Several times over the past week (meaning 7 days, not the Stack Overflow week for which I still cannot figure out the schedule), I've written up a quick answer to a "Please debug my code and/or read the documentation for me!" questions (no, not the actual title, though fairly close on occasion). While in the midst of writing, I get a drop down banner alerting me to the fact that a new answer has been posted. Yikes! I had better hurry and finish my answer!, I think. And I do.

I read the answers, by which there are now 2 or 3, and they are all fairly similar. It wasn't such a hard question, after all, for an Stack Overflow addict like myself. I've seen this sort of things many times.

A few minutes later, meaning maybe 5 to 10, another answer is posted. Sheesh! We covered this one dude. Go find another rep source! I read it anyway, ready to add a snarky comment. But the answer is blow-my-socks-off fantastic! It explains everything the asker asked in a clear manner so as to point out the subtleties that he was missing. Yes, the answer was an obvious one-liner to the three of us who answered first, but maybe that wasn't so helpful.

Some examples for your reading pleasure (best answers by Bavarious IMHO):

Here's my question: Is there a way for Stack Overflow to encourage this behaviour more? Or possibly discourage the quick and dirty answers?

A one-line answer that anyone who knows the answer recognizes as correct immediately isn't necessarily a good answer, but it's often the sort that is up voted to the point that I think it discourages others from responding with more elaboration (and clearly no one would dare edit an answer to be more clear -- why is that anyway?) I find that I often get caught up in the "write it quickly" mentality at the sacrifice of clarity and exposition. Even when I go back to edit in more detail, I'm still not taking the time I probably should. And I worry that my haste is discouraging people who would take the time and do a proper job of things. After all, the answers I've gotten from mine and (mostly) others' posts are the real value of the site, to me, not my precious reputation score.

PS: When I vote up Bavarious's answer and then delete my own, does that still count towards the Sportsmanship badge?

  • "and clearly no one would dare edit an answer to be more clear -- why is that anyway?" I do (see the difference b/w 1-liner rev.1 and detailed rev.2), and I've seen others do it. I don't think it's uncommon at all. Also, as all your examples demonstrate, the more detailed answer gets more upvotes and gets accepted, so there's your motivation. Jun 21, 2011 at 3:21
  • @trutheality: I meant that users do not edit other users' answers. Perhaps you're right on your latter point and the better answer often prevails as it is.
    – PengOne
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:25
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    @PengOne I wouldn't be surprised if no one understands when it's appropriate to edit other people's (non-CW) answers (other than formatting). Jun 21, 2011 at 3:28
  • That's a good point @truth, I had to dig for a bit but came up with When is it appropriate to edit another user's answer? which is the most discussion about it that I could find.
    – Brad Mace
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:52
  • Also found What is the etiquette for modifying posts?, which doesn't distinguish between questions and answers. Perhaps that's intended?
    – Brad Mace
    Jun 21, 2011 at 4:16
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    encourage it by voting up my answer, since it's the last one posted! lol -- we'll know we've succeeded when "last post" becomes the new meme
    – Brad Mace
    Jun 21, 2011 at 5:16

4 Answers 4


I am continually pleasantly surprised at the quality and completeness of some of the answers I read on Stack Overflow. They usually come from someone who is very secure in the domain of the question, has sufficient experience to understand common pitfalls and compare trade-offs, and in general writes well and is capable of presenting a well-constructed answer.

Such an answer is a labor of love. It is hard to reward externally because the process itself is the primary reward. If answering was all work and the only reward was reputation then no one would write answers like that. Crazy as it sounds, some people like answering questions and some people like answering questions thoroughly! It's not all about reputation.

How can we encourage thorough questions if not through explicit rewards? We can create an environment in which there are opportunities to answer good questions. We can attract good askers and answerers to participate with us by having well-organized and pruned content. We can upvote thorough answers even if they are not the first answer. We can comment favorably on unusually thorough answers.

But mostly we should just sit back and appreciate those good answers and their authors, and think more highly of them because their contribution is very much appreciated. We hope they were as much a pleasure to write as they are to read!

  • Well said (or, rather, well written).
    – PengOne
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:57
  • Sounds about right to me, particularly the bits about "labor of love" and "good questions".
    – McCannot
    Jun 21, 2011 at 4:02

I can only speak for myself, having written some rather thorough answers on several occasions, but... I will say that personally, there's not really any plausible amount of up voting that would "justify" the time I've spent on some answers, particularly on a less mainstream tag (as in my case). And I'm fine with that! Sometimes the lengthy answers do catch attention for whatever reason and get nice scores. Sometimes they languish at 2 points under a quick-draw one-line answer. I do it because I want to be informative, not because I'm working on my high score.

On the other hand, what does make me feel good about the time spent is knowing that the answer actually gave someone new insight or otherwise enlightened them beyond just solving their problem.

Here are comments from two of the answers you linked to: "Thanks a ton. Your response has helped me so much!", "Fair enough. Thank you, I've learned a lot from your reply." That sort of direct feedback matters! Especially from the person who asked the question, as both of those were, but it's nice to hear from other people as well.

Here are a few examples of similar comments that I've received, with links to the answers for context:

Feedback like this really, really means a lot to me. So if answers like the ones I linked there are the sort of thing you want to encourage, that's one way to do it. Of course, I don't know if other people feel the same way, but I expect at least some do.

  • 1
    +1 for yet another well-articulated, thoughtful answer
    – PengOne
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:33
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    @PengOne: Har, har. But yes, that's the idea. :]
    – McCannot
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:36
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    Actually, I am serious. It's nice to know your motivations and that being out-voted doesn't discourage you. I find this encouraging.
    – PengOne
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:37
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    @PengOne: Ah, well then. And yes, I'd say the only thing that actually discourages me is getting the impression that my answer was ignored or disregarded.
    – McCannot
    Jun 21, 2011 at 3:46
  • Great answer. This is really good evidence related to my argument that Stack Exchange really does preserve some intrinsic motivations.
    – Nicole
    Jul 7, 2011 at 6:09
  • @Renesis: Yes. In fact, I consciously think of rep as a moderately noisy proxy indicator for overall answer quality, after some normalization to account for known voting dynamics. I also find it more rewarding to help a few people in a significant way vs. many people in a minor way, which the positive feedback in comments is a proxy for. Both are also a deliberate effort to subordinate tangible reward to the intrinsic motivation of what I actually value. Perhaps it helps to be aware of the extrinsic motivation issue myself. :]
    – McCannot
    Jul 7, 2011 at 6:25

Quick answers aren't a bad thing, a lot of the time people just want a quick fix to get past their immediate problem. I did get bored with writing them after a while though. It gets to be like doing the same 10-piece puzzle over and over, so I just naturally focused more on questions that had more nuance.

In addition to being more satisfying, I've noticed that the people with the most rep don't get there with thousands of 1-3 vote answers. They did it with thorough, well written answers that stand out from all the one-liners and attract a steady stream of votes over time. The quick answers get the early votes, but the thorough ones help a larger portion of people coming in later, eventually collecting a much larger number of "thank you" votes.

So I think both strategies are rewarded, and that's as it should be. There is room to increase the number of thorough answers, and I think the way to do that is just to take your time writing those kind of answers. When other people visit the question and see it next to all the quick answers, they'll be able to tell which is better and hopefully that will encourage them to write answers more like that.

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    Of course, the ideal rep-building strategy is, as always, to get a quick-draw minimally correct answer posted immediately, then revise it heavily in one or more iterations to become a very thorough, detailed answer, ideally before an answer is accepted and fewer people look at the question. On the other hand, this strategy is also a lot of work.
    – McCannot
    Jun 21, 2011 at 4:40
  • @canccann, the correct quick ansser then is then inproved is also often the most useful answer. Jun 21, 2011 at 8:37

By not up voting short answers.

(If you think short answers are a problem, then you need to up vote this short answer. Poof by contradiction that there is not an easy answer to this problem.)

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