oct 5 '14 at 21:28

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