Sometimes we get a question or answer that is unclear or leaves out important details, and people comment to elicit improvements. Sometimes that works well (and the post gets improved); other times there are complaints that we're overly critical. How do we do more of the former and less of the latter? How should we go about asking for clarifications and other improvements?


  • As far as the new user experience goes, I would very much appreciate a little more information from the downvote system. Maybe a popup with a couple choices WHY a person was being downvoted (unsourced, didn't answer the question, factually inaccurate, etc.) and a suggestion to leave a comment to help them improve their post. That information would be really useful in learning how to improve. Otherwise, it's frustrating and deflating to work hard on an answer and get negative responses without knowing why. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 3:19
  • Additionally, it seems that many people are using the comments to answer questions rather than posting an actual answer. This may be to avoid the downvotes. Regardless, it's strange and confusing to a newbie - if the post provides data to answer a question, it should be an answer. If it's just a clarification of the question, it should be a comment on the question, no? Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 3:25
  • @IsaacKotlicky I agree with you about answers in comments; that's not really what comments are for. Sometimes people do post a path to investigate in a comment ("there's something in such-and-such source about that", etc), which wouldn't stand as an answer but can be a starting point for someone who wants to answer. I think that's ok. If you see answers in comments, please consider either commenting ("so-and-so, that sounds like an answer" or the like) or flagging. Thanks. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 3:31
  • I'm sorry about the confusion with downvotes. People downvote for all the reasons you listed -- they think an answer is wrong, or it's unclear, or it doesn't address the question, or it's unsourced. It's better if people leave comments explaining the problem, especially when the post is from a new user who can't be assumed to already be familiar with Stack Exchange, but sometimes people don't and we really can't make them. Feel free to ask for feedback on any question or answer here on meta or in Mi Yodeya Chat. People are pretty good about helping if you ask. Thanks. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 3:38
  • But you can't tell who downvoted you to ask them what they thought was wrong. The popup before completing the downvote would really solve a lot of confusion for me, similar to the popup when you flag a post. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:01
  • Right, votes are secret, so you can't directly ask the people who voted to explain. And SE isn't going to require a comment because that would expose who voted. What you can do, though, is to pop into chat or post on meta asking the community at large to help you understand why a given post is being downvoted. Even people who didn't downvote might be able to provide insight there, and of course it's possible that the voters will do so (with or without revealing how they voted). Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:17
  • The popup method would preserve the integrity of the anonymity without requiring a comment FROM a person, only the notification that the answer was downvoted because of X. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:33
  • @IsaacKotlicky oh, I think I see what you're asking about now -- you want anonymous feedback from people selecting one of a given list of DV reasons? It'd be best if you made a new meta question, tagged "feature-request", in which you describe what you want. Once you've done that we can clean up these comments. Thanks! Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:39
  • Done! Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:50
  • Personally, I sometimes wonder why so many people take downvotes so personally. But - that's me, I guess. I agree that the comments are more useful, so if I don't like something, I comment. The only time I downvote is when the answer is really off-base or obviously absurd, and even there, I comment. Am I the one who is meshugah, here? People take it personally when an anonymous person downvotes??? That's like getting mad at the invisible (wo)man. You can yell all you want, but (s)he probably isn't even there!
    – DanF
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:00

2 Answers 2


Clarity in answers (and questions of course) is important. Where it is lacking, we should seek to improve that -- it does nobody any good if people end up answering the wrong question or if an answer is built on what turns out to be an incorrect premise. However, I would much rather that we do nothing at all than that we do it badly.

Sometimes comments come across as overly confrontational -- comments like "what makes you think X?" or "how is this relevant?". I'm sure this is nobody's intent; we all "hear" what we write through our own filters and if we don't actively step back and ask "how will others read this?" we miss things.

Instead of asking "how do you" or "why do you" or "what makes you think", which sounds personal even though it's not meant to be, focus on either the post or on yourself:

  • "This answer would be more valuable if you could provide a source for X" (h/t @IsaacMoses)

  • "I would find this more helpful if..."

  • "I'm having trouble understanding X; could you expand on that?" -- or even just "could you expand on X?"

  • "Where do we learn that (assertion that forms the basis of a question)?"

In my experience, comments like the above are well-received. They emphasize that we are a community working together toward a common goal.

Some may find this approach too deferential, but I ask you to think again: better that we err on the side of deference than have an argument and bad feelings that could have been so easily avoided.

To those versed in more in-your-face argument styles, a comment like "what makes you think X?" seems natural. In a beit midrash (or a software-design meeting) or when you're in the room with the person, that's probably true. The Internet is different. We are not all coming from the same place or with the same assumptions. Take some extra care please.

We have lost some users over interaction styles. And while you might say "eh, the site's not for everybody", other than obvious trolls you don't know up front if somebody could have been a good contributor if given half a chance. We can err on the side of caution without compromising on quality by being careful in how we say things.

Or, put more simply, be nice:

Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules — they don't. And be patient while they learn. If you're here for help, make it as easy as possible for others to help you. Everyone here is volunteering, and no one responds well to demands for help.

It's a positive commandment; "not being un-nice" isn't enough.

  • ...But as far as not being un-nice goes, there's a commandment about that too, and this one's in Torah! judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9712/…
    – SAH
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 5:56
  • You answered exactly what I was thinking and phrased in another questions. That's why I have enjoyed your feedback to me in the past. Well-phrased, and maintain the good job!
    – DanF
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:03

In addition to everything said by Monica, I think being overly-clear about your expectations of an OP can never hurt (unless you do it in a condescending way).

For example, if someone asks a question lacking motivation,

Can you explain why you would think otherwise? "I always heard" or "I once learned, although I don't remember where" are both valid reasons.

seems to me to be a more constructive, and friendlier response than just

Can you explain why you would think otherwise?

even though the latter may not be confrontational.

Similarly, an answerer lacking a source might have a better time with

Could you provide a source for that information? Is it something you learned before, something you once heard, or your own idea?

than with

Could you provide a source for that information?

even though the latter isn't particularly antagonistic.

Basically, anything that makes your comment more constructive and easier to respond to makes it more clearly advisory and not accusing.

  • personally, I would appreciate it if people wouldn't down-vote without at least some form of comment. It's very disheartening to spend a long time answering a question and see negative numbers pop-up without knowing how to improve things. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 3:08
  • @IsaacKotlicky - agreed. But, for whatever reason, people want to express their opinion anonymously. It works both ways, actually. People UPvote anonymously, too. I do that often. Comparison - My son hates broccoli and he never explained to me once why. He doesn't even know why, himself. Likewise, often people downvote and they don't even know why, themselves. Sounds strange, maybe. But sometimes, you just have to ignore it. Hey - it's a computer forum! No angry people allowed, here, right :-)
    – DanF
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:09

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