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In the process of writing very long answers, whether on meta sites or main sites, what is the best way to format content for future visitors?

For the record, I am not talking about the validity of such answers. Users contributing them are typically invested and well-versed in the workings of the sites. Examples of such answers are "canonical" posts on main sites, FAQ posts on metas, and election candidate responses.

I have ever seen two ways of dealing with such user-contributed reference material, each with their own pros and cons. Meta's own FAQ on bounties is one huge post with multiple headings (nested in some other cases), while this post on English's perfect aspect has multiple answers (each with their own headings) and a better approach to categorization with a Table of Contents. (Another, more elaborate example on editing on Chemistry meta)

A single enormous post is easier to maintain but harder to read and refer to. If the post gets longer, people become less likely to read it, since there is no way to jump to a part of an answer.

The several posts method allows for a ToC, easier referencing, and more comfortable reading experience because of the clear separation between multiple sections. They are harder to maintain, however, might end up with a bizarre sorting for most people (since sorting by "votes" is the default) and are generally more prone to chaos. Nonetheless, as the answers get longer, it seems they would work better with this method, risking getting close to the character limit, and disengage a reader too early to get a point across.

I am open to other alternatives. My question was sparked by a work in progress that would end up with well over 20,000 characters. Hopefully, such posts would become more manageable in the future, but I'm inquiring about the preferred method with the features available.

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    Seeing we can't build links within comments for a huge posts multiple answers work well within a FAQ setting. However if this is regarding an "ordinary" question, an answer should contain itself, and answer the question. So multiple partial answers aren't going to cut it, and might get downvoted or deleted as NAA. – Luuklag Sep 14 '19 at 19:24
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There isn't really a single optimal way to structure it. Depending on how big your answer is, you could add a table of contents at the start of your post. That, combined with a sensible use of headers, should make your post possible to navigate across several parts. That being said, the table of contents I have in mind looks like this:

  • Some topic
  • Other topic
  • Different concern

With associated headers. You can also combine that with numbers (i.e. 1. Some topic to enable Ctrl+F (find on page) and quick navigation with no ambiguity and one hit on the page).

As Luuklag mentioned in the comments, links pointing to headers isn't supported. There's a feature request for that here (from 2011!). We'll probably not see that implemented any time soon. I have a massive post on MSO myself. I tried two things to create an alternative ID navigation system as a replacement to the unimplemented feature request (none of which worked):

  • Divs specifying IDs
  • Manual <h1>, <span>, and various other text-based elements specifying IDs

So link-based table of contents with one answer isn't going to work.

Posting multiple answers isn't really a good idea, unless you know what you're doing. For now, the best you can do is a text-based table of contents and using headers actively when your post starts getting long, and support feature requests that aim to make long posts manageable and navigable. There aren't really any alternatives at the moment.

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For longish questions and long answers always:

  • Somehow try to ensure that the title presents as much as the idea behind the question as possible, and that for both question and answers that the first sentence or two presents much of the essence. This is needed for both search engines and humans.

  • Next explain in a minimum of sentences or paragraphs the question or answer.

  • Finally if you feel some people might benefit, expand or clairify upon parts of (the single question or) the answer consisting of the minimum number of points to properly introduce each subject and incorporate what is being learned into the whole of the solution.

Sometimes the format might take the style of a short story, othertimes one would introduce some definitions and then use them in the final few (dozen) paragraphs of the answer.

Remember: Any question requiring a truly huge answer is more likely to be too broad than one with an answer fitting within the 30K limit, but there are exceptions.

Our site Writing.SE has a question: "How do you write a Stack Exchange answer?" with some great answers that can be applied to your question.

  • Know your audience
  • Offer an intuitive explanation to make the answer accessible to a wider audience, or not
  • Neither bore your audience nor leave them doubting that enough details will be forthcoming to actually answer the question (or ask it)
  • Summarize at the start, then offer definitions, introduce supporting documents, links to papers and authoritative references, images in the middle; sadly it's sometimes necessary to finalize at the end for the doubters and skimmers
  • Go slightly beyond just answering the question because too little doesn't actually answer the question and others might benefit from the answer being a bit too thorough rather than too brief
  • Use the formatting tools provided, especially code snippets (so the code can be run) and MathJax where necessary to provide the bigger answer in the smaller space
  • Adhere to traditional styles for the site where the question is asked, and for the question use correct tags to attract the best answerers (the one answering can add new tags, or having a better understanding of the topic switch out less helpful tags for better ones)
  • Answer the question, both for the asker and the benefit of others

Remember to learn and use the tools available for writing:

Use the Help, learn the tools

Remember the heatmap, the top is bound to get some attention; then the reader's attention may or may not wane, picking up on familiar points and dropping on points that the reader believes that they understand already - sometimes they'll skip to the bottom, and sometimes they'll skip the bottom.

Heatmap

Composing your answer offline, in a text editor, or coming back to it as time permits allows composing a thorough answer that neither drags on nor leaves more questions forthcoming. On the way out check your links at the bottom of the edit box to make sure they look OK. Read your answer before and after posting.

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