From time to time we get questions that are really not appropriate for our format, which often ask for a specific layout. Recent example: How to get this format in latex? Here it is entirely unclear what the OP is struggling with, besides achieving this very layout. Such questions tend to be too localized, but friendly as we are, we try to talk the respective OP into improving their question, splitting it up, reducing it, adding an MWE, whatever might be necessary.

My question is: Should we answer these questions while they're still in a state that's not really appropriate for tex.sx, so that they actually ought to be closed?

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4 Answers

I agree that we should resist the urge to answer bad questions, but at the same time I think we've done well so far with a policy that resists closing questions early until they get fixed (which is what happens on some of the other sites.) And that's really the only policy that would prevent people from answering such questions.

Also I think there's a difference between bad questions and bad questions; the latter are usually based on people's misunderstanding of how much information they might need to give us, while the former are fairly clear in their disregard for what it means to have done some work yourself.

Maybe we should be more aggressive in closing these type questions.

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I can see where you're going with the question and am sympathetic to the general suggestion of avoiding bad questions, however I'm confused by the particular example. The question doesn't seem bad to me (and I'm surprised to see it marked down so much). I'd started to put together an answer to that as well but @egreg's was better so I never completed it.

Yes, it is phrased as asking for one particular layout for one particular event, but actually it's a reasonable question asking for a typographically acceptable layout that is visually quite distinct from the standard layouts, so some people would be unsure if LaTeX can do this at all and so asking a question about it seems not unreasonable to me. Why is it worse than asking for the typographically very dubious layout of stretchy baselineskip asked today (which I answered)?

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Well, I think there are two things that really made that question bad to me: At the one hand, the lack of code. Anybody who's read, say, The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e should be able to put together a tabular with that text in it. The four lines at the bottom are completely out of context, because they're just text that can be inserted like any other text. On the other hand, it's really unclear what the OP is struggling with. Is it the colored boxes? Is it the font? Is it the box design itself? Box spacing? Lines breaks in tabular? ... –  doncherry Apr 10 '12 at 21:04
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I'd clearly say no, we should really not. (This is not intended to pick on egreg because he answered the question I mentioned; I've seen others doing it, that question just serves as the most recent example.)

These questions are of very limited use for the community. The title is (and almost has to be) totally generic and not helpful in finding help for a specific problem. tex.sx really isn't there to help people getting their stuff going directly, but to build up an orderly database of knowledge that in turn helps people getting their stuff done. Incidentally, this works pretty well because we do this along actual problems, but these should be abstract to a certain degree.

Looking at it from a pedagogical point of view, we don't discourage such bad questions by answering them. Usually they're not even downvoted excessively (which is a good thing), but they really shouldn't be rewarded.

I think there are (La)TeX forums on the web that actually solve localized problems like these, but we're not one of them. Let's not answer such questions until they're at least good enough not to be closed.

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In that case I thought that the question was interesting also for others: such problems are not easy to solve. Perhaps a xcoffin based answer would be nice. But there are other cases where the question is indeed "do-it-for-me" and I agree that we shouldn't answer too quickly. By the way, I changed the title to be more informative about the problem. –  egreg Apr 9 '12 at 23:50
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Agreed. We should expect a reasonable attempt at solving the problem (MWE etc., checking documentation). If we don't and answer every question (like egreg seems to do) we promote a passive consumer mentality. See tex.stackexchange.com/questions/how-to-ask –  Martin Schröder Apr 11 '12 at 16:54
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I have been a member of this website from not so long and I have understood the purpose of this site thoroughly, identifying good questions and relevant questions to me and those which I may chip in or help improve. I am not an expert in any area of LaTeX as I am still learning many aspects of it though. I may say that I have used LaTeX for over five years but most of the time I get obsessed with the minor details of it that I forget the purpose of using it. Sometimes I read books and I always wonder if I can do it. I try it and then come up with thousands of problems, then I go online, look at the some documentation and still no solution. If I cannot achieve what I want then I resort to tex.stackexchange.com. I have had fabulous responses from most of you guys and I accept that I am still in the developing stage.

With respect to the bad or good questions, it is relative to the responder and reader. We may set criterion and advice the users on how to use the website but they will always haunt us. Generally speaking, from a lecturers' perspective, I believe that no question is bad and that attention and guidance for those who want to learn should be given. I have made some bad questions but with your guidance I have corrected myself.

The idea of closing is a little bit harsh and from an education perspective negative reinforcement. Probably, a in process or in evaluation or something different would give some hope to the user in particular. We must remember that whenever a question is asked, for the most part, it is localized and dependent on what we are doing. Yes some questions may help others but that also depends on the answers given.

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I'm quite sympathetic to what you're saying. Note that we usually do have an "in process" or "in evaluation" mechanism: the first person who thinks "What is this on about?" will usually leave a comment asking for clarification and will not vote to close. Voting to close (in these circumstances) generally only happens if the questioner is unresponsive. As a minor counter to one bit, though: there are huge differences between a question in a lecture and a question here. For one, I'm paid to answer questions when I lecture! –  Andrew Stacey Apr 20 '12 at 12:14
    
True, true...I get paid as well. :-) –  azetina Apr 20 '12 at 16:00
    
To be clear, I meant to compare someone answering questions in lectures with someone answering questions here. I get paid to answer questions in lectures and don't get paid to answer questions here. There are, as I'm sure you know, more significant differences but I was running out of space in the comment. –  Andrew Stacey Apr 20 '12 at 20:14
    
C'est une blague. :-) I understand what you are trying to say. –  azetina Apr 20 '12 at 20:36
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