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When answering a question in which the OP has run themselves down a bad path, one usually wants to "start over", and put them on the path they "should have done from the beginning."

If the OP is experienced in the area their asking about, or has begun to realize that their approach is messy, they (or at least I) very much appreciate having my ideas thrown away for better ones. I like to know when there's a whole different approach I hadn't considered.

On the other hand, for a newbie this isn't always most helpful. It may not be obvious over the internet, but if you try this face-to-face you'll see it's a fairly useless teaching technique -- it's much better to work with the OP's ideas, even bad ones, so they can see the natural consequences of the method's their choosing.

Another thing to consider is that someone who found the page from Google probably just wants the final answer and isn't interested in drawn-out elaboration of a dead-end technique.

What are good ways to get a helpful balance? Or to judge the needs of a particular asker?

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What are good ways to get a helpful balance? Or to judge the needs of a particular asker?

My general rules of thumb when answering are

  • While keeping an answer general enough so later readers can understand it is important, primarily focus on the situation at hand, not the possible needs of a theoretical future reader. The drawn-out elaboration of a dead-end technique may end up being exactly what a Googler is looking for.

  • Always keep it short, and provide more detail if asked for. That's an excellent method to save your energy where advice would fall on deaf ears, plus it ensures that there's a conversation that the asker can follow.

    If you think that the OP's current approach is a dead end, say so and give a short outline. They will usually either immediately reject the suggestion of a better way (out of pride, stubbornness, because they're right, because they're too far in already, because their boss is making them do it....) or listen to you - the latter being the signal that some elaboration is welcomed.

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