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One of the key advantages of Stack Exchange is that it encourages real answers to real questions. We do a lot to discourage and delete answers that are little more than opinion, free association, and manifesto. If an answer doesn't bother to answer the question, it's downvoted and removed from the site.

But what do we do about answers that do answer the question but then proceed to wax poetic on some tangential issue? Surely a little bit of that is ok (otherwise I have a lot of editing to do on my own answers), but how much is too much?

Presume that the answer:

  • Answers the question
  • Connects the dots starting from the text ('shows its work')
  • Is not offensive
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I believe the tension we feel is that there is no clear answer to the question:

Are answers individual or community responsibility?

Stack Exchange is a hybrid system: part peer-reviewed journal and part personal blog. On the one hand, posts have individual authors and on the other, anyone with enough reputation may edit a post as they see fit. Like Wikipedia, which sets two mutually exclusive goals, the tension is built into the system. Unlike Wikipedia, we have lot's of communities that can choose where on the spectrum they lie.

Biblical Hermeneutics tends to be more academic than most sites. We aren't quite to the level of Skeptics, but I feel we are close. Over there, they talk about the concept of pseudo-answers, which is an answer that consists of nothing but tangential information. We don't want those either. A typical example would be an answer that is little more than a sermon. Ideally, these will be downvoted and eventually deleted.

However, even on Skeptics, answers that include, but do not consist solely of tangential information are well recieved. The top answer on the site, includes more than twice as much information that supports the conclusion than informaton that forms the conclusion. On this site, we've long encouraged users to have their own voice.1 We want answers that show individuality. If a post does all the things we want in answers, it earns the right to also include optional stuff.

Plating a good answer.

It's unavoidable that how an answer is presented is a matter of taste.2 But there are ways to arrange your garnish that allows anyone to enjoy consuming your answer even if they don't like the look of it:

  • Try to make the parts not essential to the answer to distinct and separate. I rely heavily on footnotes, horizontal rules, and parentheticals to set apart my opinions.

  • Clauses like "Personally," and "in my opinion", if used sparingly, are appropriate signals.

  • Comments are a great place to put tangential information that is a sentence or two long.

  • Except for truly exceptional situations, never allow the garnish to be larger than the meat and potatoes of an answer.

If you see a way to improve another person's answer along these lines, feel free to edit as long as you can feel confident that you are respecting the author's voice. If you can't, downvote, comment (optionally), and provide your own answer (even if you need to borrow the ideas from the other author).


  1. For instance, most of us say "Jonah", but others say "Yona".

  2. De gustibus non est disputandum.

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Tangents are Good, in Moderation

Our current highly-upvoted guideline on 'showing work' explains:

It's OK to a degree for an answer to include personal anecdotes and other tangents, where this adds flavour and character, so long as the main line of an answer is supported, connecting the dots starting from the text. It's also ok to include opinions so long as they are relevant and labelled as your opinion or belief. Opinions and tangents should be garnishes, not the entire meal. If a post is essentially an opinion-based argument or testimony, it doesn't fit and will need to be removed or edited.

But the question remains, how much is too much?

You might have too much tangential information in your answer if...

  • ... an entire section of your answer can be removed without causing your post to cease to answer the question.
  • ... you've made a point that's somewhat related to the paragraph before, but not at all related to the point of the post as a whole (keeping in mind that the main point of the post should be to answer the question).
  • ... your answer primarily consists of statements beginning with "This is just a guess but", "I think that", "Maybe that, "I would guess that", "In my opinion," "Personally," or any other term that suggests speculation rather than certainty.1
  • ... you're extremely passionate about what you're writing about (see next section).

Passion Contributes to Tangents

When you're passionate about the topic you're writing about, you're more likely to go on a tangent. I imagine that we're all passionate about the Bible, otherwise we probably wouldn't be here. But as stated in our site distinctives,

"Answers are intended to be dispassionate, logical, and illustrative of what Biblical experts think. If your goal in writing an answer or a question is to 'make a point,' then sadly, you've missed the point of this site!"

When you're passionate about something, everything you have to say about it seems relevant to you. And that's why it helps to have a second set of eyes help you keep your answer focused on answering the question, without too many distractions for readers. Users who edit your answers are helping improve them.

Obviously the solution isn't to change how you feel about the Bible. I hope you stay extremely passionate about the Bible and the things it talks about! But I also hope you are receptive when edits are made to your content, as this improves the site for everyone. Posts that are primarily tangential should be edited when possible. This can be done in a variety of ways (footnoting superfluous information, placing short tangents in parentheses, writing short but unnecessary statements as comments instead of putting them in the post, etc.). If answers cannot be edited, they should be removed.


1 Although good answers sometimes contain speculation, so long as you 'show the work' for these speculations you should be OK (don't just tell us what you think, tell us why you think it). If no work is shown and you use a lot of these statements (or similar), you have probably given what Skeptics.SE considers a pseudo-answer.

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  • The 'site distinctive' post has my +1 on balance, but I don't agree that "Answers are intended to be dispassionate". I love passionate answers that stick to the question: 'making a point' and passion are orthogonal and the same applies to all the other criticisms you level at passion. Indeed, what is anyone doing here at all if they are not passionate about the subject? – Jack Douglas Jan 7 '14 at 10:30
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    @JackDouglas please note that I said "Obviously the solution isn't to change how you feel about the Bible. I hope you stay extremely passionate about the Bible and the things it talks about!" Also, this guidance isn't unique to me. Many good writers will tell you that passion often results in poor writing. The goal is not to eliminate the passion, but to learn to focus on good writing even though you're passionate. – Dan Jan 7 '14 at 21:39
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    Also, note that dispassionate writing is also pushed at Christianity.SE. This helps reduce superfluous content that is irrelevant to the question(s) being asked. – Dan Jan 7 '14 at 21:40
  • @Daи-I have to agree with Jack on this; we are talking about the Bible, not string theory. A man with no convictions is a man without truth; history is replete with those who influenced change as a result of proper convictions. Contrarily, those who show no feeling towards the subject matter they're discussing cannot be trusted... – Tau Jan 21 '14 at 8:30
  • @user2479 please note that I never said it is wrong to be passionate about this (I even encouraged it). I simply said that this may require you to go back and edit your writing to ensure everything said is relevant to answering the question. Passion is a good thing. Irrelevant content is not. Please reread my last paragraph. – Dan Jan 21 '14 at 15:57
  • @Daи-Gomenasai; I looked at the highlighted part and the beginning of the next-my 'passion' took over. Godly convictions-based on Biblical truths-were at the impetus and core of our nation, as well as any movement that was "God Authored". I understand relevance-if the answer doesn't primarily address the question and the concerns of the questioner, then it is merely a 'soapbox' for a demagogue and something for the mods to intervene. – Tau Jan 22 '14 at 5:12
  • @GoneQuiet-I believe the most dangerous people on earth are those that have no 'convictions' though they 'mouth' the right answers. The heart of betrayal lies within them, and they can be 'moved' by whatever wind blows the strongest. I think we have witnessed in the last 100 years the horrific results of such individuals. – Tau Jan 22 '14 at 5:26

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