A type of question that pops up frequently - and gets closed frequently - is requests to rephrase a few sentences. Some recent examples:

Is this type of question on topic?


A Proposal For Allowing Rephrase Requests

Who better than a writer to ask what a more eloquent way of phrasing something is? I could give him a userful answer trivially, it would be no effort at all on my part, I would be glad to help him, and it would help the goal of making the internet a better place: Once I've done it, everyone could read it and not have to ask again, as I will make the answer very general and very useful. That is how I feel personally about the two questions above... To translate that to rules that the site can enforce and make the submissions manageable:

Suggested guidelines for questions in this format:

  • Only one or two sentences can be asked to re-phrase, do not ask us to re-write your entire paper or book.
  • The sentances should have a clear subject and intention. Don't ask us to come up with your thesis statement, I probably could, but as a joke I'd make the statement impossible to defend without a grasp of semantics as least as great as my own.
  • In your question ask exactly what you'd like the language to convey that you feel it isn't conveying now. A good example is "I'm sure that this could be more concise and have a more authoritative tone, can anyone show me how?" A bad example is "Pls make it better." The latter will be closed as "Not having a clear enough focus".

Suggested guidelines for answers:

  • Answers to these questions are subjective, there isn't a cut and dry right answer. That is the nature of the art of writing, it has to be so, and so this has to be a case where clear cut answers aren't required. As we all agree this is a subjective value there will be no debate about which is best, guidelines for picking an answer are whichever the asker thought was best. Upvote all of the answers you think are good, downvote if you think the answerer sucked but please say why.

  • When answering, it would be more helpful if you could elaborate on why you re-wrote the sentence the way you suggested, and include as much information as possible. Answers that don't attempt to do this should be downvoted or removed.

  • DO NOT attempt to answer the question if a better answer than the one you're about to suggest is already there. This point could be the undoing of these kinds of questions. Without it, we're encouraging list style answers with no end in sight, but since it's subjective it's possible for those less high minded than others to abuse. It's up to us as voters and site members to enforce this on ourselves and each other.

Why we should do this:

If we allow these questions, I feel I've placed the bar to entry high enough that I don't expect all of the questions to be accepted without edits. This will allow someone who is very great in their own technical field to come to us and ask us humbly to help him or her express his orher greatness in writing, with eloquence. It will not allow Joe from the block to ask any random willy nilly "how can this be better" question, which is obviously not okay.

Allowing these questions will help anyone reading the site, I myself may see a way to phrase something I had never considered in one of these answers and so my writing will be forever improved. Someone searching on the internet may think that the internet is that much more cool of a place that someone else asked and answered a question so similarly that I didn't need to go any farther than my favorite search engine. This inclusion, with the way I've structured it, will give us only upside.

NOTE: In areas where the two questions above don't meet the standards of this proposition, if at all, I would in this case edit them so that they did, which would at least make them actionable under the new guidelines. I'm doing this now because I feel this site doesn't get enough use and I'm trying to help promote it.

EDIT:

The answer I've seen, which I would like to address, suggests that if we change our policy, there will be more of these questions. Maybe, and maybe not, I can't speak to that. That's an assumption I think. The point is that we WILL get these questions. As the answerer suggests, they are going to happen because people don't read instructions in this country. I am not saying we do anything other than treat the subset of questions that meets the above criteria differently. That's all. Since they are going to happen, and I believe that the subset I included with my criteria accounts for the small percentage of good questions that are a subset of the bad ones, why not account for them? If you disagree that the subset I've included are good, please suggest criteria or rules of your own that would only include worthwhile questions?

EDIT#2:

Additionally, please note, I suspect that if I asked the question that I am asking to be allowed to answer, it would get a response and not be closed, here is an example:

In my writing, I need to express to someone that they have been accepted to a program. I want the sentences to sound authoritative, with a congratulatory and not sarcastic tone. So far I have:

"Congratulations, you have been accepted to the Young Geniuses Guild. We look forward to seeing your returned acceptance confirmation. You will find it enclosed, please sign and drop in the mail."

I think this sounds terribly bland, and I would like suggestions on how to make it sound, well, "smarter". Thanks.

Can you honestly say that you wouldn't answer this, or want to? Yes, in fact I'm smart enough to have couched the question in terms of writing. I didn't lie, I said writing, if the writing was for a persons job or an email they were sending it's still true.

What do you think?

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I find it odd that someone who is so intent on abolishing bad answers is so intent on keeping bad questions. –  Jed Oliver May 7 '12 at 21:56
    
Your proposed question in edit#2 is pretty vague, and not much better than saying "make it better". –  Neil Fein May 8 '12 at 4:29
    
Eh, I tried. :P –  Nathan C. Tresch May 8 '12 at 6:45
    
@NeilFein what is the procedure here, I'm guessing that the community doesn't agree with me, and that's fine. Do we close this? Or? –  Nathan C. Tresch May 8 '12 at 6:47
    
Whether an answer is accepted or not really doesn't matter so much here. Let's leave it open, perhaps someone will add to it down the line. –  Neil Fein May 8 '12 at 6:50
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Well, I've been convinced that this isn't a great idea in it's current form. As @NeilFein suggests, we should leave it open for reference. If someone else comes along with a novel idea that would make something like this more appealing, more power to them, but, now that I understand why this is a bad idea I can't really see it. –  Nathan C. Tresch May 8 '12 at 7:16
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I've changed the title and added a short intro, so as to make this question more friendly and helpful as part of our site FAQ. –  Standback May 8 '12 at 8:51

2 Answers 2

Strongly opposed.

I'm glad you're enthusiastic, and I'm glad you're thinking of ways to help the site grow and improve :D But I strongly oppose this proposal, dor any number of reasons:

It abuses the SE Q&A engine. SE is built around one core concept: Q&A; only Q&A; cut through everything else to a clear question and the best answers - and be awesome at doing that. But when you start trying to shoehorn in other stuff that'd also be cool, it's an abuse of the engine. It doesn't function well; it messes with the rest of the system. The whole framework which works so hard to intuitively guide you to "Q&A and nothing but" suddenly turns into an obstacle, requiring workarounds and bonus guidelines and downvoting whoever doesn't follow the bonus guidelines and... it's not pretty.

It will require constant supervision and intervention. The awesomeness of SE is that it mostly takes care of keeping content neat (aided by very simple mechanisms for community input). When you shift to different conventions and new guidelines, the only way to maintain those (which you agree is necessary) is by tracking these questions constantly, and devoting far more attention to them than you would to other types. If somebody just writes a one-line "here's a different way to write that, hope this helps!" response - which is not unreasonable - then suddenly community members need to explain that this reasonable answer is not good for us, sorry for the downvotes, please don't go away though because we're really nice!. That's a lot of upkeep effort.

It's not a helpful resource for users. People don't write in single sentences - so a single rephrase request is of very limited use. That means that just writing a blog post might spawn half a dozen questions - or just not be very useful to anybody who's doing serious writing.

It tries to educate users who are uninterested in education. You suggest that we answer "How can I rephrase this?" questions with a detailed explanation, not a rephrase. But OP doesn't ask for a detailed explanation, and I kind of doubt that he wants one. This is a variant on the "give me teh codes" question, and the answer there is not "give the code, but explain how it works" - OP isn't interested. It's not clear that anybody is.

It drags site quality down to the ground. Rephrase requests are extremely easy to ask - all you need is a sentence! - but also pretty uninteresting to anybody not attempting to write that particular sentence. This results in a large number of poor, uninteresting, and unhelpful questions - making the site, as a whole, suffer. The worst effect is that a flood of low-quality questions drives away experienced contributing users, who feel that the site is dominated by content which has no value to them. (See, e.g., the recent closing of Literature.SE: Why did Literature fail?)

The resulting pages will be of no long-term interest to anybody. Once you've given a good answer to a rephrase request - who's going to read it? OP, obviously. A few stray visitors entering the page out of interest, curiosity, or to answer themselves. But after that... It's a request to rephrase one particular snippet. It won't be searched for, on-site or on Google. There's no real reason anybody would be looking for this again, ever. Even if you had some awesome answers, SE content is usually found by looking for questions. And very few people are going to be going, "Man, I think I'm going to go read the last two hundred rephrase requests - there's some really awesome advice in there." So this proposal basically turns Writers.SE into a repository for pages upon pages of information that will be of little use to anybody.

I think I'll call it a day here :P Sorry to be discouraging, but them's the haps.

As a closing note, please understand that "being helpful" is not - and cannot be - the be-all-and-end-all of an SE site. Take a look at the end of Optimizing for Pearls, not Sand:

From Mark Trapp:

To put it another way, when I go to a Stack Exchange home page, I see a list of questions. If most of those are terrible questions with little to no indication that I’d be wasting my time by reading them, the value proposition of visiting and participating is diminished: I have better things to do.

Compare that to answers on a specific question: I’ve made a conscious choice to look into what I think is an interesting question. I already made the decision that the question is worth my time. If I find the answers to be useless, I have a few different options, as an interested party, to register my displeasure, including writing my own answer. Being able to write your own answer is key: if your answer is good enough, it’ll rise above the junk answers and everyone will be better off for it.

There is no such action for question lists. I can’t say “these questions suck, show me this question I just thought up instead”: that’d be silly. So, it’s imperative the question list have a high signal-to-noise ratio, and removing the penalty for those users who do take the time to read a question and later find it to be useless so they can down-vote is conducive to that.

From Jeff Atwood:

Fundamentally, answers can be filtered in ways that questions cannot. While there is a tension between having “enough” questions and a bunch of amazing, highly skilled answerers twiddling their thumbs waiting around for something to do, in the long run we’d much rather err on the side of having interesting and on-topic questions for these folks to sink their teeth into.

We feel that the world is awash in questions, but not answers. Answers are the real unit of work in any Q&A system. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers. If this means aggressively downvoting or closing unworthy and uninteresting questions, so be it. Without a community of people willing to answer questions, it really doesn’t matter if there are questions at all, does it?

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Theoretically a good idea (and I have the feeling we discussed it some time ago, but I will not search). Unfortunately, reality will kick in ... (<- I think I write this sentence too often. Either I'm just hallucinating or I'm a bad writer.)

Look at the answers of your example question. Btw, three were deleted, but do not look differently than the non-deleted. That's exactly what you do not want, but what you will get.

Don't tell me about "guidelines". This is Writers, not Readers. Even the askers do not read guidelines which are hitting their eyeballs with baseball bats while writing the question. So how do you want to convince the answerers? By downvotes? People hate downvoting. The only other thing they hate more is being downvoted. Most of them become huffy then (yes, we should hit them all with that bat).

Oh, yes, you can comment. Maybe you teach one or two, but too few. You will get lots and lots of the answers you already see and if the site becomes successful, they will come in as fast as spam to your email-account. Which means faster than you can delete them.

Your approach is based on teaching users. Teaching askers is already an uphill battle, which no SE site I know has won yet (or will ever). You also want to add the answerers, the helpful people, sacrificing their spare time to help these poor people on the Internet. And now they should also follow some "stupid" guidelines? Even read them? Understand them? Use them?

You will get a lot of answers, a lot of discussions. Even more with the advice to comment downvotes. The comment section of the answer will flow over. Hate, anger, disappointment. Hmm, now that I think about it, maybe we should do it ...

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I answered in my post, if that was bad let me know, but I didn't have room! –  Nathan C. Tresch May 7 '12 at 22:49
    
I also pointed out, in the original question, that I think if it were asked correctly, that I would get an answer right now, I'm just better at asking than they were... –  Nathan C. Tresch May 8 '12 at 0:53
    
@NeilFein Since you're referencing this as an official reason for putting an answer on hold, can we add it to the FAQ somewhere? (Or tell me where you did add already, because I can't find it?) –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 23 '13 at 10:42
    
@LaurenIpsum I think it used to be in the old FAQ, but SE has changed all of that into the "help center". We had written a good amount of text and linked to relevant meta threads, but I can't find it anymore. I'll look into this and see if it can be done. –  Neil Fein Aug 23 '13 at 17:39
    
@LaurenIpsum - It's a bit buried now. We can edit the on-topic questions page but not the off-topic one. So it's on the former. (It wasn't there, so I added it.) –  Neil Fein Aug 23 '13 at 17:43
    
@NeilFein Thanks! –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 23 '13 at 19:35

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