I've seen several meta Questions on the viability of Writers.SE in the Stack Exchange format; I'm hoping this is a good angle to tackle this issue from.

From the Area 51 FAQ:

We want you to capture the moment that plumbers feel when they look at PlumberOverflow and say, "Whoa! That's my kinda site!" On a site about plumbing, there are 200 easy plumbing questions, and they've all been asked 100 times on other sites. Don't suggest questions like "How do I unclog a drain." Instead ask, "If you run 2.5 GPM through 50 feet of 1/2" galv pipe, how many psi will be lost to friction loss?" Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

I think this is a very good description of the sense I've been getting from Writers.SE in the week or so I've been following: lots of questions which address very familiar topics; very very few that seem like they might have been asked by an "expert" in the field. And that might well be the difference between whether the site offers something unique and valuable, or just repeats existing resources in an unusual format.

Would people say this feels like a fair assessment? What questions (from the site, the beta Example Questions, or made up right now) would you consider to qualify as being not only on-topic, but genuinely "expert-level"?

Clarification: The above is not meant to imply the site should have only "expert questions," or even mostly. Only that the presence of some seems important; and that the difficulty I'm having in describing such questions is discouraging to me. And conversely, that any ideas people have on what questions writing experts have for one another would likely be extremely interesting and unusual.

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2 Answers

While I fully agree that this site should be a home for expert writers, publishers, agents, editors, and others involved in all fields in writing as well as amateurs, I'm not sure that we need to have only advanced questions that have never been asked before. Look at StackOverflow. On any given day, as a programmer, I might see 50-75% questions that are about the basics. Some days I want to answer those and help someone out or gain some easy rep, some days I want to stretch my mind working on harder problems. The other 50-25% of the questions that range from non-trivial to extraordinarily different are there too. Plus there are the times that I search for an answer to a problem I'm having on google and SO pops up. I almost always find what I want there.

What we want are some expert questions, and quality answers to all levels of questions, so that experts know they can answer questions here and be rewarded by the community and ask questions here and get answers.

From our question archives, here are some that I have found interesting and/or helpful.

  • Does my first paragraph grab your attention? - this question is by a published author who has specific criteria for what he wants in his first paragraph and is asking if the paragraph as written meets those criteria. It's a good example of what we want in a critique question
  • Are composite characters in creative non-fiction OK? - an example of a question that is about the ethics of writing that is of interest to writers at all skill levels. Composite characters in creative non-fiction, especially memoirs, have been a big issue in writings by some quite famous authors in the past few years
  • What are advantages/disadvantages to use a CC-license for your writings? - while you might argue that this question would appeal most to writers who have not yet been published by a traditional publishing house, I think it has an appeal to writers across the board because it covers some of the emerging issues in licensing and distribution. On a related note, since all critiques posted on this site will automatically be licensed under a creative commons license for that small portion, it is relevant to everyone posting parts of their work here.
  • The polymath's dilema... - an interesting question about how to create a believable character who is a polymath, and one that elicited some great information in the answers
  • Something different: help me find the unnecessary words - another critique question that was specific, short, and focused on the honing of technique
  • Should DOIs ever be preferred to ISBNs? - an interesting question on identifying published works
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Thanks for this :) I quite agree - I hadn't meant that I expected only, or even mostly, "expert questions." Only that such questions would go a long way towards building up this site's focus and self-definition. Just like SO, as you say :) –  Standback Feb 17 '11 at 18:02
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Our sites are ostensibly for experts, but in reality they are much more aspirational in nature: they are for experts and those who wish to become expert.

Anyone who loves writing and is willing to work toward becoming a better writer is welcome here.

That's how we create better writers -- by simultaneously learning from and teaching our peers.

Related:

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2009/02/are-you-an-expert.html

and

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/09/stack-overflow-none-of-us-is-as-dumb-as-all-of-us.html

The idea that you have all these experts waiting in the wings to do stuff is an illusion in my experience. There's really just a bunch of amateurs muddling along trying to do things together. The people that are truly experts are too busy to even help, right? And if the experts are too busy to help, what difference does it really make if there are experts at all. Because the whole point of this endeavor is helping other [writers], and whether you're an expert or not, if you have no time to help, you're not really contributing to the solution.

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What I'm trying to get across is not that we need to have experts on the site. Rather, I'm wondering if this is a field where expert questions exist. If they don't, then the level of this site - regardless of how many or how few experts we might have or want - will continue to address precisely the same issues visited time and again in writing books, blogs, and websites, and locatable with a simple Google search. That wouldn't be the end of the world. But it raises questions as to how helpful this site can become, versus other existing resources. –  Standback Mar 5 '11 at 18:43
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