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How do I write a good answer for MATLAB Answers?

Asked by Matt Fig on 3 Feb 2011

Since the question, "How do I write a good question for MATLAB answers?" has been asked, I wondered if we could benefit from the corresponding question about giving answers.

Some of the things I have in mind:

  1. How to (or indeed whether to) coax more information out of a sparse OP?
  2. Do I ever want to reveal EVAL?
  3. How to deal with obvious homework cheats?
  4. If I edit an answer (or have a better one) I have given, do I put a big EDIT: to demarcate the new stuff or submit a new answer?
  5. For stock questions (think FP issues), do I put a link to a previous Answer post or the FAQ?

I think each of us has our own approach to all these and more issues, but I'd still like to see what people have to say in one spot. So what other issues come up when you answer a question on Answers? How do you address them? Should we (the regulars) try to stick to a "standard" approach to these?

Thanks

13 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

Ah... then an example of where his suggestion to "Be Brief" can lead to confusion avoidable by being more verbose.

Doug Hull on 4 Feb 2011

Indeed, I was only speaking of this type of "Top Ten" kind of question. Each item can be voted individually. Then the best answers will filter up to top.

Matt Fig on 4 Feb 2011

That sounds like another suggestion which should be suggested as an answer below!

Matt Fig

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16 Answers

Answer by Doug Hull on 3 Feb 2011

Use good code formating

2 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

Then give us documented reliable markup in comments...

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

I second that!

Doug Hull
Answer by Jiro Doke on 3 Feb 2011

Not sure if this is a good practice. I'm interested in hearing what you think...

If you have a minor addition (or edit) to someone else's answer, post a comment on the answer asking to improve the answer with your suggestions, instead of creating a new answer. This will hopefully reduce redundant answers and multiple answers with small incremental changes.

EDIT: Once the minor addition has been inserted in the answer, the commenter (who asked for the minor addition) should delete the (now meaningless) comment.

8 Comments

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

I know that you can edit by deleting, but it smells like a trick. It's obvious to the contributors to this page, but what about the people asking for homework help?

Jan Simon on 4 Feb 2011

@Andrew: My message about pseudo-editing was not though for you only, but even for newbies.

Michael on 24 Jun 2011

Technically shouldn't Jan delete the comment about deleting meaningless comments now that Jiro has updated his post?

Jiro Doke
Answer by Kenneth Eaton on 3 Feb 2011

I'm generally in favor of pointing out when a key edit (i.e. correction) has been made to an answer for the following reasons:

  • It helps indicate to people who have already looked at your answer that they should give it another read.
  • If an aspect of your answer has been mentioned in another answer or a comment, it's probably best to point out the edit so that the other comments don't look strange.

If it's just a matter of fixing typos, I don't think any indicator is needed.

If the edit makes the answer completely different, like adding a whole different possible solution, adding another answer may be in order since this gives people a chance to vote on the solutions independently.

Regarding the format for indicating an edit, " EDIT: " usually works well, or a lead-in explanation like " Based on the comments, this answer has been updated... " if you're feeling wordy.

5 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

It drives me batty when the question is edited without an indicator that something has changed. I start to doubt myself, wondering why I said things or wondering if I didn't read the question properly the first time. Marking that something has been edited is important enough that it should not be a matter of discretion at the user level: _anything_ that gets edited should have an automatic update time-stamp put on it (possibly with an exemption for the moderators, though I cannot think at the moment of when such an exemption would be justified.)

Jiro Doke on 4 Feb 2011

@Walter: I agree that the timestamp should update so that at least there is an indication that there was an edit. But that would still require readers to scan and compare update times of questions/answers and comments to see which came first. Someone mentioned having a version history, but there was a comment on it about it creating more noise. Something to think about...
I can think of one case where there could be exemption for moderators -- for pure format editing. Sometimes you see a question with lines of code with no formatting. Moderators can fix that, and not change any of the words. That shouldn't trigger a timestamp change.

Walter Roberson on 23 May 2011

In practice, a time-stamp for reformatting does help.

When I as a user see an unreadable posting, I am reluctant to go back to it until I know it has been made readable.

When I as an editor see an unreadable posting, I might not have time to edit right then; if Matt or someone else gets to it first, then the time-stamp update relieves the pressure on me to push other things out of the way to do the editing.

Kenneth Eaton
Answer by Jan Simon on 3 Feb 2011

Use an external debugger and paste the copied text instead of struggeling with the keyboard latency of the web interface. Being stressed by this suboptimal interface decimates your power to concentrate on the answer.

9 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

I sometimes start an answer and then wander away -- back to work on my job, or researching a particular point, or going for supper, or simply giving my brain a rest, or giving myself a "time-out" so I can respond politely.

It would be a shame if everyone else was locked out for minutes or even overnight while I finished the answer (or decided to cancel.)

Also, the system would need to be robust against browser crashes or closing the browser or network problems.

Jan Simon on 4 Feb 2011

@Walter: So the blocking should be "advisory" to avoid a deadlock - sorry, I've confused the terms. If I see, that *you* have started to answer, it is a good idea to wait, until you are able to respond politely or finished your coffee break.

Walter Roberson on 23 May 2011

Sometimes I fall asleep while composing responses. Literally at my desk sometimes, but more often if I have stretched out on the coach to see if I can come up with a new perspective.

Jan Simon
Answer by Matt Fig on 3 Feb 2011

Put a clarifying question in the "Comment on this Question" box instead of putting your question as an answer.

2 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

If you put sufficient detail in the clarifying question, explaining the difference in meanings, then the clarifying questions themselves can become a framework towards getting the right answer.

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

Unless they are cycled out of sight by other comments ...

Matt Fig
Answer by Matt Fig on 23 May 2011

Keep it civil.

  • Even though it may be tempting to write a put-down or overly sarcastic remark, don't.
  • Links to insulting websites are discouraged.
  • It is better to give up trying to help someone and stop posting to a particular Question than to resort to mockery.
  • Sarcasm and nuances of English humor don't always translate well to non-English speakers - especially in text. Just keep in mind that we don't want to drive sincere people away.

Feel free to add elaborations or questions/concerns on the topic of civility to the comments below!

1 Comment

Andrew Newell on 23 May 2011

I agree. I think some very good contributors to this site let their frustration show sometimes. If they're getting jaded, they should consider taking a break and let some new people add to their reputation score.

Matt Fig
Answer by Doug Hull on 3 Feb 2011

If it has been asked and answered before, link to it.

3 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

You've said that before... but you didn't link to it!

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

Can we link to _Answers_ ? Or just to _Questions_ ?

Walter Roberson on 23 May 2011

Instructions for linking to individual Answers and even Comments are shown here: http://www.mathworks.com/matlabcentral/answers/994-wish-list-for-matlab-answer-sections#answer_1459

Doug Hull
Answer by Matt Fig on 3 Feb 2011

Ask the writer of an obvious homework question (especially when no work is shown) to:

  1. Provide the work done so far (the code!) and,
  2. Revise the original question to cover a specific MATLAB question.

3 Comments

Doug Hull on 3 Feb 2011

I think I understand this, but can you revise the wording?

Matt Fig on 3 Feb 2011

Is that better?

Jan Simon on 4 Feb 2011

The edit trap! Better than what?! No need to answer - I can guess it. But editing has the power to make the comments totally confusing.
While "work done so far" hits the point, "cover a specific MATLAB question" is not specific to homework cheats (see: how to use STRTOK...).

Matt Fig
Answer by Jiro Doke on 3 Feb 2011

If the question is vague, ask to clarify instead of assuming the question and answering based on your assumption.

2 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

That depends a lot on what we deem the purpose of the forum to be. If it is to be a set of answers to very narrow and specific questions, then your proposal might be appropriate. It would, however, tend to lead to people asking effectively the same question over and over again, as the narrowness of the questions and answers would be such that most people would not understand how to apply the narrow answer to their situation.

My personal approach, of listing the various possible interpretation and answering to each of them, certainly takes more of my time. On the other hand, as it gives a template for recognizing the different circumstances and shows the approach needed for each of them, my answers tend to be applicable and recognizable by a number of people.

A more broadly spread answer that states assumptions is, in my opinion, a better long-term resource. And it leads itself to being linked to as a solution more often.

Are questions to be interpreted as "How do *I* do _exactly_ what is in front of me?", or are they to be interpreted and answered more generally as "What are good approaches to deal with this kind of situation?"

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

Also, some questioners just don't seem capable of writing a clear question, or respond slowly, or don't respond at all.

Jiro Doke
Answer by Matt Fig on 4 Feb 2011

Read the question all the way through before answering! (I need to remember this myself.)

0 Comments

Matt Fig
Answer by Derek O'Connor on 9 Jun 2011

An answer should illuminate not dazzle.

7 Comments

Matt Fig on 9 Jun 2011

I think Derek has a point, especially if read as I say above with NOT ONLY in the statement. It is still subtle...

Andrew Newell on 9 Jun 2011

Derek's point echos a principle of good teaching: start with what the students know and then build on it.

Walter Roberson on 9 Jun 2011

It is unlikely there will _ever_ be enough of us to "illuminate" all the doit4me whose major project is due in two days.

Derek O'Connor
Answer by Andrew Newell on 8 Feb 2011

At the risk of being obvious, test your answer! I find it useful to compose my answer, with comments, in the Matlab editor. Then I get rid of the % signs and paste into the Answers window.

0 Comments

Andrew Newell
Answer by Andrew Newell on 11 Feb 2011

Give your HTML links meaningful titles. For example, use How do I write a good answer for Matlab Answers? instead of http://www.mathworks.com/matlabcentral/answers/797-how-do-i-write-a-good-answer-for-matlab-answers. See Markup Help if you don't know how to do this.

0 Comments

Andrew Newell
Answer by Doug Hull on 3 Feb 2011

Be brief

3 Comments

Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

Doug, I'm getting too old to be brief. Maybe if you'd caught me at about Grade 3, but my verbose ways were pretty much set in stone by Grade 5.

Todd Flanagan on 4 Feb 2011

Invent time machine. Catch Walter in Grade 3.... nah. I like Walter's answers.

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

Brevity should be balanced with adequate explanation. Many answers just provide code that will be cryptic to novices.

Doug Hull
Answer by Andrew Newell on 3 Feb 2011

How about a Wikipedia-like version history?

2 Comments

Jan Simon on 4 Feb 2011

A version history would contains outdated information, and therefore noise.

Andrew Newell on 4 Feb 2011

See the comments on Kenneth's answer.

Andrew Newell
Answer by Walter Roberson on 4 Feb 2011

Should we trust the title, or should we trust the Question, if the two differ?

2 Comments

Matt Fig on 4 Feb 2011

I say, trust the question and ask the OP to change the title. An obvious example is question 822.

Kenneth Eaton on 4 Feb 2011

Whichever one is longer. ;)

Seriously though, this is probably a situation where asking for clarification is likely in order (example: http://www.mathworks.com/matlabcentral/answers/744-what-techniques-can-i-use-to-extract-horizontal-lines-from-noisy-image-data).

Walter Roberson

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