Pieces of writing are often "made" by one or two telling details that show an expert insight into character, place or some other obscure but approriate point about a particular subject.

Is Writers an appropriate place to ask such questions, given that they aren't to do with the writing process itself, but for the content of the writing?

Examples off the top of my head:

  • "I'm writing a novel and one of the characters is a bomb expert. What steps would he go through to analyse it and attempt to disarm it?"
  • "I want to add a bit of authenticity to my French character. Can someone translate these phrases?"
  • "What tools would a blacksmith in 15th Century Prussia have had available?"

(My initial thought is that while something like this would be an awesome resource, it doesn't fit within the Writers mandate and would quickly pollute the site with off-topic questions. But since the FAQ doesn't seem to say one way or the other, I thought I'd invite comment on it).

I've come across an LJ community called Detail Oriented which deals with precisely this type of questions; we can point people there when we close questions for this reason. – Standback Nov 20 '11 at 13:28

This should certainly be off topic. This site should be a reference for writing techniques, styles, etc., but not for general purpose "any topic that I could happen to be writing about" subject matter expertise.

Even as far as asking for help looking into specific subject matters seems like stretching the line. For example, if someone is writing a historical fiction, we are not necessarily any more experts on history or historical research than we are on defusing bombs. I still feel these could be judged on a case by case basis, but it's better to be careful early than let the community become too haphazard.

Our primary goal is to be an expert community of writers, not an expert community of anything and everything a writer could write about. At some point, a writer is going to have to do his own research for the specific content that will be added to his book. Our purpose is to guide him along in the aspects that pertain to writing it, not researching it.

+1 Agreed wholeheartedly. This site is about the act of writing, not the content used. – Zayne S Halsall Nov 19 '10 at 15:17
Yep, off topic was my thought too. Is there a process for incorporating this stuff into a FAQ, or does meta itself become the reference? – Ash Nov 20 '10 at 1:10
Along these lines, should I keep asking questions to define the "on topic" boundary? Or should it all be collated in one question like: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/21/… – Ash Nov 20 '10 at 1:20
@Ash - on and off topic definitions should go into our FAQ, but these questions on meta also become a good reference. – justkt Nov 22 '10 at 20:30
@justsk - Once the site gets enough of them written, questions tagged as on/off topic are usually made an extension of the FAQ. So yeah, this question will be part of that reference. – Neil Fein Nov 23 '10 at 1:44

I'd say some of these are on-topic. If you consider them questions about resources. Like the one about the blacksmith could be answered with references to sites/books containing such info. Likewise for the other questions.

Then we don't give the asker a fish, we teach him how to fish. ;-)

I agree with the concept of encouraging people to ask for help on finding resources as opposed to answers. The odds of anyone with specific blacksmithing experience are going to be pretty small. However, finding someone who has written about or doen research on blacksmithing is much more likely. – Steven Drennon Jul 22 '11 at 16:51
If the questions are specifically about how a writer might find resources and they are likely to help future visitors, then I'm alright with it. For instance, "I have a French character; how would I go about reliably translating some phrases for them if I don't speak it myself" would be both about how to find resources and it has a good chance to help future visitors. "Can someone translate these phrases into French" isn't about finding resources, and will be very unlikely to help future visitors. – Thunderforge Jun 26 '13 at 7:15

Honestly, if anything content related is off limits, I doubt this group will survive. There are only so many technical aspect questions that can be asked. At best, you'll get a couple people that pop in, ask a question, and are never seen from again. If you want this to become a good community, you need to tab into the writers who have questions about the current manuscript they're working on. If something comes up, they can come here and ask for advice about their plot or their characters. Those are people who are most likely to come back and ask more questions and help out other writers.

at some point, giving the technical details about someone's skills has to be off topic. It's going to be much easier for someone on seasonedadvice.com to give detailed advice about a chef, someone on programmers.stackexchange.com to talk about programmers, etc. We have to draw the line where another Q&A site would be better suited to the answer, no? I have appreciated your contributions to the site so far, but I think these questions could be changed in ways that help them suit the format we have. – justkt Dec 15 '10 at 20:03
A site that's accepting bad questions because it has to (and it's by no means decided if these questions are good or bad) will still end up being a site filled with bad questions.) Saying that the community has to take answers to questions of type X or it will wither away means that the community's scope was set incorrectly to begin with. – Neil Fein Jan 18 '13 at 6:37
@NeilFein: Do you believe StackOverflow would be anywhere near to current size if it started removing as off-topic all questions currently redirected to other SE sites? A community to thrive needs dedicated members. It won't gain them by shunning newcomers for "not meeting the high standards". Writers.se can afford to discourage this kind of questions when it has a thriving community. Justkt is right: at some point these questions will become off-topic. That point is still behind the horizon. – SF. Jan 18 '13 at 7:49
@SF. - I respectfully disagree, but the community will decide. – Neil Fein Jan 19 '13 at 19:50

this should be gray, and be handled on a case by case basis, Although I know a fair amount about blacksmithing and bombs I know nothing of french, I think these specific questions are a little off topic I think questions like these might need a home somewhere.


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