I have noticed on a few questions recently that several of us have hopped on to quickly answer a simple question. We end up with several answers appearing in rapid succession that often have basically the same answer. What do people think about submitting a placeholder answer like [I'm actively writing up an answer now] to indicate that others may not need to bother?

An example: someone asked the other day about how to sort some data in R, and three of us had extremely similar answers post within a couple minutes of each other. Afterwards, we all just voted up the best explained version, and one answer's author commented that he wouldn't have posted his answer if he had seen that someone else was working on it. I felt the same way. There are names that I have learned to recognize in the R tag, and I don't feel the need to answer a straightforward question if one of those people are already writing something up.

Thoughts? Ideas?


3 Answers 3


Placeholders that don't contain any kind of actual answer are noise and are subject to deletion. You can downvote them with confidence that you'll get your point back (either when the post is deleted, or when you remove your downvote after editing). If people want to play FGITW, they need to at least post a TL;DR version of their actual answer as the first draft.

  • The idea of posting a brief answer and then fleshing it out is interesting. I wonder how others feel about that.
    – Dinre
    Feb 7, 2013 at 17:36
  • 5
    @Dinre: I do it all the time. It's practically my lifeblood. Feb 7, 2013 at 17:40
  • 6
    @Dinre, I dislike it, and it makes me not even try to answer very fresh new questions, knowing I'm just too slow. On the other hand that's okay to me, as it saves me time...! As an aside: sometimes placeholder answers are converted into a comment. I like that. Also, I like Make first draft of a new answer part of the permanent revision history.
    – Arjan
    Feb 7, 2013 at 18:04
  • You can downvote them with confidence that you'll get your point back. - It might be nice if this were true (or it might not), but it's not factually true. If the answer is currently blank because it's a placeholder, which the answer is revising and the revised version will appear shortly, you're not going to automatically get your point back. (You will have an opportunity to remove your downvote if you want to do so and remember to do so, but that's a different matter.)
    – D.W.
    Feb 8, 2013 at 17:17
  • @D.W. Either the post will be deleted or it will be edited. Either way, you can get your point back. Feb 8, 2013 at 17:23
  • @BilltheLizard, you can get your point back is very different from you will get your point back. You wrote the latter, but the reality is the former.
    – D.W.
    Feb 8, 2013 at 21:43
  • @D.W. If you care that much about it I assume you will get your point back. Feb 8, 2013 at 23:28

This would be a potentially useful feature with downsides. So many times I'm halfway through an answer, and have seen that someone has finished writing one up that kills it. I then don't even bother submitting mine. I guess the risk is that you don't answer a question because you see someone else is, and that answer eventually turns out to be useless. Meanwhile you've moved on to something else and the user is left hanging.

It's probable that Stack would rather see too many answers that cover all the bases, than too few just to avoid the risk of overlap.

  • 4
    You can surely assess the other users answer against your own. If yours is better/different/more comprehensive/about to be submitted submit anyway? Don't not submit a comprehensive answer because someone posted a tl;dr before you. Feb 7, 2013 at 17:47

I think this relates well to the question I was just asking: Competitiveness of various tags on stackoverflow in that this depends on your and others intents on answering the question.

On straight-forward questions in popular tags there always seems to be at least a few people looking to compete to answer quickly and score the reputation. I think in these cases you can assume an answer is coming and unless you are looking to win I would ignore them. In your situation I would only answer questions I knew to be tricky or were somewhat mature (30-60 minutes old?).

  • Personally, I really don't care about the reputation score on SO, but I do frequently hop onto basic questions in order to get the poster a quick result. It's nice when you post a simple question and get an answer in minutes, so you can get on with your life. Not caring about the rep, though, means I would ignore the question if someone else was actively writing up an answer.
    – Dinre
    Feb 7, 2013 at 17:38

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