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There is some tension between different parts fo the documentation here on Meta, the help docs, user comments and voting behaviour.

One banner says: "We are looking for long answers", and additionally we look for sources, proper attribution and quotes – instead of plagiarism – and within context for links:

Provide context for links

Links to external resources are encouraged, but please add context around the link so your fellow users will have some idea what it is and why it’s there. Always quote the most relevant part of an important link, in case the target site is unreachable or goes permanently offline.

All that so far reads somewhat like the "longer the better", and SE has a limit on characters allowed for any answer so there is a technical absolut limit anyway.

But then we have all short attention spans, and on SE especially it seems quite important to hit the sweet spot for answer length.

While I noticed that some users seem to think that writing just one sentence without sources should be enough, others think that mass is a quality on its own and write really long answers, almost by default.

What I do not like is that there seems to be quite an influence on the perceived quality of a post –– based on length alone. That is users judging long posts automatically as good or the opposite: stopping right after tl;dr treating that abbreviation as an order.

As a personal observation I estimate that my long answers do much better than my short ones, vote-wise, but the long ones get criticised for being long. Shorter ones might get challenged for uncited sources, links are not followed up or read and then some comments come in questioning a summary or paraphrase about what is clearly behind that link. That is a bit confusing.

So, what are the guidelines for estimating the optimal answer length?

How should someone writing an answer orient himself on the following factors: estimated reading time, scrolling avoidance, number of links, content around links, length of quotes and context, number of quotes?

Are there even more factors to keep an eye on?

"As long as is strictly necessary" seems like a wobbly response that leads back to the first character of this post. Being parsimonious is a virtue but this is mainly about additional heuristics a writer would be advised to observe.

My guess is that more than one answer representing different "user styles" will be necessary for this.

  • One example for confusing recommendations is found below this metaQ. We find on main an answer that is below the 6 min est reading mark with three quotes that were criticised as "overly long" – LangLangC Oct 22 '18 at 10:26
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    I don't think that was confusing. Kerry's answer is clearly on the long side for H.SE, but there's a difference between "this answer is too long", and "these quotations are too long." The latter is what Pieter was pointing out, and he has a point. The first quote is 162 words long, of which only 20 is pertinent to his argument, i.e. that Jews fled to the USSR. Context like the M-R Pact could be summarised if useful, but shouldn't be quoted verbatim. To be clear, I upvoted Kerry's answer and I don't think these issues warranted any downvote, but I can see why Pieter called it "spaghetti". – Semaphore Oct 22 '18 at 11:09
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    @KerryL tbh originally you won my vote in your first section when you pointed out logistically there wasn't enough time for the claim to be true. I'll read your answer again when you've edited, but I might suggest Nazi atrocities after the war began are not particularly relevant to the actual question, and as such perhaps the graphic details might best be hidden behind warning tags. – Semaphore Oct 22 '18 at 12:38
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    FWIW: I usually put that post note on an answer that is only one or two sentences. While I generally prefer terse, the principle can be taken too far. – T.E.D. Oct 22 '18 at 13:06
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This is only my personal opinion, but I believe an answer should be as long as necessary to properly answer a question, but not one word longer. If addressing the complexities of a topic makes the answer "too long", then the question was probably too broad to begin with. Vote to put it on hold and edit to refine the scope before answering.

That said, longer is absolutely not inherently "better". This is not just about the appropriate length for the StackExchange medium, but also about good writing in general. Excessive length wears out the reader's attention and harms the dissemination of information. There might be a trend for longer answers to be upvoted because users are impressed with the effort invested, but that doesn't mean it's something you and I should pursue for the sake of it.

It's all about balance. Conciseness should not come at the expense of necessary completeness, but completeness is not an excuse to wax walls of text over every little detail or tangent.


Now, Of course, the difficulty lies with determining how much is too much. Unfortunately there is no easy metric for determining this - writing is not a hard science. Striking the right balance is a skill acquired with practice. I know that is not particularly helpful, so perhaps examples are more useful.

One example of superfluous length is when an answer incorporates massive quotes. In academic writing, quotations are "used to clarify some aspect that is being discussed or to substantiate a claim that is made"1. In the former case, quotes are only useful if it cannot be paraphrased into meaningfully fewer words. In the latter case, it's only helpful to quote parts that are concise and directly pertinent to the claim.

If the source text does not express an idea succinctly, it is probably not worthwhile to reproduce it, unless you're quoting to establish a reference for discussion. Quotes are not a (good) substitute for writing your own answer.

1: Lund University, Academic Writing in English. URL: http://awelu.srv.lu.se/sources-and-referencing/how-to-give-references/quoting/

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    While I endorse this entirely, realistically it depends on what your goal is. I think honestly a lot of long answers garner extra votes by being reasonable-looking for a couple of paragraphs, and "looking thorough" with those 10 extra paragraphs. So if your goal is votes, and you don't mind the extra work, being ostentatiously loquacious and excessively literarily perambulatory may be the way to go. (Admittedly, this may just be my ADD-riddled self trying to make sense of everyone else's normal function) – T.E.D. Oct 22 '18 at 13:03
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This is also only my personal opinion, but I agree with Semaphore that we should aim for our answers to be:

"... as long as necessary to properly answer a question, but not one word longer"

I endorse his answer entirely. However, I would add a few additional caveats that I think are important.


Firstly, none of us are paid to research topics and write answers (apart from the lucky few who are apparently part of the government funded program to suppress non-western history1, obviously). It can often take a lot longer to edit a draft into a good, short answer than it did to research the question and write that draft in the first place. I'm reminded of a fellow student many years back who, when asked by a tutor why his essay was so long replied:

"Because I didn't have time to write a short one!".

Additionally, if you are using the SE editor, you will be aware that it can often take multiple edits just to complete a satisfactory draft answer (especially if you are working on a mobile device using the SE app!).

At some point, you will probably decide that the answer is 'good enough', and that you have invested as much time as you wish, or are able to. At that stage it is fine to move on and answer another question (or spend time on the job that you are actually paid to do, or even - if you must - spending some time with your family). As Semaphore has already said, its all about balance.


Secondly, we generally don't know exactly who the target audience for an answer is going to be. This is important, since it will define what it means to 'properly answer a question'. We may be able to write a short answer with just enough detail to satisfy the OP, but how helpful will that answer then be to others in the future? This extract from an SE pro-forma explains makes the point explicit:

"Please note that once you post a question or answer to this site, those posts become part of the collective efforts of others who have also contributed to that content. Posts that are potentially useful to others should not be removed except under extraordinary circumstances."

  • (my emphasis)

In practice, I think this probably means that we should be trying to write answers suitable for an audience of high-school students - even if we know that the OP already has a PhD in History! That means explaining things in a bit more detail, and that - in turn - means a longer answer.


Finally, we should be aiming to engage with people. Personally, I like to attempt to use a little humour where I can (yes, this answer would have been shorter if I didn't, but would it have still made you smile?). We aren't writing for an academic journal with a prescribed style-guide. Write in a way that feels right to you, and if that makes your answer a little longer, then so be it.

At the end of the day, it is going to be your answer, so - providing that it actually answers the question, and otherwise complies with the site rules and guidelines - it should be something that you are happy with. If others like it too, that is a bonus.


1 I suspect that membership of this elite group is a highly-coveted role, but if any vacancies should come up ...

  • Expected audience: Rule of thumb "start at, but then elevate the level from where the OP starts the Q, aim for understandibility by high school students, but keep the level well above in content quality and presentation of facts, details, interrelations and interpretations"? That is_ break down complicated things to plain English, or as Einstein put it: make it as simple as possible, but not too simple. (I sometimes read disastrous studies about the general level of comprehension and competence etc of high school students displaying a downward trend) – LangLangC Nov 12 '18 at 14:47
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    @LangLangC Absolutely. Written so it can be understood by high school students, but perhaps not written as a high-school student would write it! ;-) – sempaiscuba Nov 12 '18 at 14:54
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    I’ll let you know about positions vacant once I’ve been hired ;) – Samuel Russell Nov 13 '18 at 1:57

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