Over the past year and a half, Writers.SE has built up many, many questions and answers - and a small, dedicated community. The other mods and I have been discussing what we can do to take us up to the next level - turning Writers.SE into a thriving, active, popular site. We’ve concluded that our top priority right now is raising the quality of questions.
What do we mean by “question quality”?
Our minimal requirements for a question are that:
- It be clear, detailed, and focused enough to be answerable;
- It should fit well within the site’s Q&A format - it shouldn’t be a poll or a discussion; a single good answer should be a sufficient and worthwhile response.
In addition, some questions not only meet these minimal requirements, but also add extra value to the entire site. Particularly:
- Questions requiring highly specific (and sometimes, highly uncommon) expertise
- Questions which are useful to many, but which are difficult to find existing answers for using commonly available resources. These are the questions that other resources don’t handle, or can’t answer clearly and distinctly. We can - or, at least, that’s the goal.
Why is question quality so important?
StackExchange sites are designed to succeed where others fail by cutting out unhelpful noise. The voting mechanisms help good content rise to the top and poor content slip out of sight; the explicit Q&A format cuts out all unnecessary cruft between the reader and the final, bottom-line information he’s looking for.
This is what makes the site such a helpful resource for users of every level. This is why even an expert in the field can come in, ask a question, and have confidence in the answers he receives - without needing to wade through discussions, arguments, and inaccuracies. And once a community has some pros in residence, that site becomes more capable of answering harder questions and of dealing with uncommon topics - making it an even better resource, and attracting more members, novices and experts alike. The Area 51 FAQ sums it up nicely:
The questions on your site say a lot about the community. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Your goal is to make it clear that this is a professional site.
How has Writers.SE been doing on on question quality so far?
So-so. On the one hand, we’ve got an active community who cares about the site, and a strong core of high-rep users who know how to use the privileges they’ve earned. On the other hand, actual question quality seems pretty low. There are plenty of reasons for this. Among them:
- Writers.SE’s subject matter is inherently subjective, and it’s harder to judge questions as being “good” or “bad.”
- With few questions coming in, it’s no trouble to be helpful even to the questions that aren’t too great.
- Our high-rep users (many of which do actively write, and/or do other work in the publishing industry) don’t ask many questions; instead, questions often come from new writers and random visitors.
In practice, we find ourselves fielding a lot of questions whose overall quality is quite low; our better questions are generally in the same ballpark as existing books and blogs on writing; we have very few exceptional questions of a higher level than that. While this balance is quite understandable, it’s not good enough to launch off the exceptional, professional StackExchange site we want to be.
How will this renewed focus actually affect the site?
What you’ll be seeing most immediately is an increase in moderator involvement. We’re going to be more critical of new, incoming questions then we’ve been in the past. In essence, closing will become our first resort - not our last.
Quick closing may come across as discouraging or harsh. However, it’s a vital part of bringing a StackExchange site up to snuff - partially by speedily eliminating low-quality content; partly by encouraging the community to form questions clearly and appropriately, rather than settling for “close enough.” Of course, our goal is improvement, not discouragement - we’ll always explain why a question is being closed.
We'll be focusing primarily on new questions, but we may also address older questions - particularly ones that resurface on the main page due to new activity.
The other part of this initiative is that we’ll be stirring up a lot of new discussions here on Meta. We’ve got a lot of questions to be resolved, and now that we’ve got some Beta experience, it’s time to see where we stand - and which direction we want to go from here.
What can I do?
Closed Questions Are A Part of StackExchange. Closing questions isn’t fun. It can be discouraging, but it’s necessary - so first and foremost, we need the community’s support and cooperation for this effort. Remember that if you disagree with a particular closing, you have several options. Best is if you can edit the question to address the problem; that’s usually enough to get the question reopened, and you’ve improved our content. Alternatively, you can cast votes to reopen (if you have sufficient rep). You can also argue your opinion with the mods (and the rest of the community) - in the question comments, on meta, or on chat.
Here's an excellent post on all the details of close voting. It goes into the rationale behind StackExchange moderation conventions, and explains in detail how to vote to close or reopen a question, and how the entire process works.
Mutual Critique. What every one of us can do is give some thought to every question you encounter. Grill ‘em - is this question clear? Is it answerable? Does it present a specific problem, or a broad difficulty? Does it encourage people to answer in cliches and generalizations, or does it require specific experience and understanding? Don’t be afraid to be negative. Comment, downvote, vote to close. We are writers - facing rejection is our bread and butter; constructive criticism is a scar we bear proudly! We are editors, revisers, and reviewers - we bring bad tidings for the author’s own good! The key idea here is that we’ll be spending the next few months picking this site apart and figuring out what question are new, valuable contributions, and which need to be closed even if they’re phrased as a question. You want to be part of that, don’t you? Sure you do!
Meta Discussion. Our Meta’s been a kinda lonely place recently - but we’ve got a lot of questions to be resolved, and now’s when we’re stirring things up. Meta will be seeing a lot of new topics, to help us understand where this site can go and how to take it there. If that’s a conversation you want to be a part of (and of course you do! You’re reading it right now, aren’t you?) then be sure to check in here. The topics we’ll be discussing will be crucial to the future of Writers.SE; every member who likes the site and wants to see it succeed should have plenty to read and plenty to add.
In some senses, these changes mean that Writers.SE is going to become a less-welcoming place - particularly for newcomers. More questions will be closed; more criticism will be heard; rep will be harder to get and to keep.
But what’s really going on is that we’re making the learning curve steeper - because we want to travel higher. We’re still the same friendly, constructive community we’ve always been. And StackExchange is still a format that allows fixing up questions, reverting closes, discussing policies - so if you feel us mods are making calls you disagree with, then bring it up and we’ll talk about it! That’s what the system’s there for.