Being put "on hold" sucks. Yes, I get it - it's a chance to edit questions without getting unhelpful answers, and a grand opportunity for us to make the question better and thus improve the site as a whole. But it feels a lot like being forced to eat broccoli: sure, it's good for you, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That's why I'd like to start a discussion about this topic.
There seem to be two main avenues of attack to this problem. First, we can make it clearer that "on hold" does not automatically mean "bad". Second, we can make the "on hold" status itself less unfriendly. Of the two, I think the first is far more actionable for us as a community, because the second one would need implementation at the web-design level. I'll be focusing mainly on the first one, but if people have other excellent ideas for part 2 I'd love to see some feature-request discussions.
Making it clear that "on hold" is an opportunity, not a punishment
Users who have been around for a while get it - "on hold" isn't a punishment, but a good opportunity to edit a question without invalidating answers or further confusing people. However, it still feels a lot like a Bad Thing, and this part of my proposal is about changing that.
First, please explain to new users what "on hold" is and what it means. New users have no idea what it means to be on hold or what to do when it happens, and "on hold" doesn't even show up in the Tour for those who take it. Often, new users will simply abandon their questions (and the site!) when put "on hold", with many posting confused or annoyed comments. Sometimes a user turns to Meta for an explanation or to request reopening. It is our responsibility as a community to work with and help new users improve such questions. This is a tenet of our Be Nice policy, but it's more broadly necessary to simply keep the site alive. New users are the lifeblood of Worldbuilding, with the quirky questions and interesting answers. This has been mentioned before, but please please please explain to new users what "on hold" means. It's easy to do this: direct them to the Help Center page on the topic. Many new users never find the Help pages or don't think to turn to them when a question is placed on hold. The excellent explanations there go a long way toward helping new users understand what's happening and make it feel less personal. This responsibility is on especially on those of us with close-vote powers (3k+ rep) - it's only fair to explain what we're doing to their question. If you don't feel like Being Nice when going close-voting, please consider whether someone else might be friendlier instead.
Second, please explain why you are close-voting. This has been a common topic on Meta for years, but is still struggling to gain traction. Questions here require a bit of time and effort to post - aside from troll posts, which we handle pretty darn well, nobody on here is posting nonsensical things exclusively for the sake of being nonsensical. Assume Good Faith, and tell the user why you think that their question needs a bit more work. Try to make these comments clear and especially actionable - telling someone only that their question is unclear, for example, is unhelpful because it makes sense to the author! They wouldn't have deliberately posted a confusing question. Be sympathetic to the poster - while it might be the thirteenth terrible question you've seen that day, it's their genuine attempt to contribute to our community. Indeed, many of our highest-rep users have closed questions and I personally still struggle with making my wild ideas fit into the scope of the site.
Third, direct users to our Sandbox! It's the perfect place for questions that are on hold or slightly out-of-scope for the site because the focus there is on fixing up and improving questions, rather than getting answers. Again, explain what's happening and why you think the question could use some Sandbox time, because being told "Sandbox this" or being handed a link is less than helpful for many users. Ideally, follow up actually in the sandbox with the question; as someone who's seen the original post and the reception it's gotten, you are a prime candidate for helping solve those problems. More generally, directing users to resources like Meta and the Chat help enormously because users will get useful, actionable, and personal feedback on their questions once they've demonstrated that they're invested in fixing it.
Make "on hold" less aggressive
In the more general scheme of things, being placed on hold is not a good feeling, no matter the explanations, sympathy, or recommendations received. It's like being told that you've failed in some way, which is never a great feeling to have. On that note, there are a few thoughts I have that might help make "on hold" feel more friendly, and I'd like to hear community ideas on these as well.
Again, these ideas are not particularly actionable for us as a community - just daydreaming. They both appear to require at least some involvement from the development staff, which is another burden that they don't necessarily need.
1. Have a friendly notification when questions are placed on hold
I haven't been closed in a while, so I don't actually remember what the process looks like, but I don't believe we notify people when their questions are placed on hold, and I think this is a huge missed opportunity. By being the first to inform a user that their question is now on hold, there's a chance to set the vibe for the rest of the interactions. I'd like to see a friendly, optimistic notification come through when a question gets its fifth close vote, something like the below:
It looks like your question [title] has been placed on hold by the community. Don't panic! This just means your contribution needs a little more work to fit the scope of the site, and we're hopeful that you're willing to edit it and get it reopened. Review any comments on your question, and if you need additional feedback consider using Meta, the chat, or our Sandbox. Until you've had a chance to tidy it up, your question won't pick up any more answers because unhelpful or irrelevant answers aren't constructive.
I believe a notification such as the above would help provide users with actions that they can take, as well as links to many resources that are especially important once an answer's on hold. Admittedly, its tone is a bit apologetic because I always feel bad when someone else's question is closed, and that's certainly a place where it can use some different wording.
2. Call it "Paused" instead of "On hold"
"On hold" kinda feels gross. Held back from answers? Held at arm's reach from the network? Held in quarantine because there's bad mojo about you? "On hold" feels unnecessarily hostile and permanent, so I'd like to rename the status to "Paused". Something paused is something that's going to get moving again! Paused implies breathing room to adapt, improvise, and overcome. You don't stop a movie if you're still excited about it - you pause it! Things that are paused still have value and are worth coming back to, both as an asker of the question and as an answerer who was going to submit a response before being blocked from doing so. Perhaps this is just a me thing - again, community, please let me know if this is all in my head. But I'd much prefer to be "paused" than "on hold", despite them meaning the exact same thing in this case.