I've gotten off to a strange start at this site. The first question AND answer I posted here were both well received, which seemed to create a false sense of confidence on how to actually use the site by asking a question.

Since then I've posted a number of questions that weren't well received, which have all led me to realize that I don't know what all of the criteria are that moderation are looking for in a well-formed question.

This has been problematic for me because I love history, but have become reluctant to post new questions. So with that said:

What are the major components of a question that moderation at this site considers well formed?


That is an excellent, relevant and timely question.

We're community moderated, which means that "well-formed" is going to be incoherent unless we devote significant effort to building a community. update I believe that you're not the first person to ask about moderation standards. Everyone (not directed at you, but at all users) should remember that effectively every user of the site has an opportunity to downvote/vote to close and every user has the right to upvote. Because moderation is distributed among the community, the moderation standards are less consistent than if there were only one or two moderators. That is a strength of SE, a weakness of SE and a design feature of SE.

  • The consensus opinion is documented in [ask].

  • Meta evolves and advances the consensus.

  • I've offered my opinions; I'll repeat some of them below in the hope of spurring others.

More specifically, I believe that well formed questions are

  1. non-trivial (cannot be answered by wikipedia or the first ten results of google. You can improve the question by explicitly stating why wikipedia does not satisfy, or what you find confusing about google's results.)

  2. Interesting ("How many tines were in the fork that Marat used in the fifth meal before his death?" is not well formed; you could make it well formed by adding enough details to explain why that is interesting.)

  3. Historical - the question can be answered by historical methods and sources.

  4. Answerable - There is a clear definite answer - an arbitrary observer will be able to understand why that answer is the best answer for that question. Avoid list questions ("Name all the people who died in 1433", and opinion questions, "Who's your favorite left handed person with brown eyes?") These tend to be questions that aim to drive discussion - we want answers not discussion.

  5. Educational & interesting. Questions that are extremely obscure or restricted to a narrow set of scholars are a bad fit. "Of the N variant copies of the Magna Carta that are available for study, what is the probability (based on Bayesian analysis of the script/hand) that two of the copies contain at least three paragraphs that were written by scribes who studied Latin under the same tutor?"

  6. So general as to be unanswerable - Today we had a question that asked us to compare two policies. We don't know which country, which century, or what the policies were. Just "compare these two policies". That generally indicates a homework question - the class is all working on the same time period/topic, so it is OK for the teacher to ask. A couple weeks ago someone asked what kind of houses people lived in - was that in Alaska, Mesopotamia or Macchu Pichu? in 1700BC or in 19995? Make the question specific (which also makes it answerable, and making it specific allows you to add lots of links. Links mean that if someone else finds your question interesting, they can do some research).

  • Thanks for the answer. Recently I started a question that was closed due to it falling under 'social science' and not history. Do these points encompass those types of rules that moderation uses to close questions? It also feels like the line between social science and history isn't always so clear. For instance, my question was on the 'role of alcohol in medieval times'. I can see that being social sciency, but don't see why it couldn't be answerable be historical methods. and don't see why it wouldn't have a definite historical answer. I wonder how mods would clearly define that distinction Jun 2 '15 at 12:12
  • I don't see the question to which you refer, can you point me to the question or provide a copy?
    – MCW Mod
    Jun 2 '15 at 13:07
  • history.stackexchange.com/questions/22729/…. This one here. I almost get the impression that it was closed moreso due to being facetious in my question, rather than giving it a serious tone. Jun 2 '15 at 13:22
  • I guess what I'm looking for, in addition to your answer, is the scope of reasons that Mods currently use to close questions. I assume there is a finite number of them? Jun 3 '15 at 21:55
  • No, there is not a finite number of reasons. Moderators don't moderate stack exchange. Moderation is done by the participants - everyone who has more than minimal reputation casts votes on any question.
    – MCW Mod
    Jun 4 '15 at 12:41
  • Maybe I'm not understanding right, but if mods can close a question for any reason at all that doesn't necessarily fall under a finite set of criteria, how can we expect people to adhere to specific guidelines when asking questions? At that point moderation would become highly subjective, and not clearly defined. Jun 5 '15 at 2:11
  • For instance, so far I've had questions closed for 'question not being clear', 'social/cultural and not historical'.. etc... if I'm just going to keep making questions that get closed for new reasons that I can't review before making the question, how can I know if my question will work outside of trial and error and constantly missing the mark? To me it seems like you need to define the important traits of a question, and make those traits crystal clear. Jun 5 '15 at 2:14
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    @CanadianCoder Being closed is not the end of the world - you can, and indeed are encouraged to, edit a closed question to improve it. I believe it automatically flags the question for re-open votes. Closing a question serves a main purpose of preventing people from answering a question that needs to be significantly revised (which tends to render existing answers moot), it isn't intended to make you abandon the question completely. Your question on housing is a good case in point.
    – Semaphore Mod
    Jun 8 '15 at 5:01
  • Hey @CanadianCoder - Jmort says it more clearly than I do (as usual). Different forum, different context, but better said.
    – MCW Mod
    Jun 10 '15 at 13:56

A well formed historical question:

  • Shows initial research and familiarity with the time and context of the question

  • Asks a well grounded "why" or "how" question, questions of cause and process

  • Limits itself to specificity. Historical questions are not answerable in general "why do civilisations collapse?" but are grounded "why did the United Kingdom become less reliant on direct imperialism in the mid to late 20th century?"

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