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I just found the right "documentation" on a question that was recently asked on Stack Overflow. I wanted to browse back to the page and found out that someone has already posted exactly that piece of documentation and it was pretty well formatted.

I realized that I usually don't take that much effort to inform someone about the right solution. I usually give them a good hint on what to search for in the documentation or I copy a piece of code and they have to find their way themselves. I know its not the most helpful way, but it usually gives people the right direction to find their answer themselves and I don't want to spend more time on Stack Overflow, except to get my own answers.

So my question was: Wouldn't it be better to go to the history of my popularly viewed questions or approved answers and try to see if I can improve the styling, markup, additional info to my answer to make it easier for other users? This would only make sense if lot of people view the question/answer.

What are your strategies when browsing Stack Exchange sites? How do you make Stack Exchange as a whole more productive?

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2 Answers 2

Wouldn't it be better to go to the history of my popularly viewed questions or approved answers and try to see if i can improve the styling, markup, additional info to my answer to make it easier for other users? This would only make sense if lot of people view the question/answer.

Why not? I do that with my posts on a weekly basis. Your posts don't necessarily have to have high views to warrant substantial improvements, though; if you think there's something good you can add to a post, just go ahead! It gets bumped to the front page regardless, and it'll get more views anyway.

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Yes, improving your answers is definitely a productive way to spend time. I prefer to write clear, complete answers, for many reasons:

  • Because I've been at the receiving end of “just use XZQY” or “search for foo in the manual”. Use it how? Which commands do I need to invoke? I can't find “foo” in the manual, maybe I'm using a different version? If I wanted hints, I wouldn't be asking on Stack Exchange. Stack Exchange aims to have a reference answer to every question. In fact, if I'm going to post just a hint (“XZQY is often good in these situations”), perhaps due to a lack of time or familiarity with the topic, I'll make it a comment, because a hint is not an answer.
  • The time I spend now writing a clear, complete answer is time that my readers won't spend deciphering it. This is not purely altruistic: one of my readers may be me in a year's time (yes, it's happened). Even if you're just in it for the rep, you'll find that detailed, well-written answers tend to be linked to more often and therefore attract more upvotes.
  • Like attracts like. When people see a lot of long, detailed answers, that encourages them to write long, detailed answers in turn. One of these days, you'll be the one asking a question and someone who's been influenced by your prose will answer. Do you want a hint or a complete answer? (Your influence on Stack Overflow may seem insignificant, but multiply that by the number of “you”s. I may be an insignificant part of SO is insignificant, but I think I have had a positive influence on the answer quality on some smaller Stack Exchange sites.)
  • I'm in it for the pontificating anyway. (See how long this answer is?)

So in fact I encourage you to write helpful answers all the time. Ok, so we don't always have the time or competence to write Lippertian answers. But the more helpful the better.

There are other ways to help Stack Exchange along, beyond answering. Spend time in /review and help separate the good from the bad. Vote up or down as warranted, edit posts in need of improvement, flag (or vote when you have the rep) questions that should be closed… All of this makes the site cleaner, and therefore make it easier to find what you're looking for the day you have a question.

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