In Defense of Editing

by Jeff Atwood

on April 8, 2009

Editing is the backbone of Stack Overflow, and probably (along with the reputation system) one of the single most important distinctions between Stack Overflow and "just another forum".

What's so special about editing? You might as well ask what's so special about editing on Wikipedia? Uh... everything?

As it says in the FAQ:

Other people can edit my stuff?!

Like Wikipedia, this site is collaboratively edited. If you are not comfortable with the idea of your questions and answers being edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you.

In The Great Edit Wars, we discussed some general guidelines for good editing. Please do read those. But I realized that I could have been clearer, and more specific. So here's some additional guidance.

  1. If you are going to edit a post, make sure you're substantively improving it.¶ Avoid making isolated, trivial edits, as they are the source of much friction. For example, don't bother changing "its" to "it's" unless you have several other edits to make in the same post. There has to be a legitimate case that your edit made multiple changes transforming the post from good to great -- or at least substantively improving it.

(Except when you happen to be editing that rare "perfect except for this one misspelled word" post. This is obviously OK to edit. In my experience, the type of posts that really cry out for editing need a lot of editing to be whipped into shape.)

To be very specific, I would discourage editing a post solely to remove salutations like "hi" and "thanks". That's just adding an unnecessary edit on top of an unnecessary set of salutations. I completely agree that salutations add little to a question or answer, but if you're going to take the time to go in and remove salutations, fix the whole post while you're at it! If there's nothing else to edit, then don't bother.

  1. Be diplomatic in your edit-related comments.¶ If you are going to make edits, you have to be more diplomatic and friendly than "suck it up, the FAQ says I can do this." Explain that the spirit of SO is collaborative editing, and you're only trying to make substantive improvements (see rule #1). More readable questions and answers leads to better information for all future travellers! Above all, be nice. And as mentioned in the blog entry on edit wars, if there's any resistance -- even unwarranted and unjustifiable resistance -- just let go and move on.

  2. Every edit is a judgement call.¶ Do we encourage editing? Yes! Do we demand that every user accept every edit? No. There's no way I can make a blanket statement like that. Do I trust my wife? Sure. Do I agree with every single thing she's ever done? No. It would be irrational to expect any person on the internet to extend more trust than this to me.

We know editing is a net good, but not everyone does... yet. Forcing the issue does nobody any favors, generating active hostility and ill will. Unless the edit is of critical importance (which seems implausible, except in cases of vandalism or evil, which is a wholly different thing) you have to just let them learn the system at their own pace. As they say, you'll get more flies with honey than vinegar.

The vast majority of edits I see, I am fine with. But in the case where the original poster is unwilling to accept the edits and actively rejects them -- please do not force the issue. It just leads to heartache. When in doubt, move on. There's no shortage of editing opportunities, in fact, more are being written every minute. There are thousands of users who would appreciate reasonable edits that improve their post. Do not fight an edit war over a crumb of bread -- there's nothing there worth fighting for! It's easier to just move on and get work done than create pain all out of proportion to the importance of the individual edit.

Editing is often the difference between crap and not-crap. It is hugely important.

But how you edit -- the spirit of the edit -- is just as important as the edit itself. By all means, edit away, but please try to keep that in mind.