I don't know if I'm alone in this and I plan to find out with this question.

I never cared much for reading the OPs' effort. The reasons for this are irrelevant.

I'd much rather read a short question and if I want and can help, provide a hint or a general idea to solve the problem (and at times a full answer).

A little effort is OK for me, but lately the questions are so big that I just open and close them immediately.

My intent with this question is to find out if there are a relevant number of people like me (and then perhaps something should be done about this situation) or not.

Edit: As requested, I provide some examples of what I'm talking about: example 1, example 2, example 3.

I am not doubting the quality of these questions, nor am I saying they are good, (whatever a good question might be). I didn't even read them, they are just too big, I opened them and insta-closed them.
I do have something to say about the third example, though. It's not as big as the others and according to my size standards (fitting my screen), it is OK. But there is just too much regular text, I find mathematical formulae easier to read.

It's not that I am incapable of reading big questions, it's just there are so much more of them now, that I don't care about any of them anymore. I just can't be bothered with them.

Since people seem to relate to what I'm saying, I invite them to find their own examples if mine don't happen to be what they are complaining about, so it doesn't look like they are supporting my examples.

Recent funny example. Not meant to be an example of what I described above.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Different site, same issue: Should Stack Overflow be awarding “A”s for Effort? $\endgroup$
    – user127096
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ You are not alone in finding the overwhelming majority of the On-Demand Junk Context to be worse than no context. $\endgroup$
    – zyx
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely agree, it is often a good reason not to answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ One of the main points of showing effort is to try and help those who don't know how to ask an actual question; by seeing their effort, we can infer what question they're trying to ask. It's certainly understandable that some people would be uninterested in doing so. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ I've thought for a while that we may be trying to be too ambitious: MSE is not a failure if a questioner doesn't come away with an answer to fill in their homework sheet. We don't need to go through great lengths to try to save every person who visits and to reach out to every person who is so lost they can't even reach a place where they have an actual question. It could be very well the case that this compromise to try and rescue bad questions is worse for MSE than just jettisoning them. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ If there is trouble inferring the question, there are comments in which answerers (not kibitzers) can take the radical step of asking the OP. In most cases, the question is clear enough, and it is the "effort" that is the problem. The solution to exercise X in book Y can be helpful or interesting to many people besides the OP; but a debugging of the effort-that-led-nowhere is a personal tutorial service that cannot help anyone else and turns the site into a junk heap of "user A made mistake M while solving problem P". Splitting the site to handle the tutorial questions might be in order. $\endgroup$
    – zyx
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ If you are suggesting that certain questions should just be taken behind the barn - good effort, bad effort, no effort at all - then I could support that. If you are suggesting that those questions should just be answered, then I disagree as (after the word gets around) consequently 99% of the stuff here would just about free HW service. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx: I completely agree that it is better (in general) for users to ask about the mathematics itself rather than about a particular proof. But just writing a bare question, with no context at all, is almost useless for users who are not high-functioning mathematicians - they are unlikely to get the answers they want. We can expect that, if someone asks a question, they have already tried to answer it themselves and failed - so what did they try? And where did they find the question? That information is valuable and makes for better answers. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 10:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @CarlMummert I added a few examples. Regarding your comment to zyx, I want to point out that you're focusing a lot on context and not on shown effort. Effort might provide context, but it's not the only way to do so. $\endgroup$
    – Git Gud
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Git Gud: my reference to "context" is a follow up to zyx's remark about "On-Demand Junk Context". I don't think the three examples you posted are examples of that. I wrote my thoughts about them in an answer. I think you have a valid point about the difference between context and effort. I think you and I agree that these questions take more time to answer and so we are more likely to just move on to something else. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ Of course we should hope posters gradually get better over time, but it's hardly fair to be able to expect them to be able to write highly polished question statements for mathematicians with short attention spans. Too much text (written with good faith) is a million times better than none in most cases. The extra information is often invaluable in getting inside the though processes of the poster. Incidentally this sort of impatience is probably the main source of one of the biggest legitimate complaints students can have about a teacher: invalidating student effort and not trying to listen. $\endgroup$
    – rschwieb
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, your question is too long. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ The comment in the deleted answer to Bill Dubuque is absolutely hilarious. It's the pot calling the kettle black. I don't know if you have caused anyone to leave but you are the most unpleasant person I have ever come across in my entire life. So funny. : D $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ @MattN. Apparently, you haven't come across many people in your entire life. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker Yes, I am lucky indeed. Actually, I'm (of course) not even sure it is who I think it is but 2000 down votes and only some up votes and a user name like this keeps my statement close enough to the truth. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 20:16

4 Answers 4


If someone includes ten pages of work and expects me to sort through it to find their error, I'm not going to do it. I expect someone to isolate their problem, show me what they've done and where they're stuck; this is similar to the "minimal working example" idea in programming Q&As.

A good rule of thumb is to present what you would show a professor during office hours or a tutor in a tutoring center. You wouldn't just tell the professor / tutor to do the problem for you ("PSQ style"), and you wouldn't just hand over your paper and tell him to read through it and find your error, either. Good presentation is finding an appropriate balance in your level of detail to allow the reader to most easily answer your question.

As a practical matter, when including progress towards longer problems, I think it's helpful to highlight your specific questions using > to help them stand out from the rest of your work. This way, if a person doesn't want to read through everything you've done, he doesn't have to, but it is still available if desired.

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    $\begingroup$ I find your comparison spot on. I don't mind longer questions, if the actual problem is highlighted (along with key points, perhaps). $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 0:19
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Good presentation is finding an appropriate balance in your level of detail to allow the reader to most easily answer your question." - I agree completely. And good presentation should lead the reader to give you the answer you want. Do you want a proof from first principles with every step explained? A short proof that uses high-powered machinery? Did just want an explanation of why the standard method in the proof is correct? Did you really just want to build intuition about the general area of the result? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 11:02

Personally I find all of these to be great questions, and I think the posters are likely to get more helpful answers than if they had just posted a problem. Example 2 isn't the kind of thing I'm likely to answer because I'm not a fan of trawling through a solution looking for errors (I have to do that enough as a TA!), but if just one person on the site is willing to do it, the OP will get a more useful answer than if they'd just posted the problem, and got a solution completely unrelated to their own attempt.

I really like Example 1 and 3, however - in the first case the OP has highlighted exactly where they are having trouble, and in 3 they've pointed out why a naive idea doesn't exactly work, which might save answerers some time.

In the more general case, there is only one type of question for which I think lots of working is more likely to be noise than not, and that's if the OP just wants to do a calculation. Any mistake in their solution is likely to be numerical rather than conceptual, or possibly they just made bad choices (an unhelpful substitution in an integral, perhaps). But for "proof-like" questions I find it much easier to answer if the OP has provided some thoughts, as it helps me gauge their level, and possibly reveals a conceptual misunderstanding they didn't realize they'd made.


I see different issues with the three examples:

  • This question was already quite long when it was asked - and it was never put on hold. I agree that this type of question can be harder to answer. I usually just ignore this type of question because I don't want to take the time necessary to answer it. But there is an accepted answer, so it seems as if things worked out. Compare the discussion in comments below this question. I think that questions that are directly about mathematics are easiest to answer, and get the best answers; questions about particular proofs, about history, or reference requests are more difficult and tend to have fewer answers.

  • This revision is genuinely helpful - it shows that the issue the person is worried about is the distinction between starting with a basis and starting with a spanning set. I know more about the asker's state of mind after seeing that revision. So I view this as a success: the question was closed, improved, and then re-opened in a better state.

  • This question has many issues, but I think it is more about the particular asker; there are currently several open meta threads about the questions by the same user.

It may be that some people are concerned that users might try to add nonsense "context" in an attempt to get a closed question re-opened. That is possible, but I think everyone will see it for what it is.

I think that more often these "long" questions seem to be from users who really do have a particular question about something - people who are genuinely engaged with a problem and want to understand something. But they are certainly much more difficult to answer than a simple questions like "how do I prove there are infinitely many primes".


One reason for asking for more context is that there are questions which can be answered at hugely different levels of sophistication - for example elementary questions about structure of finite groups where Sylow's Theorems may or may not be known, in the theory of equations, or in elementary number theory - where sophisticated methods are potentially available, but often questions are asked which may be part of a progression towards key proofs.

Bill Thurston's classic essay "On Proof and Progress in Mathematics" makes a similar point about the meaning of the derivative.

Often more is required in the question to identify what kind of answer would be most helpful.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Even without varying sophistication, there are a number of aspects of a solution that could be emphasized or not. $\endgroup$
    – user14972
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Bennet If you read the comments to the question, you'll find that I made this remark: Effort might provide context, but it's not the only way to do so. My point being that if, for instance, askers tells us where the problem came from (textbook/course), in most cases that will be enough context for the question to be dealt with at an appropriate level. $\endgroup$
    – Git Gud
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ @GitGud The reason I gave the group theory/Sylow example is that it has come up a number of times - and it is important to know when in the course or book. I sometimes ask of bare questions "what have you tried?" because there are a number of circumstances where the question is less relevant than what you learn from working it out yourself. And also because some students get into a block about trying anything. I do agree though that "effort" is not a good measure - often lengthy discourses miss the point early on. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 13:46

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