In the parsley/tea thread, we've been having an active and interesting discussion about whether certain questions are on topic or off, and whether they have objective or subjective answers. I wanted to pull a sub-question out of this into its own question: should we try harder to edit questions into acceptable form.

It seems to me that when a borderline question comes in, we have a few options:

  • close it (with a good explanation of course)
  • comment on it asking for clarification or rewrite
  • edit it into an acceptable form

My personal thought is that although there are many valid reasons to close a question there are 2 effects. One is that we help educate the community about quality. The other is that we usually hurt someone's feelings and generally create an elitist vibe that turns some people off.

Clearly some questions are just ridiculous and need to be closed; but when we can I believe that a rapid rewrite into objective form (and CW as needed) are much preferable tools. They serve the educational purpose, create a good usable question, and in most cases won't hurt anyone's feelings.

What do you all think?

  • It's real simple: close unless you have information to edit it into something decent. If it only lacks a bit of information, leave a comment requesting the info. This can also be done on closed questions when they were 'not a real question'
    – Ivo Flipse
    Commented Sep 6, 2010 at 6:57

6 Answers 6


Quoting from the question:

It seems to me that when a borderline question comes in, we have a few options:

  • close it (with a good explanation of course)
  • comment on it asking for clarification or rewrite
  • edit it into an acceptable form

These options are not mutually exclusive.

Please keep these points in mind:

  • Closed questions can be edited;
  • Closed questions can be reopened;
  • Question closers can (and often do) leave explanations;
  • Question closers can (and should, when possible) leave some advice regarding possible improvements.
  • Anybody with sufficient reputation can vote to reopen a question - it does not have to be the same people who closed it.

Regarding edits, every once in a while I see a question where I'm 95% sure I know what the author is getting at but s/he just didn't express it well, and in those cases I will make substantial edits and leave a comment to the original author, making sure that s/he is aware of the option to revert my edits.

Aside from those rare cases though, I only edit for readability: spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, and so on, and occasional "tweaks" like parenthesized temperature conversions. I will not make an edit if I feel that such an edit would be substantially altering the meaning of the question and the kinds of answers it would attract, and even though your editing privileges are yours to do as you please with, I wouldn't recommend this to anybody else, either. People are unlikely to respond any more positively to blind edits than they are to having their questions closed.

For most of the grizzled vets on SO/SE, there's a pretty consistent methodology for dealing with these questions with a few minor variations. Basically they start with these two steps:

  • If the question is subjective and not wiki, flag for moderator attention. Don't leave a comment asking the author to do it; many won't understand, some won't be able, all will be annoyed, and already-submitted rep-farming answers will remain in non-wiki mode.

  • Determine the most applicable close reason for the question. If the question can be made more objective / less localized / more coherent / etc. (whatever would prevent it from being closed), without altering the question's meaning, then edit it. Stop.

Assuming the question can't be edited due to insufficient detail (which is the case for at least 90% of closed subjective questions) then it goes down one of the following two tracks:

  1. Leave a comment warning that the question as written is likely to be closed.
  2. Suggest how the author could improve the question.
  3. If the author fails to respond within a reasonable time (i.e. a few hours), actually vote to close.

The other strategy, which is the one I prefer, is:

  1. Immediately vote to close.
  2. Leave a comment explaining (politely!) why you voted to close.
  3. Suggest how the author could improve the question, or appeal the decision on meta.
  4. Return to the question several hours later, and if it has been closed and also edited (improved), then vote to reopen it.

(Obviously I have to modify these somewhat as a moderator, but this was how I always did it beforehand.)

The reasons I like the second strategy better are (a) it quickly stops the flow of potentially poor answers, thus helping to ensure that the author actually gets something useful out of it, and (b) it gives the author as much time as he/she needs to read the FAQ and tidy up the question. This is much easier for the typical user who only visits once a day (or less).

And one of the things you'll often find with poor questions is that their authors are hit-and-runners or simply ignore or respond with hostility to your comments. Much of the time, they never bother to improve their question, and in the meantime every other jimbo is hurling their one-line fluff answers at the question and turning it into a useless mess. By the time an edit does happen (if it ever happens), it's already too late to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Prior experience with Stack Overflow has also proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that when people are too eager to edit certain users' poor questions, those users will simply rely on community edits as a crutch and continue to ask poor questions. This may sound like a slippery-slope fallacy but it's already happened on other communities and those communities are suffering for it.

So I am a firm believer in getting a poor or off-topic question closed as quickly as possible, to minimize not only the question noise on the site (harmful to community) but also the answer noise within the question (harmful to questioner), which is why I don't think that simply leaving a "helpful" comment really works as a long-term strategy.

My silly but hopefully educational cooking analogy:

Vague/subjective questions are like a big pile of raw ground chuck. You want to make hamburgers, but just realized that you don't have any onions in the house, or eggs, or flour, or salt, or any of the things that are normally required to make a hamburger from scratch. What do you do?

Well, you can raid the pantry and start throwing a bunch of random crap into the pan with it and see if it comes out OK once it's cooked. It probably won't, though. Or, you can freeze it, go and get the ingredients you need, and then thaw it when you're actually ready to cook it.

So that's what we're doing here. When we close a question, we're saying that it can't be answered well because it's missing details (ingredients). Once those details are added, we can pick up where we left off. On the other hand, if that never happens, and the question just sits around forever and goes rancid, then we will actually delete it, and that is generally final.

Part of our mission here is not only to give people the right answers but also to teach them how to ask the right questions, because asking the right questions is crucial to become an expert oneself and subsequently a contributing member of the community. If we can do that without being rude or unfair (and I do not believe that any of this is rude or unfair), then we should do it as much and as often as possible.

  • The analogy works. :)
    – hobodave
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 19:56
  • Agreed - that was a great analogy! Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 21:12

I have a couple of issues with this:

  1. I think people will get just as upset about us editing their question to be slightly different and on topic as they will about closing. It would tick me off if someone changed my question to be about something related but slightly different.
  2. How do you know what the original intent of the question was? The Souffle Question was intially very badly worded. I could have turned it in to a legitimate question about Souffle, but I'd have been guessing at the OP's intent. There's no way to know the answer to that definitively. Of course, if the meaning is obvious, adding clarity to the question like this one should be encouraged.
  3. Closing allows us to resolve issues without a bunch of answers flowing in to a bad question. I think it seems to be a good practice to close questions, resolve issues, and then reopen them. I think the question hobodave just asked will help this to no end.

As a note about #3, I think we need to be very vigilant about reopening questions that have been improved to an acceptable quality. I'm very disappointed that the Souffle Question hasn't been reopened yet. While that question could still be better, I think it's sufficiently good for the site now. The OP did everything that was asked of him and has not been rewarded for his efforts. If we're going to be quick to close (which I think we should be), then we need to be just as fast or faster to reopen.

  • I agree, the souffle question was terrible. No way at all to know what problem he was having. And I like the edit to the egg question. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 16:18
  • I don't think I agree with you about people being PO'd that their question was edited. I wouldn't be, especially if there is a comment explaining why it was better/more acceptable in the new phrasing. I'd like to try it as an experiment with the next few fixable questions we get and see how the response is. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 16:24
  • @Michael, I think it depends on the edit. If you clean a question up that should be fine (although some have gotten pissed about it recently). But a question that just needs to be cleaned up isn't in danger of being closed. To edit a question rather than close it, you have to edit the question to be a different question. Maybe he new question is what the OP was trying to get at and maybe it isn't. How would you know?
    – yossarian
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 16:27
  • @Michael: It isn't a matter of opinion that people get PO'd when questions/answers are edited. It's a fact, and has occurred on this site several times.
    – hobodave
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 16:40
  • I take your point, but I think the tea question is a perfect example. The crux sentences in that question were: "Since I drink green tea in abundance every day, I often find myself looking for new ways of flavoring it. I recently read that Japanese flavor it using kombu, and tried to do that. Does anyone else have any ingredients they feel compliment the flavor of this wonderful plant?" This could easily be rewritten as "What other ingredients have traditionally been found to pair well with green tea?", which has a valid, objective set of CW answers. That's the kind of case we can fix. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 16:43
  • 1
    @Michael - I've seen on other SE sites people getting furious about questions being edited, viewing it as high-handed and not true to their intent.
    – justkt
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 17:29
  • Fair enough. I think part of the issue is that I hadn't fully explored the moderator tools I have access to. I've gone through and edited several questions and nominated them for reopen now. I'm willing to take the heat from the questioners if it really upsets them. Let's see how it goes. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 17:44
  • ... and this is a wiki, after all. The FAQ makes quite clear that you shouldn't post here if you aren't willing to be edited. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 17:45

I'd lean towards leaving a comment asking the person to clarify what they're asking, or suggesting that it might be off-topic and recommended corrections.

If you're not a moderator, you can vote to close if you think it's problematic. (I'm of the opinion that moderators should give them some time to correct it unless it's egregious, as we could be the only one who thinks it's a problem, and prematurely close it).

  • +1 - This seems to be an approach that will be viewed as the least high handed.
    – justkt
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 17:29

If it involves a simple edit, sure. I see these types of edits occur rather frequently.

However, if it involves me interpreting the users intent and translating it into an acceptable format, and basically rewriting the entire question, I leave it to them.

I see it as the whole "teach a man to fish..." thing. If we set the expectation that you can post anything and we'll gladly edit it into what we think you wanted to ask, well, we'll be doing a whole lot of that.


I think a quote from @yossarian over in the parsley/tea thread accurately captures what many will think about editing questions:

...it would annoy me to no end if someone changed my question to something different than I had asked and then said, "well it makes the question better." I think a better approach is to close it, recommend changes, and then reopen it once the changes are made. We, as a community, just need to make sure that those questions get reopened quickly and that we reward authors who make the changes by accepting their new questions.

If we don't allow authors to feel that they have some control over the direction of their questions, I think it will start eroding trust in the site. Not that small edits shouldn't be allowed, but that a major refashion is, I think, not going to do as much good as comments or closing with comments.

That said, tone in those comments is everything. There is a huge difference between

<X question type> is not allowed

With a likely "you fool" read in by the original author and

Welcome <user>.  We would be more able to help you with this question if you 
told us more about <x, y, and z> and perhaps restated <a> as <c>.

No matter what we do, someone will probably get upset. Still, I think there are ways and there are ways.

  • For example, while I think the edits in this question are definitely helpful in making it more site appropriate, I read some totally different intent in the original of cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/6242/… than what is currently there. That's not to criticize, just to point out that if I did it I would have written an entirely different question! The OP may have meant what the current editors thought, what I thought, or another thing altogether.
    – justkt
    Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 18:50

Trigged by: How to make beef fry?

It's my opinion that as a community, we have failed the OP of the original question. The OP has reputation of over 1,000 on Stackoverflow and c. 800 (although appears less active there than SO) so is not a "random" who's landed at cooking.se, asked a question and disappeared. This is someone who's an active and valuable member of a stackexchange community who has not been back to cooking.se since their first question was summarily closed. We should do more to retain users like this and encourage them to become members of the community.

I made a comment on the question:

@iJeeves, just a thought, but, you might not fall foul of the "no recipes" edict if you ask a question giving your usual meat-free stir-fry recipe and saying "other than adding beef / removing meat substitute, what should I do to bring out the flavour of the beef in this dish and what ingredients should I consider removing as they don't complement beef well?" =)

That appears to have been fairly well received, 3 upvotes and a "great suggestion" from HoboDave (thanks, btw!) so why was this dialogue not entered into, or at least attempted with the OP prior to closing the question? Moderators are here to deal with things that the rest of the community can't (see this great answer from meta.so that I remembered and had to trawl to find!). Moderators have the ability to "speed-close" questions which should only be used on the truly irredemable questions (pretty much anything mentioning C1alis, I guess ;-) as, as the linked answer says (my emphasis):

...does not need a moderator to close down somewhat-questionable questions. Dozens of 3000+ [note: actually 500 on cooking.se] reputation users already rapidly vote to close down questions. Let the community make those decisions.

Ultimately, I think my whole post boils down to "grow the community, don't (unintentionally) discourage people from being part of the community"

On a final note:

  • Closed questions can be edited;
  • Closed questions can be reopened;

How often do you see that happen here? On so, for example, it only tends to happen with contentious questions.

  • Question closers can (and often do) leave explanations;
  • Question closers can (and should, when possible) leave some advice regarding possible improvements.

A dialogue that results in a better question without closure is far beter than either of these, to be frank.

  • Anybody with sufficient reputation can vote to reopen a question - it does not have to be the same people who closed it.

True, and I don't have sufficient reputation on cooking.se to see if that happens or not, yet, but I'd be surprised if anyone has on the question I refer to at the top of my post.

  • There are a lot of logical fallacies in this post. The fact that closed questions aren't often edited or reopened does not implicate the community or moderators as responsible. And if we just leave comments without closing the question, we have no idea how long it will take for the question to be edited (if it happens at all) and in the meantime it is attracting poor/vague/rep-farming answers. That is exactly the reason for closing a question; it's not a punishment to the author, it's a dam for the wave of mediocre answers.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Sep 5, 2010 at 15:02
  • With respect to your MSO link, that rationale applies to Stack Overflow, not SE beta sites. We have very few users who can close/delete questions and 6 of them are mods; we simply do not have the economy of scale that Stack Overflow does and neither does almost any other SE site right now.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Sep 5, 2010 at 15:03
  • 1
    "How often do you see that happen here?" - When the question is improved to being acceptable, often. "I'd be surprised if anyone has on the question I refer to at the top of my post" - I would be too. It hasn't been improved by the OP at all. His question is literally the perfect example of the "recipe swap" question that is explicitly not permitted here. That's why it was closed.
    – hobodave
    Commented Sep 5, 2010 at 16:32
  • Yep, what @hobodave said. As you can see from the question we are on in meta here, I'm all for saving any question that can be saved. And I was the first vote to close on beef fry, with the standard polite explanation. The question was explicitly a recipe request, and without even a hint of a technique question in to which it could be reformed. Commented Sep 5, 2010 at 20:50

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