In moving through the ever-increasing close queue1, it is hard to not note that many authors of questions, and occasionally answers, are simply bad at presenting in writing their question (or answer). There are some common pitfalls I see:

  • Extraneous context: The user includes information such as "I'm having an argument with my boss" or "I am new to this (so please be nice)", or even "I have a problem" (which ought be self-evident). This information gets in the way of the question itself, is useless to anyone trying to answer the question, and doesn't even provide ancillary or meta-benefit (if someone is rude in a comment or response, that should be handled by other systems).

  • Spelling and Grammar: These things do get in the way of the reader understanding the question, and it's been posited that English is an important skill for programmers. The only recourse on S.O. is for an editor to come along and clean it up, but sometimes this task is so monumental as to be unappealing. This pitfall could extend so far as to include run-on sentences, word choice and other Strunk-and-White type problems that really get in the way of understanding what is being said.

  • Multiple Questions: Users often ask multiple questions at once. While it's entangled in their own mind, these questions are really separate things.

  • Terrible Titles: The title doesn't actually refer to the problem in any meaningful way, or includes extraneous data (ie, those things that should be in tags and not titles such as language).

I'm sure there are others, but as these demonstrate there can be significant problems with a question that don't prevent it from being a 'good' question, as defined by needing to be closed (ie, too broad, no actual question, opinion-based, etc.). Yet it seems to me that pointing these problems out in comments is equally as bad: it clutters the discussion with meta-review. Thus; is there a way a feature could be implemented that lets a reader indicate in a dispassionate and non-personal way that the author could improve the asking of the question in certain key ways (which might need to be a broader discussion)? This feature need not be broadly surfaced; really only to the reader and the author.

(The usual caveat of apologies if this has already been asked; I searched but could not find something addressing this issue of meta-problems. Is there a better title?)

1 This is an example of an extraneous detail.

  • 12
    It's called editing. Use liberally.
    – user102937
    Aug 7 '13 at 17:24
  • 2
    @RobertHarvey I see what you did there.
    – Mike G
    Aug 7 '13 at 17:25

First, do not point anything out in comments that you can fix. Too much extraneous clutter? Edit. Riddled with spelling and grammar problems? Edit. Shows all the code, then talks to it piece by piece? Edit. Actual question at the end after wall of code? Edit.

Second, comments must be intensely specific. For example, "what OS are you running?" will get you a comment with the answer. "Please edit your question to indicate what OS you are running" usually works.

Third, never tell someone who is bad at writing questions a general rule. Tell them highly specific things to fix. They may learn the general rules later, but they cannot get from general rules to good questions: that's why their question is bad right now.

  • 7
    The usual good advice from Kate Gregory.
    – user102937
    Aug 7 '13 at 17:26
  • While there is justice to the third point, the first two are orthogonal to the question. You perceive I encouraged neither pointing out fixable elements in comments nor commenting in an ineffective manner. Take, then, for the third point the appropriate place to be specific is in the edit summary, and that there is little encouraging useful summation of edits made; therefore an extended edit of a question is liable to not be elucidating to the OP, as they have only the diff - which is not self-evident. This lack of clarity is not dissimilar to the motivation for altering off-topic votes. Aug 7 '13 at 18:11
  • 1
    all four of the bullets in your question are things that should be fixed. Not noted with a custom comment, custom flag, or other new mechanism. There are problems an editor can't fix (eg missing code, missing error messages, see meta.stackexchange.com/questions/191052/… and for those it's possibly your mechanism might apply, but it will state a general rule and I believe they need very specific instruction. Very specific. Aug 7 '13 at 19:38

So, first off, all of the issues that you've mentioned can be fixed by you by editing (if you so choose). Removing erronious content not relevant to the question is perfectly acceptable via editing, as is fixing spelling/grammar, fixing titles, or even removing additional unrelated questions (although in this case please comment so that the OP knows they should ask that in a new question if it's important to them).

Although of course you aren't obligated to make these edits for posts, you certainly can. If you choose to, you're generally performing the most beneficial review options out there. Nothing helps the site more than editing posts to fix exactly these kinds of issues. (Note that if you do choose to edit a post, please try to fix all issues you can find, rather than fixing one thing and not addressing or looking for other issues.)

The issues that you have described don't qualify a post for closure though. If you feel that, because of all of the problems you have described, the quality of the post is sufficiently low, then you can choose to downvote the post. Downvoting a post for not taking the time to address even basic presentation issues is appropriate, particularly if it's to the point of hampering answering the question.

  • I think your response is perceptive, in that editing is quite the best thing to do for the quality of S.O. (despite being only rewarded to a point). I wonder, though if the purpose of improving authors might not be better served? This is, to my mind, a separate but important function for improving overall quality. shrug Aug 7 '13 at 18:14
  • 1
    @NathanielFord First off, editing someones question can help authors learn how to improve their own posts. When they see people editing the fluff out of their posts, they'll realize that they shouldn't put it there. When they see people fixing their formatting, they'll learn how content like that ought to be formatted. Next, an overwhelming number of questions are posted by users who will only ever post one question; the cost/benefit of spending a lot of time trying to teach them (beyond a certain point) about how to ask questions becomes rather high.
    – Servy
    Aug 7 '13 at 18:20
  • @NathanielFord There's also the point that some people simply aren't capable of making edits of the quality of other reviewers. Some people aren't native English speakers, for example, so trying to teach them proper spelling/grammar/effective communication/clarity/etc. is well beyond the scope of a single SE question. If you can teach the OP to fix the context rather simply, sure, go ahead, but when it's not simple sometimes there isn't much choice beyond just fixing it yourself.
    – Servy
    Aug 7 '13 at 18:22
  • I don't want to suggest not fixing it yourself; but it would be nice to leverage that effort more directly. Still, I recognize the point that teaching, say, English, is beyond the scope of S.O., especially for one-time users (saving a discussion of conversion rates for another time). I suppose what I'd like is a way to point users to the biggest mistakes being made, and why these are mistakes. "PHP Problem" as a title deserves to be loudly surfaced to the author as a title that is not going to get them help, and is a further load on the editing community. Aug 7 '13 at 18:26
  • @NathanielFord That's what the help center and the faq posts are there for. There are also a number of other posts here on meta (or even on other sites) that people will link to in order to assist users in writing better questions. (Example)
    – Servy
    Aug 7 '13 at 18:30

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