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A really helpful blog post about Stack Overflow editing that you need to read
Categories: Tech misc

I have lately been editing questions on Stack Overflow quite a bit. It’s my equivalent of doodling on a notepad, or idly completing a crossword: editing is my little non-taxing pastime that benefits future readers and helps illustrate the community’s desire for post authors to put some effort into their posts.

Over the years, I have occasionally received an email, a blog comment or a Stack Overflow comment from a new member, saying that an edit I made was helpful in clarifying their problem, and they would henceforth use better titles, correct case, better spelling, paragraph breaks, or whatever other improvement.

However, a small number of folks whose posts I have edited are moved to such significant disgruntlement that they seek out my blog, and send a complaint by blog comment or email. If this applies to you, dear reader, please make use of this advice, so that your first message to me is constructive.

All abuse is reported

Let’s get this out of the way: no-one should experience abuse on the internet. It’s a complex area, to be sure, and I am sometimes wary of governmental or legislative solutions, as they are prone to misuse and over-reach. I am especially cynical about state-led initiatives to capture the control of social media under the guise of preventing bullying.

But, as far as Stack Overflow goes, I think they handle this area very well: they have a Community Team willing to receive reports of abuse, and their remit extends to off-platform abuse too.

I should note also that I am fairly robust, and the paradox for folks who send me the vilest messages, is that the nastier they are, the less likely they are to bother me. If I had a way to reply to the casual homophobia and swaggering alt-right toxicity of “James <>”, I might inquire as to whether this sort of approach has ever resulted in a constructive exchange for him:

For someone that spends all their time on stackoverflow pissing people off (pretty sad life btw) it’s quite pathetic to see your website. Clearly a masterpiece. I mean, it’s got great font choices, vast array of colors, and amazingly user-friendly menu – I was being sarcastic there btw. Someone that claims to have the expertise you supposedly do, surely you’d not use wordpress.

My main gripe with you, is how you behave on stackoverflow, it’s people like you that make it so extremely toxic and such a terrible platform. Stop being such a cuck and let people enjoy using it for what it is without you trolling around unnecessarily editting peoples answers – I just picture a man-child sat in his mothers basement with little to no education, without a job, and gets enjoyment (somehow) out of editting peoples answers. It’s a really sad existence.

Stuff like that is always sent to the Community Team with timestamps and IP addresses. If you’re tempted to burn your bridges even before you’ve checked whether I am open to a fruitful discussion, just don’t.

Abusive emails are extracted so that full SMTP headers are included, and are forwarded to the CT in the same way.

Editing is part of the platform

A few of the complaints I receive are essentially demands that questions belonging to a particular user should not edited, at all, by anyone. This is not a reasonable request. All posts are editable by everyone; this is baked into the platform, and is explicitly allowed by the licensing conditions that all members sign up to.

Occasionally I am met with retaliatory edits on my own material. Trying to annoy someone with edits is never a good motivation for editing, and moderators are pretty good at spotting this sort of thing. I’ve edited posts belonging to thousands of people, and on the rare occasions they are disputed, my version is frequently allowed to stand.

Where folks have edited my posts and their edits are good, I am happy to let them be. Unfortunately, on the few occasions I have experienced retaliatory activity, it has been from folks with poor English, and their changes had to be rolled back.

Understand why we edit

In general, questions may be edited to apply formatting, improve spelling, split up wall-of-text paragraphs, fix case, tweak grammar, trim chatty material, repair code presentation, and so forth. All of these things are helpful as they will make life easier for people who read your material in the future.

It is a good idea to read some of the guidelines on Meta Stack Overflow, so you are aware of specific guidelines and the conversations that have already been had:

You are not your post

Some folks take edits to their material as a direct attack on their core being; they should not, but I sympathise when they do.

This phenomenon is similar to an engineer taking criticism badly in a code review – while there is certainly a non-optimal ways to deliver technical criticism, the unpleasant fact of life is that if we want people to learn, code reviews are going to have to contain criticisms. In the same way, edits to peoples’ material is going to carry the implication their post would be better in the new way, and that’s fine.

I’m a listener, and I try to be reasonable

Editing is a substantial power, and I try to use it with responsibility. If you are not happy with an edit I have made, ping me under the post in question, and set out why you think it was a bad edit. It is not a well-known feature of Stack Overflow that post editors can be pinged with @username (although note that auto-complete is not available in this situation – use copy+paste instead).

If you are sure that my edit changed your technical meaning, then go ahead and roll it back, merging any changes that can be justified. I’d request that you ping me anyway, so I can see the new version.

If you have sufficient reputation, feel free to invite me to a Stack Overflow chat session. Note that this is public, and site moderation applies here just as much as on the main site.

Where people add thoughtful or interesting objections to my editing, I will try to respond as helpfully as I can, and in the spirit of give-and-take. There is a bit of a blurry line here – we try to “respect the author”, but that does not mean that authors can insist on anything at all.

Use the Meta site

If you are not willing to approach me, but still want a complaint to be heard, then you could explain the edit on Meta Stack Overflow and ask for feedback on why you are unhappy. It is a good idea to be sure of your case before you do that, though, as the community tends not to be particularly forgiving of users who are thought to be complaining unreasonably.

I have had some discussions on Meta go the way I wanted, and some not go the way I wanted. Be willing for either to happen in your case. If the community disagrees with your view, please try to respect that.

Flag for moderators

If you want a third party to look at your case privately, raise a custom flag for a moderator. Explain in detail why you are unhappy, and they will get back to you. Bear in mind that if your own conduct is not exemplary, you may get short shrift. For example, if you have added insulting material in comments, this will be noticed by moderators, even if you have subsequently deleted them.

It probably isn’t all that important

Some of the complaints I have received over the years are off-the-scale furious, and my earnest advice in this case is: it’s just a website, and it’s probably not all that important. I think it is nice for questions to be readable and to follow the posting guidelines, and although not everyone agrees with that, if Stack Overflow turned off the servers tomorrow, we’d all cope.

Sure, I’d have to get a new brain-pause hobby, and you’d have to find somewhere else to write your posts, but the world would still keep turning.

So, if you’re hopping mad, count to ten. Write out a message about what you’re unhappy about, and then remove stuff that’s obviously insulting or looking to cause emotional injury. Then, scan it again, and remove anything that is passive-aggressive, petty or needling. Then, if there’s anything left, make sure it reads like you’re as open-minded as you would like me to be. Add some smiley emoticons.

Of course, I shouldn’t need to give this advice to reasonably educated adults, but my inbox occasionally suggests otherwise.


It has its flaws, but Stack Overflow is currently one the best free resources on the web for helping programmers, and no other organisation comes close. I’m impressed with the product and the company that runs it, to the degree that I’m moved to donate significant volunteer resource to making it better. I write useful questions, I give helpful answers, I edit posts, I add comments, I collaborate in chat rooms, all with the underlying aim of “paying it forward”.

So, I encourage folks wanting to offer feedback to me, to do so in the same vein – do what is best for the community, argue patiently and respectfully, and pick your battles wisely.

6 Comments to “A really helpful blog post about Stack Overflow editing that you need to read”

  1. > Im moved to donate significant volunteer resource to making it better

    > argue patiently and respectfully, and pick your battles wisely.

    Dude you edit my posts and make changes to it that do nothing to clarify the idea being conveyed. Changing the word powershell to PowerShell or SQLServer to SqlServer and even “dont” to “don’t” are examples of this. On occasion you will do this several times in one day to the same person, which can be unsettling for your target because that is the same kind of thing that creeps and stalkers do.

    I ask you to stop because of that and instead of respecting my request, you get indignant spouting off about your right to make meaningless, valueless edits (that you should have just spent your time writing a bot to make) and trying to rally moderator support to your cause. Thats some disrespectful and decidedly not adult behavior

    I shouldnt have to pick a battle, there shouldnt be any need for a conflict to exist in the first place. If someone asks you to stop doing something that is bothering them or making them uncomfortable, the right thing to do is to stop doing that thing. You dont seem to be the kind of person who would turn their stereo up too loud at night and then tell your neighbors “no” when they ask you to turn it down, which makes your handling of these edits all the more confusing.

    Please find a way to spend your time and contribution in a more meaningful and impactful (and less creepy) way.

    • Jon says:

      Your snide message is an excellent example of why I wrote this post in the first place. The community has decided that spelling and grammar changes are welcome. You don’t have to agree with the broad consensus, but it is there notwithstanding.

      In other words, it turns out that you are the neighbour with the loud stereo. When you receive edits, you are being requested, in a neighbourly fashion, to play your music more respectfully.

      • sum prik says:

        This is great! ^

        .. “When scientists do Battle: The MMXXVII Calling”


  2. BasketCase says:

    My guy i just been laughin my head off and please , youll have to excuse the rough typing this time round i been awake coming up three days now so anyway, i lands on your blog after randomly stumbling on the edits you made to a post i did about ADB etc, at first i looked at it n thought “e’ r’ whats this fukin wankoh doin tamperin wimmi shit” so i see you got a ginger cat n thought yh hes not all bad then i see lnoink to blong n im at loose end just tryna avoid snortin all the nescafe in the house so i clicks on the link and i was like “yhh this guy knows his shit i like it, ok mr you got the keys to the ride im your subordinate bitch oh teach me the ways learned one ” (etcetc)

    Then i starts reading this post i barely got a paragraph in and it had me in hysterics xD

    Particularly fond of your perception of government, its very much inline with my own perspective, that being, im not out to slag everything off and “down with everything” because thats just ridiculous but the understanding of agendas and the constant turf war etc etc. Then i read summet along the lines of “police etc over-the-top etc” well .. well well well, if you like to read i got a story for you, i got absolutely terrorised off two man and wife lunatic coppers after bumping into one of their daughters mates n a load of wierd shit happening long story longer i got robbed 2 cars to value of 15k, stalked at home by them, turnsout theyd been telling eveyone i was a pervert/nonce/toiletseatsniffer/jimmysaville2.0/ on some fuckin countywide scale omyfuckin days im not gonna go any further coz im already gonna take this guys head clean off when i get hands on with him, but basically they did LOADS OF MAD SHIT TO MEi ends up writtin up some massive 50 page essay on WHAT ACTUALLY happened because these fuckin dweebs had been peddling i was a perv in a big big way so i go mad steam down to cheadle village hwere they all at am in every pub huntin em down likethe facist stuck shitbag peices of dirt burger that they are n all of them hiding next thing im in jail and idone absolutely fuck all not even got chance to commit crime at that point really and they have one of their bent probation eworker mates worm it with my duty solicitor who STITCHED ME UP by basically talking X amount of shit about me in the court hearing before i knew it i was in a meat wagon destined for gulag (forest bank) WHERE VEN MORE FUCKED UP SHIT HAPPEND YOU KNOW WHAT IM GONNA LEAVE IT THERE


    so two years later about 4x coppers and a probation worker have lost there jobs and they have hounded the fuckin life out of me with their majorly wormy and shit baggy “turn up with 20 guys do 100 laps round my house every night then wheel spin off when they see me steamin out the door with a rusty spoon in my hands lookin all menacin n pissed. As you can tell these guys have sent me even further round the bend. The quality of writting is better in the report so it should irritate you too much i hope but yh have a read i think you’ll like it. basically a load of ‘never had a bad day, suck the boss off, kill the peasent, wormy, scared AND murderousshitbag gy fucks tried spinning their favourite worm games on me and i fuckin torn em all up wait till i see em in the pub omydays its gonna be absolutely tremendous yaay

    goin bed now will read some of your tech shit tmoxz you got a lot of bits on there im just starting to delve into both out of curiosity and necessity


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