6

Sometimes we get vague questions, where someone tells us a symptom, but not much about the setup, e.g. they tell us how their recipe failed, but don't give much if any detail about the recipe used.

A recent example which got some attention: When I go to slice my meatloaf it falls apart on the plate (more examples are welcome, of course)

Different people have different approaches, generally some combination of the following:

  • vote to close
  • ask for more detail
  • tell the OP we can't answer without more detail
  • reopen after more detail is added
  • edit to a general "why could this happen?" question
  • avoid editing, whether to avoid making assumptions or to avoid a general question that might not help the OP
  • post comprehensive answers, covering many possibilities, so they'll hopefully apply
  • post speculative answers as answers, without knowing if they'll apply
  • post speculative answers as comments (seems to be more common on vague questions, presumably because it's hard to tell if they apply)

What should we actually be doing and when?

Worth keeping in mind, there are two goals here: help the OP, and help future readers. So ideally the final state is a clear question with matching answers, whether it's tailored to a specific case for the OP, or something more comprehensive that includes what the OP needed.

3

I don't think there's a single answer. It's definitely never bad to ask for clarification, and it's good to edit the question in obviously-okay ways. Beyond that it gets a little trickier.

Roughly, I'd try to decide like this:

  • are we fairly confident we'll get the OP what they need? if so, edit as necessary (perhaps toward a general "why could this happen?"), and write comprehensive answers, not speculative comments. (If people are only willing to speculate in comments, this may not apply - it suggests no one is confident they're getting it right.)
  • otherwise, can we find out quickly? if so, just find out, edit, and carry on (don't speculate too much in the meantime)
  • otherwise, do we think the OP has abandoned the question? if so, we can possibly edit it into a suitable question
  • otherwise, vote to close, and if desired, ask a new question that avoids the issues (whether general or specific)

To elaborate a bit on that..

If we're pretty confident we can give the OP a good answer, we shouldn't be closing, even if things are a bit vague. We should probably just accept that the question is a little general (possibly editing it), and strive for a comprehensive set of answers. General questions can be a very good thing for future readers, so this can even be a good thing! Note in particular that answers can present various possibilities: "if your recipe includes A, you might try adding B as well, while if it involves doing X, you might try Y instead." We can still ask for clarification, to make sure we cover the right things, but I'd avoid telling the OP outright that we can't answer. And finally, the answer bit is important: if we're speculating in comments and no one is confident enough to wrap things up into answers, we are not in this situation.

If we're not totally sure we know what we need to in order to help the OP, then the next question is whether we think we can get it quickly. If we have just a simple question, and there's a good chance of the OP replying, we can just ask. There's really no sense doing the close-open dance unless things are in so bad a state that we're getting horrible answers already. We should probably not write speculative answers in the meantime, though.

That leaves questions where we don't know enough to provide decent answers (not even by covering obvious common possibilities). A lot of the time this happens when the OP has just disappeared. We shouldn't be too impatient, but if they really have abandoned it, we may want to lean toward editing into a suitable question even if we're not totally confident it matches the OP's original situation; we might as well salvage something out of it.

But if we really can't write answers and we're not ready to co-opt the question, yes, that's when we should be voting to close and telling the OP we need help before we can answer, and not trying to write any sort of answers. We can always reopen if things improve - and we moderators are more than happy to help quickly reopen questions.

Finally, when in doubt, we can always post new questions. This can often be a really good compromise, for when we aren't confident enough to edit the OP's question, but we also know what would make a good question.

2

I'll certainly ask for more information if the question is vague. Often the question is simply too vague to even try to answer. On the other hand, vague questions can beg answers that can actually be more useful to future readers than answers to very specific questions.

See: What is ideal temperature for baking cupcakes?

I actually don't like the title of that question, I think it would be better worded as "Why are my cupcakes sinking?" But, that may be putting the cart before the horse because it better fits my answer.

At any rate, I don't like closing questions unless they are absolutely hopeless or obvious duplicates. Consider the possibility of writing an answer that might be helpful to someone else just Googling a problem, especially if you have doubts that the OP will return to clarify the question.

1

My general practice is a combination of:

  1. ask for more detail.
  2. vote to close as "unclear what you're asking".
  3. reopen when more information is given.

I do this because it follows the Stack Exchange model. The tour text reads:

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.

When the entire content of the question is:

When I go to slice my meatloaf it falls apart on the plate
Why does my meatloaf fall apart when I cut it for serving.

That's really not enough to go on. I applaud anyone willing to write an exhaustive answer that could account for every single possibility but, in my mind, this is identical to the "identify this ____" questions that plague many of the sites on the network.

We can take a stab at the answer but if there are too many factors, it's unreasonable for us to leave them open. When we do, they show a poor face of the site - that we're willing to entertain low-quality, single sentence questions with no detail.

The Stack Exchange system is designed to be flexible enough to deal with this sort of thing... low detail questions are put on hold until they are improved at which point, they are reopened. If they are not improved, then they just go away... often because the OP never returned to the site.


I also think the omnibus answers that some wish to apply to these unclear questions aren't actually a good solution. It's more useful to have two or three similar but different, well-defined questions about something with clear, concise answers than to have to sort through a long answer that details ten possible explanations, half of which don't fit the parameters of my particular issue.

In the case of this meatloaf question, I actually understand the "too broad" close votes - there are so many possible answers, one could probably write a book of ways meatloaf could go wrong. We're not here to write a book. We're here to write answers to specific questions.

  • 1
    So I agree with the general points, but not necessarily your assessment of what is and isn't answerable. The common possible causes of meatloaf falling apart aren't that broad, and it's okay to have a question that covers common ones even if we need other questions for corner cases. General questions are also more accessible to new readers. If we narrow a question down to a recipe that makes it clear what the problem is, that makes it easy to answer, but hard for a future reader to realize that they're in the same situation; they have to carefully compare recipes. – Cascabel Dec 14 '16 at 23:34
  • What Jefromi said. It's seems like too often lately a commenter insists on a recipe where the next person just answers the question in a general sense. IMO general answers are more useful and informative. Perhaps we can just wait and ask for clarification if no one has a good general answer. It definitely seems inappropriate to immediately close such questions. – Sobachatina Dec 15 '16 at 3:00
  • Note that for asking for recipes, there's an easy middle ground: say that we can give better answers if they provide a recipe. – Cascabel Dec 15 '16 at 3:10
  • @Sobachatina and I've seen several general answers that clearly aren't general enough because they are completely wrong when the OP clarifies the question. People in general don't like closing questions but it isn't a bad thing... It is often even likely to prevent bad answers. – Catija Dec 15 '16 at 3:10
  • Similarly, I've seen questions with close votes that have good answers, so close votes can also prevent good answers. The issue is how to tell the difference, and how to balance the cost of preventing good answers against the cost of having to clean up some bad answers. – Cascabel Dec 15 '16 at 3:19
  • I agree that sometimes that is the case. However, I also frequently see people insisting on recipes because they personally don't know the general answer. Also, no matter how much we would like the word "closed" to mean "please clarify" it doesn't. On the internet "Closed" means "this is gone. Move on". IMO It shouldn't be the initial reaction to new users. – Sobachatina Dec 15 '16 at 3:24
  • @Sobachatina questions aren't closed initially. They are "on hold" for the first five days. The users most likely to be getting these questions put on hold won't see the word "closed". – Catija Dec 15 '16 at 3:27
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    I'm definitely in favor of voting to close when necessary, new user or not. What's less good is voting to close when there's a very good chance it'd be quickly reopened, or when it's based on your personal feeling that it's hard to answer well, as opposed to there genuinely not being enough information for anyone to answer well. It's always going to be a gray area, but I'd caution against closing being a default. "Unclear" means "too unclear", not "something is unclear here". – Cascabel Dec 15 '16 at 4:26
0

There could be a constructive effect to creating some (probably self-answered) community questions a la "which factors are important in describing a problem with preparing meat loaf?", which could be linked in cases of "unclear what is being asked".

  • There's a page in the help center on how to ask, but unfortunately it's not one of the ones we can customize: cooking.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-ask (so we can't add specifics like "share your recipe" or even link to a better version) – Cascabel Jun 5 '17 at 19:38
  • Yes, and I think the "homework" to do is specific to preparation methods/ingredients... eg freshness becomes important with cucumbers, chilling with puff pastry, mixing methods with cake... – rackandboneman Jun 5 '17 at 19:46

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