A question was recently asked on meta to solicit suggestions on how to develop answers with a "polite and academic tone," with an eye toward helping users to better understand the purpose and function of Christianity Stack Exchange.

The format adopted in that question, as suggested in the comments -- community wiki with one suggestion per answer, so that each suggestion can be voted on independently and edited with ease -- seems like it has the potential to be a great resource for the community, if enough users contribute. This question is asked with the same motivations, and has a somewhat broader scope:

What qualities do the most effective C.SE answers share?

(A definition of "effective," for the purposes of this question, is defined in the following section).

Some dispersed information is already available: the help pages provide some succinct directives, there is an excellent meta post about developing "good, supported answers," as well as some info on "good subjective answers." See also: (1), (2). It might be useful to collect the best content found in these various questions and summarize it in one post here, for future reference.

Of course, different users have different writing styles, and there are many ways to write an effective answer. But the most useful answers surely have several qualities in common.

  • If you have contributed answers that the community has deemed highly effective, what are some things you keep in mind while composing your answers?

  • If you read a lot of C.SE content, what qualities have you observed in the highest rated answers?

  • If you ask many questions, what qualities do the most helpful answers have in common?

For the purposes of this question, let "effective answers" be defined as those answers which:

  1. Comply with C.SE guidelines as detailed in the help pages: on-topic, considerate, focused, factual, free from basic issues of spelling and grammar, etc.

  2. Are highly upvoted by the community.

Revisions to the definition of "effective," refinements of the question's scope, etc., are welcome and invited. Thanks. –  Philip Schaff Jul 5 '13 at 15:19

4 Answers 4

Cut to the Chase

There's a lot of content available, and it's common courtesy to treat others in a way that shows respect for the value of their time. The highest reputation users, and the most highly upvoted answers, tend to put the gist ("thesis statement") of the answer in the first sentence or two. Supporting material is included in additional paragraphs.

In addition to making the answer easier to follow, this practice allows users to determine whether they want to take the time to read the remainder of the answer, and, by showing clarity of thought, organization, and respect for the reader, encourages them to do so.


Use Accessible Language

While Christanity Stack Exchange, like Stack Exchange sites generally, takes an academic approach, it still has a general audience. That is to say that while the use of theological terms is valuable and encouraged when it adds to the answer, this is not necessarily the place to make a dramatic display of one's "erudition."

The most effective answers present theological topics, some of them complex, in language that any user with a reasonably sophisticated reading level can understand.

In summary: Before launching into an analysis of the finer distinctions between the infralapsarian and Amyraldian contingents of the contributors to the London Baptist Confession of 1689 (see comment), double check whether it will actually benefit the readers.

Of course clarity and accessibility are always important and using big terms just to show off should be discouraged. At the same time don't forget all SE sites cater to experts in their respective fields, so there is no prohibition on using technical theological terms if they serve the purpose of clear communication. Notably our tag system is specifically organized using correct technical terms where possible. –  Caleb Jul 5 '13 at 21:07
@Caleb: So, I think the concept I was going for is, the target reading level isn't "Popular Science," and it's not a pretentious academic journal that only allows articles full of words with an average of eight syllables each. Maybe something on the order of "Scientific American," or even "Nature." Is that an accurate assessment? That's what I get so far anyway, though I've read only a few hundred of the several thousand posts. –  Philip Schaff Jul 5 '13 at 23:56
Re the infralapsarian vs Amyraldians bit, I have no idea whether or not that statement actually makes any sense -- which I hope helps to further illustrate the main issue addressed in the answer. –  Philip Schaff Jul 6 '13 at 0:19

Decide When to Use an Inline Quotation, and When to Use a Link

Answers that consist of little more than inline quotations tend to get downvotes from the community and comments from moderators. Excessive use of inline quotations also pushes additional answers further down the page, making other users' contributions less likely to be seen, and thus less likely to receive votes.

The Stack Exchange model functions on the concept that good content rises to the top. Making judicious use of inline quotations, and supplanting quotations with links where appropriate, helps keep the community healthy and productive.

The Stack Exchange model encourages content, not links to content. Links rot. There may be a case for a judicious balance, but in the main (and subject to fair use rules, which include length considerations) referenced material should be included, with a link to the source. –  Andrew Leach Jul 6 '13 at 15:06

Make your answer complete

Don't skip over details just to be brief. On the other hand don't wnater into realms not germane to the scope of the original question either. Answers should not be long for the sake of being long but we do value comprehensive treatment of the subject.

A complete answer will include all the necessary supporting detail but do so in an concice and clear a manner as possible. Answers as long as 1,500 words of have been met with praise when composed by well-informed users. If a question can be thourally answered in less space do so, but the priority should be on a complete treatment of the subject.

See a more thorough discussion in this meta post.

As far as external resources go, of course, many of us who visit C.SE regularly have a lot of entusiasm for the subject, but quite understandably have not had the luxury of pursuing advanced degrees in divinity. Users who desire to provide additional content in their answers may find that Bible encyclopedias, topical bibles, lexicons, and other research tools which are widely available to all on the internet are not at all difficult to use, and can provide an astonishing amount of detail quite quickly.

a decorative -1 in honor of the quodlibet! –  Peter Turner Jul 5 '13 at 17:41
The general consensus on meta is that long answers are actually a good thing and we should encourage them -- as long as you actually have something meaningful to say in the space. See also: Does Christianity.StackExchange.com have issues with answer length? –  Caleb Jul 5 '13 at 18:39
@PeterTurner: Eh? Sorry, I don't follow. –  Philip Schaff Jul 5 '13 at 19:41
@Caleb: Thanks for adding the reference. I read that question and its answers, & revised the above answer. Is the current answer a more accurate reflection of the community's standards? I've still got plenty to learn about this place if I end up sticking around, and have tried with this meta question -- which is for my own reference, as much as anyone else's -- to strike a tone that balances an honest research effort with a deference to established users. I like to get "up to speed" quickly. –  Philip Schaff Jul 5 '13 at 20:47
I think what you've done here is great. I did re-write this one a bit, but I'm not hard set on it either. If you think your wording was more useful, rolling it back is fine. The point is that we're trying to encourage long so much as trying to encourage complete and usually being long is a byproduct of that. –  Caleb Jul 5 '13 at 21:02
@Caleb: No problems with the content, thanks. And I kind of like the current state of the spelling that's resulted from multi-user edits. I think it adds a pleasant dose of levity to my writing, which frequently proffers evidence of a bombastic protusion of polysyllab--.... oh, wait, I'm doing it again, aren't I? Cheers. –  Philip Schaff Jul 5 '13 at 23:49

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