Update: Sort of ironically, this question has been left unedited for a while, even when there seemed to be some consensus in the answers below of the kinds of edits that are acceptable and those that are not. So I'll do my best to update it with what seems to have been the consensus in the end. As usual feel free to edit and open new answers to discuss any new issues.

Following the discussion on deciding when is it acceptable to edit others' answer?, this question is an attempt to summarize the consensus reached by the community.

Acceptable

  • Add links and references. This includes fixing links pointing to broken/obsolete content.

  • Fixing tags. To use more clear or precise tags, or to remove the use of discouraged tags.

  • To improve formatting. For example badly formatted code, URLs pasted in the text without a description, or in general incorrect usage of markdown formatting.

  • Adding pictures. This is particularly useful when a question/answer can be made clearer by compiling the example code provided by the original author, and then adding a picture that shows how the output looks.

  • Fix typos in the code. Repair minor typos in the code of an otherwise well written question or answer.

Unacceptable

  • To change the original meaning. It is unacceptable to edit someone else's question/answer and, in doing so, change its meaning or intention (e.g., what is discussed in the Meta Stack Overflow discussion about abusive editors).

    As a corollary, one shouldn't edit the question if one is unable to understand the meaning of the original question.

  • Adding new information. Particularly for an answer, additional information that could improve it should be added as a comment (which can be upvoted!).

    If there is a significant amount of information that you wish to add, consider adding a new answer instead and credit any previous information you take from other existing answers.

  • Fixing typos or grammar errors. Editing a question/answer for such small issues has the undesired effect of bringing the question back to the homepage, which can become a nuisance for frequent users of the site.

    There are two obvious exceptions for fixing these types of errors: 1. you are editing for one of the acceptable reasons anyway; 2. the question is near to the top of the active questions anyway.

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Personally I disagree with "To make an answer more complete" and "To make a question/answer clearer" - for me those are not valid reasons to edit. In those cases I'd leave a comment suggesting the improvement that I think should be made, but I leave it up to the original poster of the answer to actually do it (or not), since it's their name that's attached to the answer. –  David Z Aug 13 '10 at 4:48
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David, could you add your comment as a new answer so that se can vote it and discuss it? –  Juan A. Navarro Aug 13 '10 at 5:54
    
I agree with David's assessment on the first, and conditionally agree with the second. If making a question/answer clearer is only a relatively minor change (grammar/formatting/reordering sentences or clauses), I think one should go ahead and edit. –  Willie Wong Aug 30 '10 at 20:02
    
To be complete, this needs to take account of the different status of CW posts. Adding lots of information and redrafting is acceptable in many cases with CW posts. –  Charles Stewart Aug 31 '10 at 9:41
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I'm guilty of fixing typos in the text. I'll try to restrain myself regarding old questions, but I think it is acceptable to fix typos in recently asked questions. –  lockstep Dec 2 '10 at 19:31
    
@Juan: I just felt free to edit the question, but on submission got the message "Oops! Your edit couldn't be submitted because: 'discussion faq etiquette editing' contains a tag reserved for moderator use". –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 14 '11 at 15:33
    
@Juan: Here are my proposed changes: 1. fix the typo in "bellow", 2. in the last point of "Unacceptable" add, in a new paragraph, "There are two obvious exceptions: 1. you are editing for one of the acceptable reasons anyway, 2. the question is near to the top of the active questions anyway." Do you agree with this? –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 14 '11 at 15:34
    
@hendrik: I've just applied your suggested changes. I don't like it that only moderators can edit this, but removing the faq tag is also probably not desirable. Any ideas of what could we do? –  Juan A. Navarro Jan 14 '11 at 15:40
    
@Juan: I think we can't do anything, and maybe that's good. I don't want that every user with 2000+ rep is able to edit this post (and I didn't intend to make my edit without asking in a comment if the change was OK). At the moment there might be no problem, but maybe in a year this will look completely differently. However, I'll post a related question now. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 14 '11 at 15:46
    
@Hendrik, Juan: I've changed the "faq" tag to "faq-provisional" to avoid the problem but (hopefully) retain the benefit of the tag. When it's reached a stable state, we can put the "faq" tag back. –  Andrew Stacey Jan 16 '11 at 19:07
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With respect to fixing grammar/typos, there seem to be instances where fixing makes the question understandable, especially if the error is made by a non-English speaker. E.g. I recently changed a question that was "Align splited equation" to "Align split equation". Since the question was new, it probably edit met the exception criteria anyway, but it seems like such edits are worthwhile. –  Alan Munn Jan 16 '11 at 19:34
    
@Alan: I saw that edit, and I liked it. However, it wouldn't be a good idea to go through the old questions and make them better understandable by fixing grammar. (And I'm quite sure that this is not your intention!) In that particular question, the error was in the title, and this should indeed be fixed if the question is relevant. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 18 '11 at 17:25
    
@Andrew: Is there a specific reason for not retagging? The edit problem is solved, and I have no idea how one could decide when the question has "reached a stable state". The "faq" tag would really help to make this more visible, I think. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 22 '11 at 11:35
    
@lockstep: As much as I appreciate your tagging work, doing almost 10 in quick succession is a bit too much IMHO since this moves the questions with real recent activity off the top too fast. I don't really know, however, what the way out of this dilemma is. –  Hendrik Vogt Feb 23 '11 at 9:54
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@mafp By objectively good, I mean improved the quality of the question, independent of whether they were done in 'violation' of a guideline not to edit just for grammar. Your rollback wasn't justified, since it made the question objectively worse (again independent of whether you think you did it for the 'right' reasons). –  Alan Munn May 8 '13 at 2:11
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9 Answers

Adding pictures

I often find myself compiling example code from questions/answers to see how the output looks. It is then trivial to produce a screenshot of the rendered output (for me that is just holding the super key and selecting the area). How do people feel about these screenshots being added to their questions/answers?

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For me it's definitely acceptable, and helps a lot to clarify existing questions and answers. –  Juan A. Navarro Aug 31 '10 at 14:22
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I don't think anyone would object as long as it's done correctly. (I.e., actually shows the results spoken of, and it's clear which text it is associated with.) –  SamB Dec 19 '10 at 3:47
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(Assuming, that is, that you don't do it at an enormous size or otherwise destroy the usability/aesthetics of the page ;-). –  SamB Dec 19 '10 at 3:53
    
We had this short communication about when to include pictures in a post of a new user. I see that you reincluded the picture, and I like it. Somehow I think our official policy should be that it's OK to include images in these cases, but that one leaves a comment with some explanation. (Maybe also wait some time, say 1 hour?) Here's an example where the answers started coming only after I included the picture in the OP. What do you think? –  Hendrik Vogt Feb 28 '11 at 16:57
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I'll try to add more structure to the discussion by having individual items that seem controversial, then let's vote on them. Please up-vote this answer if you agree with it or down-vote if you disagree. In either case leave a comment explaining why.

It is acceptable to edit questions/answers to improve formatting

For example to fix badly formatted code, or in general incorrect usage of markdown formatting.

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+1, it benefits the site to do this. –  Charles Stewart Aug 31 '10 at 14:39
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I'd like to add a couple of "when not to edit"s. They are based on the following two side effects of editing:

  1. An edit on a question or answer bumps that question to the top of the active list.
  2. An edit on a question or answer puts the editor's name as the "last activity by" name on the active list.

So if either of these is not desirable, do not edit.

Let me outline a couple of scenarios where this might apply:

  1. For the first case, whilst it is beneficial to clean up old questions and answers, if all that they need is the edit (that is, there isn't any need for a new answer or new comment) then putting it back on the frontpage means that another question which does need more active attention is taken off. Whilst one question isn't much, doing this for several can inhibit the normal activity of the site.

  2. For the second case, if someone does a lot of edits (or retags) then seeing several posts with "edited by X" on the frontpage makes it difficult to distinguish between new posts, old posts with new answers, and old posts that don't need any further attention.

There are, no doubt, other scenarios where it would not be appropriate to edit.

My general point is that when editing, it is important to remember that a question has two (at least) stages in its life-cycle. When it first appears on the site, then the important thing is that it be answered. Thus edits should confine themselves to those that make the question clearer and easier to understand (with the proviso that if doing such an edit then correcting other minor issues is then made acceptable as well). Later, when the question has been satisfactorily answered, it becomes a resource and then it would be nice to fix those minor irritations to "make the internet a better place". But whilst in this stage it is more acceptable to do these minor edits, that style of editing should not interfere with questions that are still in the first stage of their life. Also, it is possible for a question to rejuvenate and go from the second stage to the first again (new information, new answer, and so forth). In that case, the first set of edits apply again.

Of course, when a question is on the front page then all attention is on it and it is easy to see the errors that need correcting, and all too easy to forget them later. Maybe we should have an "editors' chatroom" where people can record questions that they'd later like to go back and edit. That would also enable others to see the proposed corrections and add their own (sometimes I see an edit and think, "Oh, but you missed X, Y, and Z!" but they are in themselves too minor to edit for).

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How about adding the following rule of thumb: if you find yourself saying "I think I'll go an do a bunch of edits to help clean up the site" STOP! If you happen upon an old question by accident, that could do with some editing, feel free to edit. –  Alan Munn Jun 3 '11 at 18:47
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@Alan: That is the principle I am usually applying (except when doing a coordinated retagging effort, in which case I usually try to limit the amount of questions edited in some time frame.) –  Caramdir Jun 3 '11 at 18:59
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I'll try to add more structure to the discussion by having individual items that seem controversial, then let's vote on them. Please up-vote this answer if you agree with it or down-vote if you disagree. In either case leave a comment explaining why.

It is acceptable to edit questions/answers to do small repairs

This includes fixing typos in code, text, and small stylish fixes (e.g. Latex -> LaTeX).

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I think we shouldn't feel obligated to do this kind of edits. But if someone finds a typo and is willing to fix it, why not? –  Juan A. Navarro Aug 31 '10 at 12:16
    
=0, Why? Why not? Sometimes the fixes are worth doing, like fixing unintended ambiguities or embarassingly confused claims, but more often these edits are trivial or even slightly annoying, and they have caused edit wars (e.g., stackoverflow.com/posts/3530902/revisions). If SX ever got the ability to mark edits as minor, as per WP, the negatives of small repairs as a whole would become less. –  Charles Stewart Aug 31 '10 at 14:51
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Typos in code should be fixed, but I usually don’t fix other minor errors to avoid bumping the question to the top. However I think it is acceptable to fix them while editing the question for a different reason. –  Caramdir Aug 31 '10 at 15:09
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+1 for fixing typos in code (extremely useful), but -1 for Latex -> LaTeX (completely unnecessary noise). –  Jukka Suomela Aug 31 '10 at 17:56
    
I think that the consistent use of a mixed caps TeX and LaTeX is a reason to edit. It's a name, and I do like names to be written how they should be. –  topskip Apr 7 '12 at 12:50
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In my experience, the OP does not always choose a title relevant to the problem s/he's facing. Example:

Tex doesn't work

A poorly chosen title is, of course, forgivable in many cases; the origin of the problem may not be obvious.

However, someone posting an answer that solves the OP's problem, or any subsequent visitor to the page who is savvy enough, should attempt to improve the title, if possible and necessary.

The rationale is that titles play an important role in search on the site and in Google (due to the URL naming scheme used by SE sites), and we want somebody facing the same problem as the OP to easily find their way to a relevant question and a solution to it. An obvious benefit of this renaming practice is that it contributes to reducing the number of duplicates.

Therefore, I would add the following item in the "acceptable" category:

Improving the title

Making the question's title more descriptive of the problem so that those who subsequently encounter the same problem find their way to that question (and a solution to it) more easily.

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I couldn’t agree more, I make these edits a lot. Titles including the words problem or issue most likely need changing. However, I always try to keep the title as close the the asker’s perspective (as I imagine it) as possible, i.e. to really describe the symptoms of the problem and not to anticipate the solution too much. –  doncherry May 4 '13 at 21:59
    
I also agree with this, when editing one should be careful to anticipate how other people having such problems might search (not how people how know the solution might refer to it). –  Juan A. Navarro May 5 '13 at 13:28
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I'm proposing this resolution for debate rather than declaring it. I'd like to hear comments.

It is acceptable to edit abuses of markdown syntax

I've noticed some questioners (this one, for instance, not to single out anybody but just to provide an example) using the quote environment to highlight parts of their question. This isn't "bad" formatting since the answer is still readable but I would call it "unpleasant." And if a machine were trying to process the document it would be confused since this text is put in a blockquote element and it isn't a quote of anything. Mainly, I think it indicates the question could be written better.

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Just noticed that this is apparently a special case of the currently top-voted answer "...in general incorrect usage of markdown formatting." So maybe this isn't controversial at all. –  Matthew Leingang Dec 2 '10 at 13:37
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Suggestions about acceptable reasons

  1. Fix typos in the code. – Typos in the code are not all that code: nearly everyone cut&pastes. In any case, I think that they should not be fixed, but the problem drawn to the posters attention in a comment: how do you know the typo isn't responsible for the difficulty the questioner raises? What is a serious problem is unreadable code, usually because the poster does not fully understand the use of code and pre tags (I know it took me a while). So I think we should replace this case by Repair badly formatted code.
  2. Fix typos in the text – I'm astonished by the energy that people pour into this. I avoid these kinds of edits, except to eliminate obvious cases of serious unintended ambiguity.
  3. To make an answer more complete – Great answers are great, but I think you should ask for permission before doing this.
  4. To make a question/answer look better For example ... turn Latex into LaTeX – Do people really keep typing in capitalisation monstrosities like "ConTeXt MkIV" or do they have keyboard macros for this kind of thing? I object to wacky capitalisation of brand names - no one is paying me to make their products stand out in my writing - and if I know why Tex has its funny typesetting, isn't it actually incorrect to render the contents of the macro \LaTeX LaTeX, rather than LATEX? No, that's not right either... I'm not otherwise concerned about this point.
  5. To make a question/answer clearer ... These are probably the most controversial – A high proportion of my hundreds of edits to non-CW posts on SO were to questions that were asked, mostly by non-native speakers, that I did not fully understand the first time I read. Typically these edits were far from conservative, often involving a complete rewriting of the question, and inserting or replacing the first sentence by a new sentence bring to the top a summary of the information. I don't recall anyone ever having objected to my edits, and I do think they made a difference to the number, if not quality, of answers received (these were often questions that had lain about unanswered for days, and received answers only after my edit).

    With answers, I don't think editing for clarity is so important.

Two further points: first, in my opinion, repairing formatting of code, and making questions clearer are what make editing non-CW posts worthwhile. Otherwise, I think we would be better off disabling the feature. These two points should be first

Second, be clear in your edit summary as to what the benefit of your edit is. If you can't quickly type in a few words making this clear, perhaps the edit isn't worthwhile. "Make question clearer & more attractive to answerers" is maybe actually nice for a non-native speaker of English to read in an edit summary.

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It is acceptable to edit a question to improve clarity, but usually not to edit answers for clarity

Hoisted from my other answer, because that was rather cluttered, and this is the most important point.

Because questioners are petitioning the readers of the site to provide answers. Making their questions more attractive to potential answerers is a service to the questioner —it helps them find the answers they want— and to the readers, because it makes understanding the question easier.

Answerers, on the other hand, are providing a service. They are more likely to feel slighted when having their answers 'improved', and with justice. Unless there is some signal that they would like help in improving their answer, such as them marking their answer CW, editing answers for clarity should be avoided. Instead, it is fine to create a new answer that explains what another answerer failed to properly articulate.

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And here I thought the reason we did that was that you get rep for answer upvotes but not comment upvotes... –  SamB Dec 19 '10 at 3:50
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I'll try to add more structure to the discussion by having individual items that seem controversial, then let's vote on them. Please up-vote this answer if you agree with it or down-vote if you disagree. In either case leave a comment explaining why.

It is acceptable to edit answers to make them complete

That is, to turn good answers into great answers.

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I think this should be acceptable and will improve the usefulness of the site overall. Specially for popular questions, I would love to see that the accepted answer is more often than not, a great answer. –  Juan A. Navarro Aug 31 '10 at 12:19
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-1, this comes from the nice-sounding idea that WP non-ownership of answers promotes better, more communal presentations of answers. I don't think it worked, and that's why we respect the wishes of the poster now. This undermines that. –  Charles Stewart Aug 31 '10 at 14:42
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-1, you can add more details in another answer and/or in comments. Then you'll see from the votes whether your addition was that useful or not. –  Jukka Suomela Aug 31 '10 at 17:58
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@Jukka: The addition of details may be too small for another answer, or even too trivial to leave as a comment. I don't see why such edits should be controversial. Anyway, they can always be reverted. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 31 '10 at 23:38
    
@ShreevatsaR: I've put up another answer with my case against editing answers for completeness. –  Charles Stewart Dec 3 '10 at 11:32
    
Three thoughts: 1. Having more answers that are dependent on each other makes it harder for readers to synthesize the best answer. 2. It also makes it harder for the OP to choose a correct answer. 3. Editing answers for completeness is an altruistic act. Whenever I do this, I will not gain reputation. –  Lover of Structure Mar 20 '13 at 0:43
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