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We did have Checklist for the perfect post, but that's about questions.

Then Should we have a “How to write the perfect answer?” discussion? was asked, but never got any significant amount of attention (at least visibly on Meta).

This post is an attempt to be the latter.


We get lots of new users who come here and clearly want to contribute by answering questions. However, being new, they aren't familiar with our standards, and often not with the Stack Exchange question and answers format at all. The result is very often that a newcomer posts an answer, and it gets voted down and deleted. In the best of cases, they get a few helpful comments and are encouraged to try their hands on some other question, but usually very little concrete can be offered in the very limited comment space to help them figure out what we want as opposed to what we don't want. That's not a very nice welcome.

The intent of this post is to gather generally applicable helpful hints on what we want to see in answers to questions. The top several of those will then be compiled into a separate Meta post that we can point new users toward, to help them understand our site and our format better. Something like a comment such as

Welcome to Worldbuilding! Thank you for your interest in this site! Have a look at this cool post that can help you improve your answer in only a few moments with ten short and easy questions.

This is the brainstorming question. Throw your ideas for how to tell a good answer from a bad one into the mix (but make sure they are actually generally applicable across the site, or at the very least mostly so), let's stir, and see what rises and what sinks.

Use the same template as in the question checklist question:

Question: The question you want to propose
Should be answered: Yes or No


Further explanation on why this question is useful + examples. This part will be added as footnote in the final checklist post.

I encourage everyone to write the questions in such a way that a "good" answer naturally leads to the proposed question being answered with a "yes".

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13 Answers 13

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Question: Are you actually answering the question, within the constraints stated in the question?
Should be answered: Yes


Worldbuilding SE is a part of the Stack Exchange network, which is not an ordinary discussion forum. When you post an answer, you need to ensure that your answer actually answers the question that is being asked at the top of the page, rather than providing commentary on the question or on any of the existing answers. Pay particular attention to any special criteria or constraints that the user asking the question is including, and make sure you provide sufficient reasoning to justify the answer that you are proposing. Answers that do not actually answer the question, or which disregard one or more of the criteria or constraints in the question, may be at risk of being downvoted and/or deleted by the community.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this is related to the problem of responders not actually reading questions and responding to titles. Maybe it should be a checklist question on its own. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 3 '17 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga By all means go ahead and propose that. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 3 '17 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ I think the formatting features can be isolated from this as it's not specific to actually answering the question $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 4 '17 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Good point. How about now? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 4 '17 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ Looks good, potentially the last sentence could be a separate paragraph for emphasis $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 4 '17 at 11:33
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Question: Is your answer consistent with present-day relevant scientific knowledge, or does the question specifically ask for or allow for answers based in something other than present-day scientific knowledge?
Should be answered: Yes


Worldbuilding SE allows for questions that completely disregard present-day scientific knowledge; for example, either by positing things that are known to not exist or are known to not be possible, or by positing things that we don't yet know to exist or that we don't yet know to be possible. However, unless the question specifically asks for or allows for answers based in something other than the known sciences, our default stance is that answers should be consistent with present-day relevant scientific knowledge. If the question includes some specific element which is not consistent with present-day scientific knowledge, answers are expected to take that element into account, and to assume that in the fictional world being asked about, this element works as described in the question.

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  • $\begingroup$ This touches a little on the same things as Are you actually answering the question, within the constraints stated in the question?, and I'm not sure where exactly we might want to draw the line between the two. Feedback is appreciated! $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 1 '17 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think it's worth it to mention this as a separate point. "Within the constraints" can be taken as "If the OP wants [stuff] to be round, don't answer that it would be easier if it wasn't round" while this point can specifically be used to illustrate that "if this were a fantasy novel you could explain it with magic" is not an answer if the question doesn't mention any kind of magic existing. We view science vs. magic as some kind of constraint - but for many new users this discrepancy is not clear when they come to this site. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Oct 1 '17 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus Right; that's pretty much the distinction I had in mind when I added this one. "Constraints" can be about the "this world is flat, don't ask me why, just accept that" questions which explicitly state a constraint on answers; this is more about "if I don't explicitly say that faster-than-light travel is a thing, don't write answers assuming that it is". I think both are valid. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 1 '17 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ I could imagine this question being broken into at least two: (a) if the OP has used the science-based tag, is your answer consistent with or based on present-day knowledge? (b) If the OP has used the hard-science tag, is your answer specifically include the mathematics or justification necessary to meet the OP's needs? $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 2 '17 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I'd rather not go into that much detail in these, myself; hopefully, [hard-science] questions will already have the hard-science notice, and for [science-based], this should be plenty sufficient. There's also the "sufficient reasoning to justify your answer" in Are you actually answering the question, within the constraints stated in the question? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 2 '17 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ I think you could specialise these two questions a bit more. For example, one could focus on consistency with technical specs provided by the OP and the other would talk about consistency with contemporary scientific knowledge. You could link the latter to the former to avoid repetition. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 4 '17 at 0:17
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Question: Is your answer clearly formatted and legible?
Should be answered: Yes


Layout is important

Titles are a great way to get a point across quickly, if your answer allows a brief phrase summary this is the place to put it.

You can follow the title with a longer summary if you're giving a long answer, but get readers engaged quickly with the point you're trying to make if you want them to read the whole post.

Subheadings

When you need to convey a lot of information, break it down into sections and use a subheading for each one.

Paragraphs

Remember that most people will initially only give a quick glance to each answer and will be put off by a wall of text. Give them a layout that doesn't look intimidating to keep them engaged.

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  • $\begingroup$ While shorter is often better, I'm reluctant to give that advice up front on a site where we get a lot of too-terse answers. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 2 '17 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio, easily culled. Though I suspect that the people you're considering in that thought are, while the target of this FAQ, not necessarily inclined to read it. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 2 '17 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ You're probably right, but still... thanks for the update. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 2 '17 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio, perhaps getting the length right needs its own section, it is an important factor $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 2 '17 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you could add some more ways to emphasize words if they are especially important. And people should rely on the markdown - not on HTML. This destroys lists for example. Definitely an important point for the perfect answer. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Oct 2 '17 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus, added, but I think the wording needs polishing, also it's starting to get too long. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 2 '17 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I feel myself that this is getting much too long. It's an important issue for certain, but much of it can probably be replaced with a link to worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help/formatting, keeping maybe a paragraph or two extolling the virtues of proper formatting. And of course, like @MonicaCellio said, lots of answers that might prompt pointing this way tend to be far too short. Walls of text, if said walls of text are actually meaningful, would probably be welcome in comparison. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 2 '17 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, culled it back to short and sweet for now. Something about getting information across in a concise but complete manner needs considering. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 2 '17 at 15:45
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Question: Is the question likely to be closed/Should the question be closed?

Should be answered: No


If the question should be closed you should focus on either getting the question closed or editing the question to keep it open rather than answering the question. By answering questions that are off topic, too broad or primarily opinion based we are encouraging more people to ask such questions in the future.

Especially don't answer a question if you have already voted to close the question, since then you are providing mixed signals to the asker.

Further information about why this is a bad idea can be read here.

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Question: Have you read the other answers posted for the question to ensure you are not duplicating what another has already posted?

Should be answered: Yes.

You should not read the question and immediately post your answer. This often results in duplication and low quality answers. To provide good answers that help the original poster (OP) best, you should take the time to review the answers already posted. This will give you the chance to add to the OP's understanding new issues or relevant extended information about already existing answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ What if you are not duplicating "x", but rather saying "x, but ..."? Or "X answer is right, but I only want to add ..." $\endgroup$ – Vylix Oct 3 '17 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix, I'm content with both those conditions as they indicate the new user read through the answers and understood them. "Adding to the conversation," so to speak, is the goal while just saying what they said isn't. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 3 '17 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ In the explanation paragraph -- not just new users! I see experienced users do this time. I'd change that to something like "Don't read the question and immediately start answering; first take the time to review...". $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 3 '17 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio, done. I chose active voice, though. Hope you don't mind. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 3 '17 at 22:56
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Question: Are you summarizing the relevant parts from links you provided?
Should be answered: Yes


It's important to summarize the most important parts from linked resources in your answer as the idea behind the StackExchange network is to provide canonical answers to questions other people might have again in the future.

If someone comes across the question in a few months and finds only answers with links where the content changed or was relocated the answers won't help him. You should always try to summarize the relevant parts so that other users won't have to search any further to find the answer to the question after they have read your answer. Links should be used as helpful additions for readers who want to learn more about the subject out of the scope of the question that was asked.

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Question: Have you explained the reason why the premise of the question won't work?
Should be answered: Yes


Challenging the premise of the question is allowed, however you must do it very carefully. Unless the question is asking about the plausibility or answers, generally "We should accept the parameters of the question and go from there." If you feel the proposed idea is not possible at all, explain your train of thought of how you get into the conclusion that it won't work. State only science facts or logical conclusion.

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Question: Did you skip the body of the question and respond to headline/title?

Should be answered: No.


Headlines and titles that perfectly summarise the essence of a question are very hard to write and sometimes are even impossible. There is a high probability that you cannot provide a helpful answer without reading the full body of the question.

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Question: Is your answer written in a neutral or respectful tone?

Should be answered: Yes.


As a member of the Stack Exchange network, you are expected to be nice to everyone. This doesn't mean you have to be a bootlicker (in fact, you probably shouldn't), but a respectful tone is expected and lack of such can, especially if it keeps going on over time, be grounds for a day in the penalty box (A.K.A. a temporary account suspension).

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, as a member of the Stack Exchange network, you are expected to be nice to everyone. This doesn't mean you have to be a bootlicker (in fact, you probably shouldn't), but a respectful tone is expected and lack of such can, especially if it keeps going on over time, be grounds for a day in the penalty box (A.K.A. a temporary account suspension). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 4 '17 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling I've incorporated your comment into the answer since it clearly explains why we should be nice in our answers. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Oct 4 '17 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think with the current internet culture it is useful to remind people to be polite since it leads to more productive discussions. There is indeed a rule for this, but I wanted to stress out the positive outcome of being respectful. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 4 '17 at 19:06
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Question: Can your answer be boiled down to "use magic"?

Should be answered: No! Nononononoo!


Even if a question is talking about magic do not take that as a liberty to answer with 'use magic' or any variation of it. Not only does an answer of this kind mock the question, it also mocks anyone investing time and effort into writing a good answer.

In addition it is never good to introduce additional phlebotinum to a situation. The OP is at the liberty to introduce whatever phantastic materials and technologies they want - but an answer should work within the given constraints. Changing a situation does not constitute an answer, it constitutes a new situation which is fundamentally different.

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Question: Have you actually answered the main question, rather than the related questions and possible implications?

Should be answered: Yes.


Question may have several question marks, but the main answer usually is indicated in the title and bolded in the body. Your answer should address the main concern, and then you can expand your answer to address the related questions. It is easy to be carried away on pointing out the implications and suggesting improvements, but if your answer does not address the main concern, then your answer is "Not An Answer".

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Question: Is your answer actually up-to-date with the current edit of the question?

Should be answered: Yes.


Sometimes a question is edited either to fit better with the scope of the Worldbuilding and StackExchange Q&A format, or clarify the author intention of the question. While we try hard not to invalidate existing answers, sometimes it is an unavoidable side-effect of keeping the question high-quality. If this happens, existing answers should be updated to reflect the changes in the question, especially if the core question changed or new information is added.

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Question: Did you back up/explain any numbers or 'facts' you mention?

Should be answered: Yes


While the reasoning behind a statement/assertion might be perfectly clear and replicable to you, it may not be so for those reading your answer. Heavens forbid it might not even be comprehensible for the person asking the question in the first place!

You should always strive to explain and reason anything you claim/state/assert/[insert fitting words here] in your answers. After all it would be a shame if your answer did not get any upvotes/accepted just because nobody could apprehend where your answer is coming from.

Don't assume anything beyond a basic grasp of the English language and Arithmetic (okay, maybe Algebra as well) - unless otherwise indicated in the question or other content by the user posing the question. Users are from all over the world, there is no such thing as a worldwide educational standard...

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