Writing a well-formatted question struggles new users.

Some decide instead of typing the actual text of the question, typesetting formulae with $\LaTeX$ and using plotting software, it would be better for them to avoid the effort and sufficient for the community to try following up with far-from-ideal handwriting and messed up flow of information about the actual question being asked manuscripted with a ballpoint pen (worse — faint pencil) on a piece of paper, a single low quality (better, but rare — with decent resolution and actually in focus) and completely non-indexable digital photograph of which is linked.


(I have seen more questions of these type, although this is the first time it got my attention that much.)

What to do with these questions?

  • Edit all the info on the photograph into the question and discard the picture? Oftenly this is more effort than the OP put in originally.
  • Vote to close? There doesn't seem to be a reason for extremely poor formatting. "Unclear what're you asking" doesn't really fit since the question may actually be conveyed and be sound, mathematically.
  • Downvote and move on? Doesn't really resolve this.

These types of questions are contrary to the point of SE for information to be reusable: there is no info ready to be indexed, neither there is any possibility of it being somehow reused because of the way information is presented.

This is not ASCII formulae all over the text, which can be re-formatted with $\LaTeX$ in reasonable time or even read just okay as is, this is the next level. It is the job of the questioner to convey the essence of the question the most efficient way possible. These types of questions are not useful.

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    $\begingroup$ Downvote and move on. OP hardly put any effort in, why should we? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Consider the situation someone did put the effort in and wrote a decent question the OP has even accepted. I would still insist there is no place for that whole post. $\endgroup$
    – dbanet
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ See What should I do when I see a “pic-question”?. (Maybe also some of the posts linked there.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Re: Oftenly this is more effort than the OP put in originally. That depends on how fast you type and how good you know MathJax/LaTeX. In any case, if a question is good and worth keeping at this site, that it does not really matter whether the effort to improve formatting and searchability comes from the OP or from the community. The goal is to have good questions and answer. (And also well formatted and suitable for searching.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ As I have edited the post you linked to (and maybe other users will edit it further) I will add link to the second revision. (This is the revision which, in my opinion, best illustrates what you are asking about.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Another related post: Should I edit a question everytime I see an image in it? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I mostly agree with all the points being said, but I'd like to point out that the “pic-question” post is safely addressed by the closure reason in the accepted answer because the question only considers posts containing photographs of the task without any further clarification on it (no work shown, not enough info to gather what does the OP struggle with, etc). This is different. Considering @Martin's point about good questions... well, you need to read and comprehend the question at first, $\endgroup$
    – dbanet
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ (cont'd) which is very hard due to the reasons in the second paragraph. Again, I mostly agree with all the points being said. $\endgroup$
    – dbanet
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would depend on how you feel. If you wish to "downvote and move on," do so. If you feel it is a good question and worth your time, answer it or fix the question. And if you do wish to do so, I'd recommend leaving a comment on how questions should be formatted on this site with a link if possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 1:30
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    $\begingroup$ I generally copy the question with appropriate typesetting. If the work is at all reasonably organized, I do the same with it. I would have no problem doing so with this question, for instance. The work in this one was a bit more of a challenge. (I do expect people who use MSE more than a time or three to learn to do better, but I don’t worry about it.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ I sympathize. People who write things like "√(3 + 4x²)" are at least making some kind of effort. But to take a picture of a piece of paper with mostly letters and numerals is the height of laziness. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Robert, yes, exactly! $\endgroup$
    – dbanet
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 5:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Robert: I have no problem with √(3 + 4x²): it’s correct and unambiguous. If I have any better reason to edit, I’ll convert to MathJax, but only because it’s easy to do, and the result is a bit prettier. As for the pictures, I suspect that folks will have to get used to them, and not just here: for many younger people that’s the obvious, natural way to go. They’re growing up with omnipresent, dead easy camera technology. In some cases it is no doubt laziness, but in others I’d bet that it’s just making what the user considers normal use of technology. (I find it rather amusing to watch, ... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ ... since I’ve never even used a cell phone, never mind a smart phone or similar gadget.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ If the question is clear then any means that works is fine by me. $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 4:18

2 Answers 2


Some decide instead of typing the actual text of the question, typesetting formulae with LATEX and using plotting software, it would be better for them to avoid the effort

Okay, hold on. You seem to be under the impression that computer typesetting and plotting is easy. Something anyone who uses this site should have in their skillset.

Do you really expect some 8th grader struggling with algebra to know how to use LaTeX? The code for the table someone edited into the question you linked looks like this:

        & \hphantom{xxx}-3 & \hphantom{xxx-2} & 2\hphantom{-xxx} \\\hline
    x+3 & - & + & + \\\hline
    x-2 & - & - & +

There's no way the questioner could have come up with that themselves. And do you really expect them to even own plotting software, or to take the time to find, install, and learn to use it?

You can't expect everyone on this site to be a grad student or Stack Overflow immigrant. If someone posts their question as a poorly-lit, out-of-focus image, that is most likely the best they can do. They're not a typesetting expert, or a professional photographer, and you shouldn't expect them to be one.

Don't downvote or close vote just because the question is an image. I see that the image was linked instead of embedded in the original revision; don't downvote or close vote for that either. The site probably didn't allow them to embed it. Feel free to put whatever level of effort you want into answering or improving the question, whether that means leaving the page immediately, answering the question, or even typesetting it for them, but don't beat on them just because LaTeX is a foreign language to them.

  • $\begingroup$ So the array was hard to typeset. Does this justify not typing the rest? Was the array completely essential to the question? Basic MathJax is easy to learn. There are tons and tons of resources, including on this website. You don't have to be a wizard to know how to put dollar signs around math expressions and learn the basics about how to typeset exponents, sums... If you have a very complicated graphics that you don't know how to typeset, by all means, do it in another way. But here OP hadn't even typed the plain text. Come on. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: Tons and tons of resources, sure, but some 8th grader struggling with algebra is going to have a hard time understanding them even if they find the non-obvious link in the bottom right corner of the "ask question" page. Suppose they want to typeset $\infty$. "Infinity" literally doesn't show up on that page, and googling "mathjax infinity" isn't any more helpful. Are they going to wade through 3 pages of gobbledygook to find \infty in sub-bullet 9 of list item 12? By the time they figure out how to write their question, their assignment is due. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ They only have to learn that only once. And I'm not really interested in helping 8th graders that are doing their assignment at the last minute and are using math.SE as their last resort to not fail the assignment due in two hours. There are some quality standards on this site, the fact that you have an assignment due tomorrow is not my (or this community's) concern. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: You're really not getting just how difficult a task you're asking of these people. Remember, you're a mathematics PhD student with a GitHub in his profile. You're comfortable composing blog posts in Emacs about cocommutative Hopf algebras, and you find that Git makes blogging less of a hassle. It's not immediately obvious to you that you're setting up a barrier to entry several times more difficult for questioners than just figuring out their question on their own, because both tasks seem trivial to you. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ And I think you're severely overestimating how hard it is. Look at the front page of this website. Almost all the posts are typed (the ones with a picture instead of a question are a very rare minority), and most use MathJax correctly. I'm not sure what your stalking-sounding comment's point is. (Yes, I realize all this info is publicly available and I put it in my profile so people find it. I just don't understand why you felt the need to dig like that even though you don't know me.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: Most of the posts use MathJax correctly, but that's because they're by experienced users, or university students, or they've been edited into shape by someone else. If you look at first revisions of first posts, the MathJax usage rate is far lower. (As for looking through your profile, I wanted to see what perspective you're arguing from, and I'm fairly active on a trading site where it's normal to dig through people's profiles. It didn't register as an unusual thing to do at the time.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ I can absolutely disconfirm 8-grader's inability to use LaTeX via counter-examples. I stick to arguing the lack of effort is the sole reason. Most exceptionally poorly formatted posts are also bad besides the formatting, and could be resolved by the OP given he puts any effort at all. Like, come on, read the corresponding section in your god damn textbook. $\endgroup$
    – dbanet
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ You know what? I bit the bullet and counted. Out of the 48 questions that are on the front page right now, 37 were formatted correctly by the OP from the start, 7 contained ASCII/Unicode math and had to be edited into shape by someone else, 3 were screenshots (none were taken with a camera), and one was a question about programming that was migrated to SO. That's 77% of questions correctly formatted from the start. I'm pretty sure you're suffering from confirmation bias, and in any case you have no data to back up your claims. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @NajibIdrissi: I said first revisions of first posts, as in the first thing someone posts on this site. Not first revisions of the stuff on the front page. When I checked through people's first activity on the site, the rate of correct MathJax usage was much lower than that, and mostly concentrated at levels where the user probably already learned LaTeX for non-MSE reasons. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @dbanet: If you could link some counterexamples, that would be useful. Are they the 8th graders getting A's in their math and computer classes, or the kinds of people who legitimately struggle with absolute values? Remember, most 8th graders aren't as capable as you were in 8th grade, they probably don't have anyone they can talk to about LaTeX, and they have other time commitments limiting how much time they can devote to asking a single question on the internet. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 20:07

Most of the time, downvote and move on as Najib suggested.

You also ask about the situation where the question has a valuable answer. That is rare, as valuable answers are usually found under decently worded questions. But should this happen, consider a light edit that introduces some keywords in the title and beginning of post. Don't bother retyping all the formulas, they can remain an image.

Keep in mind that external search engines (from where most of the site's traffic comes) index each question-answers page as a whole. So the keywords found in answers help the discoverability.


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