Despite the declarative nature of what follows the title was (and is) intended to open the floor for others to argue what they think are the qualities of a good question. These are only my thoughts and arguments for them. If you feel they are errant or you simply have a different perspective please share your thoughts.

I contend that culturally we have an over-emphasis on "showing what you have already tried."

I was inspired to finally write this after reading the comments made regarding the recent question Drawing pairs (planar graph, circle packing), but that is only one example. Systematically I see an over-emphasis on demonstration of effort and prior attempts with regard to Questions.

Allow me to back up and explain my reasoning from the beginning.

This site operates on at least two different levels: the mechanical, and the personal. I think the Stack Exchange model actually emphasizes the first; to the organization we are all merely content creators, to the end of fueling search engine traffic and ad clicks. Nevertheless I neither deny nor apologize for the fact that we have a strong personal interaction on our site; in fact I don't think our site would exist without it.

I surely do not put my efforts into this site for the faceless goal of aggregating data on the Mathematica system. Instead I am here foremost to help people as I have explained before. I know from experience that it is frustrating when you feel that an asker ignores an answer you put work into and seemingly learns nothing from it. Nevertheless this site is ostensibly not about the personal interaction of one user with another, but instead the creation of Questions and Answers that benefit not only one reader but many. This is the mechanics of our site. This is not a discussion forum or an enthusiasts club.

While it is tempting to focus on a Question as the initiation of a personal interaction, that personal interaction is in the long term meaningless to the mechanics of our site. Ultimately what is important is the quality of Questions and the Answers they inspire as viewed by future readers with no personal connection to any of the contributors. (Of course in the here-and-now the personal cannot be ignored or there won't be any content for future readers.)

From this foundation I argue that a good question is:

  1. well written (implying clearly written)
  2. interesting to potential answerers
  3. valuable for future readers
  4. on topic and of reasonable scope

Further I argue that demonstration of effort as in "show what you have already tried" is irrelevant to a good question, and in fact often obfuscates one.

I previously argued, with notable popularity, that questions are what we make of them. I suggest that we make the best of the questions that are brought to our site, whatever the source. I suggest that we encourage people to post questions conforming the the four basic goals I outlined above, and that we communicate that their efforts are better spent on writing good questions than on demonstrating effort. I believe that personal interaction will (unavoidably) handle itself; people will be inclined or disinclined to answer certain users' questions as they always have been. Let us instead turn our focus to the mechanics of the site and to what makes for good Questions. Let us answer Questions not (only) because we like their author but because we find them of intrinsic value.


That my argument may not be misconstrued let me plainly state:

  • My argument above applies only to conceptual Questions of enduring interest.

  • Many technical Questions surely need to include code for clarity if nothing else.

  • Questions of narrow interest and limited future value need to both show effort and be as focused as possible, as they amount to requests for personalized support; they must therefore motivate responders with the hope of a receptive an appreciative audience, as well as minimize the time needed to diagnose and explain the problem.

  • I do not mean to discount or marginalize the personal nature of our community; if anything it is the more important. I too am seeking balance here.

I shall elaborate on my reasoning in an additional section tomorrow.

  • Your title doesn't quite reflect the contents of the body of the post, but most of what you're getting at seems to have been discussed in this question, although you certainly do approach the issue more compassionately. I don't think my views are any different though... I don't think you can disentangle the "personal" part and focus only on the "mechanics" part as you seem to suggest. We'll have to focus towards the "mechanics" of the site while balancing the "personal" aspects of it.
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:11
  • Why do we suspend users who regularly ask poor questions instead of just treating each question independently (without considering the asker or their history) and just close, delete and move on? Why do we not immediately delete a closed and unsalvageable question if someone has taken the effort to help the OP and has an upvoted answer? (I usually wait for the community to start casting delete votes.) Why do we keep asking poor formatters to edit their posts (with decreasing patience with increasing clumsiness) instead of treating each post as a new post that needs tidying?
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:17
  • @rm-rf Thank you, as always, for your valued feedback. (1) The title was meant to open the floor for someone else to argue his qualities of a good question; perhaps not well done. (2) Regarding the other post, I think that addresses a different category of Questions than I (intended to) do here. In fact from this stance I could argue that "debugging services" don't even belong on this site as they likely don't have future value, though I won't argue that at this time. If "program development" happens to be of broad interest and reasonable scope I shall argue that it is acceptable.
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:18
  • All these are because sometimes, the best way to focus on the "mechanics" is to ensure that the "personal" part is not in the way, and this won't happen if we choose to ignore it. The comments and the downvotes on the question currently under focus indicate that the community has a problem with no-effort posters and perhaps this poster in particular, even though their questions are interesting.
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:21
  • Yes, I was referring to the "program development", because I feel all the examples above fall in that category
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:23
  • @rm-rf (3) I certainly agree we must balance the personal and the mechanical and perhaps I didn't make that clear enough in this post? (4) Addressing all of your second comment will take more than this comment, but briefly: moderation falls outside of the normal operation of the site; we are here specifically to deal with cases that are breaking the system as it were. I don't understand what you're getting at with: "... not immediately delete a closed and unsalvageable question if someone has taken the effort to help the OP and has an upvoted answer?"
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:23
  • I'll also make a point that I do not necessarily think that "no effort but interesting" questions are bad. I've always considered them to be things we let slide either because it is written really well or it is by someone who has a long history of helping others or posting useful questions that aren't all "do this for me" (see my comment here). Vivid's question fits neither of them, and I suspect a lot of users feel that way.
    – rm -rf Mod
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:31
  • Just for the record: The reason for my first comment on the referred question was that is was really very short and IMO too broad and looked like a pasted assignment. The OP really took that badly, and I have to agree that I did not sound very empathic (my bad). Now, essentially the question is interesting and the OP got my upvote on his other circle packing question long ago (even though with hindsight the modus operandi is similar).
    – Yves Klett
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:51
  • @Yves I'm sincerely sorry if I in any way seemed to be "calling you out" about this; perhaps I shouldn't have referenced that question at all but I worried that a nebulous question might be open to even more inferences. I don't mean to be accusatory. This post simply served a nucleation point for something I've been pondering for a while.
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:56
  • @Mr.Wizard no prob. I like my fun question just like the next man, but for some reason this one did not ring my bell, perhaps because we had several streaks of LQ questions and I still had not had a decent cuppa.
    – Yves Klett
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 17:58
  • 6
    I frequent this site because of its "I have a problem involving Mathematica..." and not a "I have a problem, solve it for me using Mathematica..." bent. If it becomes a mechanical turk site (which most zero-effort questions imply), not nearly as interesting (or useful), IMHO.
    – ciao
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 0:17
  • @rasher Well what if they aren't? That's the point here isn't it. There are questions that aren't covered by the caveats because they are interesting and conceptual, but stil the user didn't put forth any of his own attempts at solving the problem. IMO no one is proposing anything that would turn the community into a mechanical turk site.
    – C. E.
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 19:16
  • 1
    I agree that "showing what you tried" should not be a considered a requirement for questions, and that in many cases doing so would actually lower the quality of the question. I certainly don't want people to start including large blocks of useless code for the sole purpose of proving that they tried something. Commented May 15, 2014 at 21:17
  • 2
    Shouldn't questions with a lack of effort but yet interesting be edited to Community Wiki questions? Then the website would have an interesting Q&A but the OP wouldn't get credit for it.
    – Öskå
    Commented May 17, 2014 at 14:17
  • 1
    @Mr.Wizard The question is already beneficial as it is, so maybe it's best not to touch it. My comment was just to highlight the irony ;)
    – a06e
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:36

2 Answers 2

  1. well written (implying clearly written)
  2. interesting to potential answerers
  3. valuable for future readers
  4. on topic and of reasonable scope

I think this is a very well expressed set of sufficient conditions for a question to be considered a good one. But these conditions are not necessary. As I see it, the only necessary condition for a question to be considered good is that it elicit one or more answers worth preserving.

If a question has met what I claim is the necessary condition, then it certainly must meet your conditions 2 through 4. I don't see how it could have elicited even one strong answer it didn't. It could still be poorly written, though. That can be fixed by editing the question. Should radical editing may be needed, so be it.


In addition to @Mr.Wizard, I thing a good Question should have context and target group. If the questions are targeting common sense (Mathematica SE) it's important to to show what someone have tried. But, if it's targeting specific expertise or niche area of interest someone should put some effort about the background and context to clarify the question not necessarily the code (in some cases instead of wording code could be better to give direction towards potential answers).

The editing might be useful to educate new comers and how one could get better answers by asking proper format of this forum.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .