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I was just looking at this question: How much freedom should a programmer have in choosing a language and framework?

As I was reading the question, the very last line seemed sort of out-of-place and weirdly phrased for where it was, but I didn't think much of it. Then I was reading the comments and one read:

Please do not put monikers like "EDIT" in your posts. We already know the post was edited; a complete edit history of your question can be found here: http://programmers.stackexchange.com/posts/214639/revisions.

Apparently the last line of the question had originally been prefixed with "EDIT:", which was later removed. And in my opinion the line would have made more sense contextually as an explicit called-out edit.

But this example aside (it's honestly not the best example, just used it for the comment), I generally don't buy the argument that "EDIT:" should never be included in the post body. While I agree that sometimes "EDIT" can just be noise, this is not always the case.

  • An explicitly called out "EDIT:" has an editorial meaning. It's a stand-in for "ADDENDUM:" or "UPDATE:", and can help logically separate parts of the post by chronology or topicality. It adds value by making the structure of the post clearer. When used properly, it is not simply noise.

  • Secondly, it's a little misleading to say we "already know the post was edited". I, in fact, don't usually check to see if a post was edited when I'm reading it, and even if I do notice the "edited..." line, all that tells me is that it was edited, not how so. Knowing that it was edited it not the same as knowing how -- and I almost never look at the revision history. There's not usually a good reason to. Many edits don't even alter the post content in any substantial ways (just formatting/spelling/grammar fixes), and for those that do the edit is not usually relevant to the me, the reader.

Furthermore, I've seen "EDIT:" in many posts before seeing this, and I've even included it in some of my posts (a very small subset of my edits -- only those where it made sense to call it out explicitly), and this is the first time I've seen its usage admonished.

Is this a standard admonishment? Do you disagree with my reasoning above about why I think "EDIT:" isn't necessarily noise?

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I've never seen someone talked to like that for an edit before. If you're adding a kind of "post-script" with your edit, I think it's fine and, often, recommended to say "EDIT: This is edited." –  Matt Grande Oct 21 '13 at 20:14
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Very eloquent justification for "EDIT"s. I've used them as well, often when responding to answers which didn't quite hit the mark due my lack of clarity. –  JDB Oct 21 '13 at 20:17
    
I sometimes find that my own "EDIT" is just laziness that leaves an unnecessarily clunky answer. But, yeah, I agree that they are not always problematic. EDIT! Four answers in ten minutes; nice haul! –  Frank Oct 21 '13 at 20:24
    
I wrote my own take on this a while back: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/177046/… –  Flexo Oct 21 '13 at 21:01
    
Related (if not a dupe): When is “EDIT”/“UPDATE” appropriate in a post? –  Arjan Nov 14 '13 at 19:55

4 Answers 4

Imagine a post with three or four paragraphs, and a sentence in the middle of the second paragraph is muddy or unclear. The author now wants to edit it. They have at least 5 options:

  • stick a sentence at the top that says EDIT: Actually this is a Windows machine.
  • stick the same sentence at the bottom

The first is not good because you have no idea why you are being told this. The second is not good because the reader first reads the vague or misleading sentence and has to go back and fix it when they hit the edit.

  • same sentence at the top without EDIT:
  • same sentence at the bottom without EDIT:

These are even worse, and someone who edits just to remove the word EDIT: without solving the problem has made the post worse.

But there is a fifth option:

  • edit the troublesome sentence so it makes sense. Do not label the edit as an edit, just make the sentence make sense. Optionally, add a comment that says "It's a Windows system, I've edited."

The person quoting the rules "don't say EDIT:" is misunderstanding the purpose of the guideline. When you see that happen, fix it if you can.

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Yes. The post should always be as coherent as possible. Random "edit"s at the top or bottom break that. Don't just concatenate your extra info onto the post; make it fit into the post in the correct place. –  Monica Cellio Oct 21 '13 at 20:22
    
Fair argument, and for the most part I agree (especially in your example -- 100% agree here). But do you think an "EDIT" can ever be appropriate? –  Ben Lee Oct 21 '13 at 20:45
    
What if the update actually makes sense at the very end of the post and relates a chronological development where it makes sense to leave the original question intact for context and understanding? What about the case where the edit is placed in the right context within the post, but also includes the "EDIT" marker? What about the case where the author could have reworded/reworked the post to fit the edit in more cohesively, but where it didn't particularly hurt the post to put it as a simple called-out "EDIT"? –  Ben Lee Oct 21 '13 at 20:46
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@BenLee To the first to points, then there is no reason to use "EDIT"; it's noise, just remove it. To the latter, as an editor, you should take the time to put it in the contextually appropriate place, in addition to removing the use of "EDIT". If where it is is good enough, then just remove the use of "EDIT", it's not adding anything. –  Servy Oct 21 '13 at 20:49
    
An example of horrible use of UPDATE: stackoverflow.com/questions/7059748/… –  Kate Gregory Oct 23 '13 at 16:11

Personally, I'm inclined to disagree. Stack Overflow is not a forum, so it shouldn't be necessary to 'separate parts of the post by chronology or topicality' - each question should be as self-contained as possible, and should be constrained to a single topic at hand. One question, one answer.

EDIT: usually means one of a few things, in my experience.

  1. OK, that solved my immediate problem, but I still have this other one.
  2. OK, I tried that, but it didn't work.
  3. OK, here's another code dump since you asked for it.

In the first case, this should be posted as a separate question.

In the second or third case, this can still be part of the same question, but adding "EDIT:" only signals something to those people who have already read the question. Usually, these people will be invested enough in the question to notice.

If you really want to be sure that people who have already interacted with the question will notice that a change has been made, you can add a comment to your question, or to any relevant answers you've received so far. These are the second-class citizens of Stack Overflow, where transitory information like this can be given.

In both cases, what does it add in the long run? Speaking broadly, people who come to this question a year later will not care that something was appended to the question between the time it was created and the time it was accessed. Those who do will still have the edit summaries (and possibly the comments), because that it what they are for.

In other words:

I almost never look at the revision history. There's not usually a good reason to...the edit is not usually relevant to the me, the reader.

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There's a fundamental tension at work in the posts on Stack Overflow. As with all truly great endeavors (and SO is a great endeavor), the tension exists between the vision, with its clean lines and stark distinctions, and reality, in its messiness, resistance to organization and many unaccounted-for artifacts.

Comparison to Waterfall

Consider project management. In the "early days", many subscribed to the idealistic waterfall method, where you put together your requirements, then perform some basic analysis, build your solution, test it and then deploy it. Isn't this approach similar to that proposed by some of the posts here? Put together a question containing your ultimate goal, include your analysis so far (including context), others put together answers, which the OP then tests and finally selects one as "accepted".

Of course, revision is acceptable, even in waterfall, but the format of revision involves going back and rewriting the question. New information, if introduced "correctly", ought to be smoothly incorporated into the question as if it had been there from the beginning, potentially "scattering" it in different places throughout the post.

Asking Complex Questions is Complex

But this belies the complex, messy reality of asking complex technical questions. Non-trivial issues usually require some degree of diagnosis and many halting attempts to discover both what the core issue is and what an appropriate solution would be. "Diagnosis" infers a conversation, but, to its credit, Stack Overflow is not a message board. There is no "thread", no real sense of replying to an answer, so users tend to shoehorn in a message board-like quality - they "UPDATE" their question in response to answerers and commenters. Sometimes this is to provide additional information, other times to provide a status update after an unsuccessful attempt to apply a suggestion.

As the conversation goes on, the answerers also "UPDATE" their posts, to provide additional suggestions (building off of, or alternatives to, previous suggestions) until, finally, a solution is found and the OP accepts an answer. Like it or not, this is sometimes the reality of working through technical questions and it is how some questions are eventually answered.

Leave it Be, Initially, Then Reformat

In the end, I don't think that this is necessarily harmful. Using "UPDATE" (or, in practice, the semantically equivalent "EDIT") can help draw attention to new information. Placing this information in a single paragraph helps followers keep track of the evolving situation without requiring them to re-read the entire question (or load a new, somewhat distracting page - who wants to waste time teaching other users how to access and understand the revision history?).

My suggestion, then, would be to leave the "UPDATE"s alone initially. Allow the conversation to flow naturally. If the topic is too broad, or the user is fundamentally changing the question ("Ok, that worked, but now..."), take appropriate action (rollback, downvote and/or close). When an answer has been accepted, however, the post should be rewritten to fit within our preferred format - that of a clean, concise, self-contained question. While providing "UPDATE"s is useful in the short-term to help followers of the question, it provides little if any value once the question has been answered, and should ultimately be reformatted.

See Some Examples

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Very thoughtful analysis, and I agree 100%. Thanks! –  Ben Lee Oct 22 '13 at 18:53
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@BenLee - Thanks. Now I need to go clean up a bunch of my old posts... –  JDB Oct 22 '13 at 20:02
    
@BenLee: I see that you chose this answer as the correct one, and you're certainly free to do that, but I'm more inclined to align with Kate Gregory's point of view The community apparently agrees in principle, given the number of upvotes on her answer (more than twice the number that this answer attracted). –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 20:46
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@RobertHarvey, well her answer was given yesterday when this post was getting a lot more views, and had the checkmark for a full day. JDB's answer is actually gaining upvotes at a faster rate than Kate's was. –  Ben Lee Oct 22 '13 at 20:48
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Besides, I think JDB's answer addresses what actually happens, and a way to align reality with the goals of SO policy, rather than just stating the goals of SO policy. –  Ben Lee Oct 22 '13 at 20:49
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@BenLee: We'll see. The simple fact is that this is forum behavior, behavior that is completely unnecessary, given the complete edit history that is provided for every post. We discourage this for the very same reasons we discourage signatures, taglines and salutations in posts: they are all unnecessary noise. –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 20:50
    
@JDB: Note that in the very first example you provided, nobody ever bothered to go back and clean up the UPDATEs. –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 20:54
    
@RobertHarvey, for the record I am ambivalent about this. In principle, I agree it would be great if no questions or answers ever had an EDIT note built in. But I don't see these as complete noise either, the way I see a signature or tagline -- EDIT notes do add value, even if that value could be provided in a better way. But there are frequently better ways to phrase things and better ways to organize posts in other ways. It seems strange to target occurrences of EDIT as peculiar instances of things that shall-not-be-so rather than just another sub-optimal way to incorporate information. –  Ben Lee Oct 22 '13 at 21:04
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Why would you settle for sub-optimal? Especially when the problem of knowing when a post was edited is already solved? We don't shirk other ways of improving content (like removing signatures or fixing spelling or grammatical errors) just because those things seem too minor. Kate Gregory also says "fix it if you can," just in a way that makes the post more consistent with making content useful to others, which is what SE is all about. –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 21:05
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@JDB: Removing an "UPDATE" feels a bit like interrupting a conversation -- Which is why they shouldn't be there in the first place. Horizontal lines are fine; that's what they're there for, to indicate a break or change in direction. They work perfectly fine as a replacement for EDIT. –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 21:14
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Sure. But all other things being equal, the thing that causes less work for the community is the correct thing to do. –  Robert Harvey Oct 22 '13 at 21:16
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@RobertHarvey - Honestly, it's not something I feel particularly religious about. I wouldn't rollback an edit removing an "UPDATE" on someone else's post. I wouldn't approve an edit which only removes an "UPDATE". I wouldn't remove an "UPDATE" unless the OP has accepted an answer (and I was willing to rewrite the entire question). If someone removed my "UPDATE", I'd rollback the edit with a comment - "I'll remove this myself when its relevant". –  JDB Oct 22 '13 at 21:18
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@RobertHarvey - I do agree, though, that if the tone is getting too conversational, to the point of "message-boarding", that someone should step in at that point and "shut it down". –  JDB Oct 22 '13 at 21:35
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@Frank - It seems to be in line with your continuing comment stream, there. Sometimes the system as-is just can't adequately address some needs (such as maintaining a constructive conversation). This doesn't give carte blanche to message board activities, but I think it's acceptable in some scenarios where it's constructive and useful. Questions and answers which become off-topic should still be closed, etc. –  JDB Oct 23 '13 at 2:27
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@JDB, yeah, I think that's a good idea. People care about this issue a lot more than I originally anticipated (and a lot more than I do, I think) -- so I'll leave it up to other people to decide which answer floats to the top. –  Ben Lee Oct 23 '13 at 15:35

I don't think EDIT means the same as ADDENDUM or UPDATE. Those mean that something was added. EDIT means something was changed. I don't think it's really necessary to put EDIT in the body of your posts, since the revision history is linked at the bottom for anyone to look at.

edited

If it needs to be pointed out in the body of the question that it was edited (for example, in response to a comment) then the reason should probably be spelled out instead of simply saying EDIT. I usually remove it and try to make the question flow more naturally.

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The trouble is, in some cases, its almost become convention to use EDIT: or UPDATE:. I've seen this more times than I care to mention. Some users just don't use or aren't aware of the edit history nor the value it offers. –  nickhar Oct 22 '13 at 0:24

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