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Do we want long comprehensive answers to questions on stackoverflow?

Is it better to spend 30 secs to write "look this up [insert link here]", or do we want people to take their time (maybe an hour! maybe more!) to write a more comprehensive and detailed answer?

I've seen people make comments like these on highly voted short answers:

  • "+1; this is why i love stackoverflow! answers are short and to the point!"
  • "+1; beat me to it!" (because it's all about quickness?)

And some of my long answers have been:

  • Downvoted (Was it too long? All pole and no fish? Was there a minor technical mistake somewhere? Too many quotes from references and/or books and not enough original material? Was the answer not entertaining enough because it's all business and no personality, since I refrain from making jokes, using smilies, or injecting personal opinions/anecdotes?)
  • Commented with "who has the time to read this???" etc
  • Unrewarded with regards to votes

I've only been on stackoverflow for a few months, so I'm still trying to figure out what kind of answers the community wants (as evidenced by their votes), what kind of answers the owners want (as laid out in their vision), and what kind of answers I want (yes, I can have my own vision too!), and how best to reconcile the differences that may exist between them, so any guidance is appreciated.

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Perhaps provide links to some of your unappreciated long answers so we can say what we think is wrong with them. –  nb69307 Aug 1 '10 at 10:46
    
@Neil: this is the latest effort: stackoverflow.com/questions/3380749/… –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 10:51
    
Honestly while I think my answer is good enough for 1st revision, I can definitely see that it needs to be imnproved, e.g. I didn't show how to differentiate FP vs INT ops, how INT overflow is different from FP, how precisions can be lost with FP, the Effective Java prescription regarding favoring INT to FP and favoring double to float, etc. There are still many things I haven't covered, and I honestly don't mind writing it up, but the lack of rewarding votes is demotivating. I might as well sit and wait and hope to get lucky enough to be the first gun on the next question. –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 11:16
    
I also appreciate comments regarding my writing style etc. Am I not getting to the point straightly enough? Are all these formatting, bullet points, dividing into sections, etc just all style that waters down the substance? Because of course ultimately good answers are about substance, and people have been accused of using style to dress up essentially poor answers. Am I guilty of this? Should I keep everything in one paragraph, short and to the point? –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 11:23
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@polygenelubricants: Oh, wow, that is an effort! I personally like detailed answers rather than those short answers that leave me wondering what to do it (how to implement it. That said, you have to find the right balance between a short answer (which doesn't give enough explanation) and too long an answer, which makes you feel lazy to even read. This is a hard balance to achieve, and unfortunately I don't have a recipe for you... Maybe all relevant information but concisely? –  Vivi Aug 1 '10 at 11:43
    
related: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10682/… –  waffles Aug 1 '10 at 11:49
    
and meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7162/… which is almost a dupe –  waffles Aug 1 '10 at 11:49
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I think long answers that are relevant to the question are fine. That answer seems to contain a lot of superfluous information that no one asked about IMO. (And the superfluous information starts of with the range of data types which isn't sufficiently interesting to make me want to read the rest of the answer) –  Martin Smith Aug 1 '10 at 11:55
    
I too have received complaining comments (and downvoted) about extended answers. But I have received more positive comments and upvotes, so I will not be stopping the practice. –  dmckee Aug 1 '10 at 15:26
    
THIS QUESTION IS PERTINENT: Does stackoverflow complete with wikipedia? If someone asks e.g. "How does two's complement work?", should the best, most useful, highly voted and accepted answer be a "here's the wikipedia link!", or should it be one that actually answers it directly on stackoverflow in just as complete detail as wikipedia would? Should we strive for the day when people can read about such broad, widely useful topics on the site over wikipedia, or do we want more narrow situations that requires more specialized expertise? (but at the same time not TOO localized!). –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 15:33
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@poly Why should SO try to compete with Wikipedia? SO is a site for answering specific, non-theoretic, technical questions. It is not an encyclopaedia, and would make a very poor one. So a question like "how to In convert this number to 2's complement using Z80 assembly language" would be fine, a question like "What is 2's complement", much less so. –  nb69307 Aug 1 '10 at 15:42
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You might be interested in this summary of users who frequently post long answers: odata.stackexchange.com/stackoverflow/s/416/… –  Juliet Aug 1 '10 at 17:48
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7 Answers

There is nothing inherently good or bad about the specific length of an answer. SO is not about simply finding short answers, nor is it about finding comprehensive, encyclopedic descriptions of everything under the sun. At the risk of stating the obvious, the point of SO is to relate a question to an answer. Provide as much--or at little--information as is necessary to answer the question adequately and completely.

To the point, the answer that you linked to presents a mountain of information that, frankly, seems a bit irrelevant to the question at hand. Not only does it dive deeper than the questioner probably wanted (and might just confuse him), it even delves into areas that are entirely unrelated, like the unordered nature of NaN values. The user wasn't asking about the nature of numeric representation in memory, he just asked why an exception was thrown when he used an integral type but not a floating-point type. Telling him that floating-point types have a way to represent infinity and integral types do not would have probably been sufficient.

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It felt weird to me to mention the signed infinities as special floating point values, but to leave out the signed zeroes and NaN. You are right, though, they could probably just be mentioned in passing rather than in detail, and yet a part of me still feels the answer is incomplete rather than too long. Which it may very well be, because length does not equal completeness and vice versa. But now THIS comment is probably too long, and still quite not complete because I still feel like I have more things to say. –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 15:19
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@polygenelubricants: Bear in mind, though, that the purpose of the answer is to address the OP's question, not to provide you with a venue for lecture or instruction; that's what blogs are for. In other words, you should be aiming to satisfy the questioner, not the answerer ;) –  Adam Robinson Aug 1 '10 at 17:57
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I'm torn between trying to satisfy OP vs trying to satisfy voters with knowledge that would also be applicable to them. Sometimes I try to do both by having a general section for the big audience followed by a specific section for OP. I don't think we just want to satisfy OP and OP only, because such question should probably be closed for being too localized ("not applicable to wide audience"). –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 22:12
    
@polygenelubricants: By satisfying the OP, I mean making your answer relevant to the question rather an using it as an opportunity to "teach" about a broader topic. –  Adam Robinson Aug 2 '10 at 0:55
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This question really puzzles me. You made over 37,000 arbitrary points in five months and you have to ask here, what is the best way to answer questions?

Well, then, the short version:
You are writing too much. Even looking at the comments here, you type much more than is necessary to make a concise point. But the people like your SO answers (look at your rep), so what?

SO started as being the reference for every possible coding question. If a question is only answered with a link, which is very likely to be rotten in a few month, then your type of detailed answering is superior.

When all what you write, is already said on Wikipedia, then keep it there. It's much more likely that SO is vanished in 5 years, than Wikipedia.

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"This question really puzzles me" - I worked hard for my reps, probably too hard. I want to evolve to the next step and work smarter not harder. That's why I asked the question. –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 17:45
    
@poly: I hope, I helped you getting more efficient ;) Even if I do not understand why you want to go any further. And where? There is nothing after 10k. Answer questions, lean back and smile. –  Ladybug Killer Aug 1 '10 at 17:59
    
there's {Legendary}. –  polygenelubricants Aug 1 '10 at 18:05
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@poly: So you are in the badge game? I wish you good luck :) –  Ladybug Killer Aug 1 '10 at 19:27
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@Poly As the cliche has it (with some reason IMHO), don't work hard, work smart. –  nb69307 Aug 1 '10 at 19:43
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If you find yourself writing a novel as an answer to a question, you are very likely:

  • Digressing
  • Answering a very difficult question
  • Answering a really bad question

I'd be willing to venture, in most cases, you are dealing with item 1 or item 3. There are some questions that are actually four or even five questions lumped under the umbrella of a single problem. Or, perhaps the question was overly broad, and you tried to answer it anyway, addressing all possible cases.

In a perfect world, a down vote only indicates that something is technically wrong with your answer. However, yes, it sometimes is an artifact of someone simply not able to endure the suspense of reading your answer any longer.

If I can't answer something with a few well formed paragraphs and a couple of code snippets, I generally just pass on answering the question.

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+1 "endure the suspense" - "as she waited for the regular expressions to arrive, jQuery showed up!" –  Andrew Aug 2 '10 at 1:03
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I've taken to using the pattern:

short answer: you're going to need to use libfoo

slightly longer answer: by linking to libfoo and taking advantage of the barexing function you can accomplish something close enough to what you want and won't notice the difference. Doing *exactly what you asked for is hard because the quix parsing is ill equipped for it.

long answer: [a wall of grey text laying out the works]

This has the advantage that the short, formatted bit at the top allows rapid scanning, so people will know if they might want to read the long bit.

Also, you can build the entry incrementally to deal with the FGITW issues. Especially you can build the long part incrementally.

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As much as I enjoy learning unrelated stuff thanks to over-comprehensive answers, putting tl;dr-s on top of them is just heavenly helpful. A comprehensive an answer that actually makes its point after 800 introductory chars is a bad answer. (I still don't make mine long enough to need 3 levels, though.) –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 18 '12 at 10:00
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Do we want long comprehensive answers to questions on stackoverflow?

I doubt it. Who would want such a thing? Comprehensive answers are great - but given the choice between a long comprehensive answer and a succinct comprehensive answer, all else being equal the shorter one will win just because more people will read it.

You may think you're being extra-comprehensive by including detailed discussions of tangential matters, but unless those discussions are relevant to someone looking to solve the problem, you're just wasting time...

But why are you worried about this anyway? If you enjoy writing long, detailed answers with numerous detours into related topics, then make yourself happy. Above all else, you should enjoy the writing you do on SO. If writing shorter answers would take that away from you, then maybe think about ways to make your lengthy scribblings more accessible or entertaining to the casual reader... But don't stress about it; SO's readers will take care of elevating the answers that they enjoy - but only you can ensure that you enjoy writing answers.

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While I appreciate both types of answers (within reason), if a short, quick answer provides enough information to solve my problem right away, I prefer it over a longer, more complete answer that comes hours later. I may upvote them both but unless the longer answer does more to solve my problem I'm likely to reward the shorter answer with the acceptance. I may comment that the longer answer does a better job with the explanation, but I think the reward should go to the answer that actually helped solve my problem.

When searching for information on other's questions, I'm likely to do the exact opposite. In that case I vote for the best answer, regardless of acceptance status. I may upvote several comparable answers or only the best if there is a significant difference in quality.

In my mind, when asking my own question, getting an answer that unblocks me quickly is preferable to waiting several hours or even minutes before I can get back to my work. Of course, both short, quick and long, slow answers that are incomplete or wrong are equally bad. I certainly prefer a correct answer over any incorrect answer no matter how long it takes.

When answering, the strategy I (and presumably others) use is to give a quick, correct answer, then follow it up immediately with an edit that expands on it if necessary. Usually this involves adding references and examples, but it could also add corner cases or caveats. I've even gone back and edited answers to improve them weeks or months later as I get new information or become aware of something I've missed (usu. through someone else's comment).

Little of this applies on meta, though.

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You should aim to have as much of your answer as possible directly relevant to the question. If you have more information that's tangentially related I think the best form is to provide links to external resources that have that additional information, or to mention the related topics in passing and encourage people to ask new questions on those topics if necessary. We want clear, accurate answers to clear, topical questions. Long isn't worse, but we're not here to write encyclopedia articles either.

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