The Blind Leading the Blind?

Sarah’s spoken often enough about the pitfalls and muddles a group of writers who are all at about the same level can get into without at least one mentor there to guide people away from dead ends – or towards non-dead ones. Today, for reasons best left unexamined, I wound up exploring one of those dead ends online.

It’s a modestly active dead end, but as far as I can see doomed to mediocrity as a best case scenario.

Here’s the problem: the format is a pure question and answer forum. Someone asks a question. Others may add comments to clarify the nuances of said question. Anyone who thinks they know the answer can add it – meaning there could be no answers, or there could be a dozen of them. Questions that will be primarily opinion-based aren’t allowed.

I think the regulars here already know where this going.

In what freaking universe is anything outside the most basic basics of writing not opinion-based? Seriously, this is so many levels of wrong it make my head hurt.

The original site in this collection, Stack Overflow, deals with software, specifically solutions to software problems. It’s an excellent source of information about all things programming – and I’ve found that if I have a programming question of the “how do I make this crazy thing do X”, I will almost always find an answer there, usually one that already exists although I have had to post my own questions there once or twice.

For that matter, the eternally-in-beta testing subsite Software Quality Assurance and Testing Stack Exchange is pretty good for ways to deal with knotty testing problems (and just watch them decide to take the site fully live now I’ve called them an eternal beta). But writing? A non-opinion-based question and answer format? Um.

The problems I can see are endless, and they start with little things like academic non-fiction being so different from commercial non-fiction that the rules for one are absolute taboos for the other (and vice versa, of course).  Genre is similar – each genre has its own set of conventions that don’t necessarily apply to (and in some cases are instant death to) other genres. Hell, the conventions for different subgenres in SF and Fantasy can get in each other’s way, tread on each other’s feet, and generally fight over squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom, the middle, or the top. I would be shocked if the same thing doesn’t happen in the various flavors of romance, mystery, horror (although the Powers that Be have never quite managed to make up their mind whether horror rates as a genre), and so forth.

I skimmed through some of the questions and found myself thinking that this was not going to be helpful. Not to me, and I can’t see me being all that helpful there. I might have a reputation on the SQA Stack Exchange for almost all my answers starting with “It depends…”, but in that field it’s possible to go through options because the set of reasonable choices isn’t particularly large. For writing questions though…

Those of you who’ve had the “good” fortune to have me talk plot and character with you in a chat session know what I mean. I’ll feel out some context first, then start throwing suggestions at you until something jars loose. Often it will relate to some hint that your subconscious buried in the  text which I happened to pick up while I was reading for context. Sometimes if it’s getting really frustrating I’ll start throwing absolutely insane and silly suggestions at you, just to break your brain a little bit so that the barrier you’ve got in there cracks open.

As Sarah and Amanda can attest, these sessions have a way of clarifying a lot of things, but there’s no way in any set of realities that anyone would get to that via a straight out question and answer format. It just doesn’t work for something that operates through multiple layers of indirection and frequently has no correct answer. Or even “best” answer. Just something that works well enough for now.

So what do others think? Is the writing stack exchange a case of the blind leading the blind, or is there something of value there that I’ve missed?

p.s: I’m not going to be worth spit until the weekend at the earliest so my responses will be a tad erratic, courtesy a Wednesday all-nighter followed by Thursday and Friday in frantic post-deployment triage and bug fixes.

22 thoughts on “The Blind Leading the Blind?

  1. Having taken a peek into it, with a look at an answer session, I don’t think they are avoiding the opinion part. An answer about a book without an antagonist includes this statement: “Can a book exist without any friction (which is what I assume you mean by no “antagonistic theme”)? Possibly, but I can’t imagine it would be an exciting read; it may depend on the audience. Perhaps someone has an example of a book like that, but I can’t think of any.”

    Although I have to agree, a story without any conflict would be rather flat.

    I don’t know that I would get involved with a site like this for writing, but I’ve been rather blessed over the years with writing groups/forums online, being part of nurturing rather than stifling groups. I do think that a new writer needs to learn the rule of three right off the bat: don’t listen unless at least three people tell you it’s a problem.

    1. IMO (which may not be worth much), the “Man against Nature” plot line lacks an intelligent antagonist but can have plenty of conflict. Of course, in such a story it can be easy for the protagonist to think of Nature as an intelligent foe. [Smile]

      1. I heard a speaker at a writers’ workshop aver that “Man against Nature” was strictly about man versus his own internal nature and had nothing to do with the environment. All conflicts were with people, never with the environment. I suspect she’s never read much Jack London or Louis L’Amour (or even A. St.-Exupere or Ernie Gann for that matter.) *shakes head*

          1. There’s a reason they call her a “mother”, and it ain’t because she’s warm and nurturing.

          1. Heh. No, needed to be dumped somewhere like, oh, central Australia. Then the conflict of “Man against Nature” would be rather obvious.

        1. In a sense, I suppose, there isn’t a “Man against Nature” story possible if the “man” just gives up and dies. However, the exact same thing can be said for any other story with any other antagonist or villain. There is no story if the “man” just gives up and dies. So if a protagonist couldn’t have a conflict with “nature”, then the protagonist could *also* not have a conflict with another person.

          By that definition.

          1. Twisty definition – of course there’s no story there, and who wants to read “woe is me I’m going to die” for even one page, much less fifty.

        2. That speaker is a writer who needs to get out of her cosy office and experience a monkey-style rent an epic with storms, mountains or the ocean. Then she can discover that ‘battling the elements’ can be a tiny exciting even without that inner conflict ;-/. Mind you that kind wouldn’t live through it with help – and a major melt-down making her another load to be carried.

          1. Alas, true, Dave. Of course, that kind is usually another load to be carried at the best of times – and actively despises those of us who aren’t.

      2. Oh, Man against Nature can be utterly gripping. And yes, Nature is an utter bitch if you get her the wrong way.

    2. I honestly don’t know, Cedar. What I saw when I was looking there didn’t strike me as terribly useful, but I’m not exactly anyone’s idea of “normal”.

  2. From the responses to What are the guidelines for asking for a critique of my work? on the Meta site, it seems the SE folks have thought about your objections. There’s also a link to Policy change: Writing critique questions now welcome, which points out that,

    the idea that a site about writing doesn’t allow talking about writing (except in the rather narrow context of objective question examples) was, uh, a bad one. Yes, all critiques are subjective, but we now allow some subjective topics so long as they are constructive.

    Take another look at the site; this may warrant a follow-up post.

    (Also take a look at some of the other non-technical SE sites; they all adapt the basic rules to forms that suit their communities.)

    1. Joel, thanks for the input. I didn’t see anything while I was browsing there to suggest that there was much room for subjectivity – but like I said, I’m quite prepared to admit I got the pineapple by the pointy end if I’m wrong.

  3. Crowdsourcing answers tends to lead to the lowest common denominator – that’s the one most people can live with, so it might float to the top.

    It only works if there is an answer.

    Since the most common answer that applies to me is ‘It depends,’ I don’t think this site is going to be useful for anyone not a rank beginner – or too lazy to do a Google search.

    But it’s their site – they will live or die by whether people like to use them – and I never fit anyone’s demographic anyway. I did not have an immediate reaction: ‘I wish there had been something like this around when I started.’

    I think the most useful questions would be of the form ‘How do I do X.’ And answers would provide a bunch of examples of some good writer doing X.

    1. ABE, I’m another one who never fits anyone’s demographic. I don’t know if the site is going to be all that useful to beginners, either – at least in part because things are changing so fast that this year’s good advice is likely to be next year’s “WTF?”, at least when it comes to writing to sell to a specific market.

  4. “Blind leading the blind” is the wrong metaphor. I’d go with “you can’t step in the same river twice”.

    I don’t share ABE’s general disdain for crowdsourcing, but I do think that there are severe limitations to its utility in a field as complex as professional and semiprofessional writing. Because even if the people who happen to answer your question are working on close-enough to the same sort of writing that you are, their experience of being where you are may be so out of date that their advice is nevertheless worse than useless.

    This is of course a problem in relationship-oriented solutions as well, but at least in those, you can get a sense of whose advice is relevant enough to your situation to be worth following. With random strangers on the internet, the only way to evaluate advice is trial and error.

    1. That was more or less my thought, but as I said upthread aways, I could be wrong. Crowdsourcing is only as good as the crowd that does the sourcing – a community with a lot of expertise can give very good advice (I remain somewhat surprised that I have a reputation in the software testing community as someone with expertise – but then, I’ve been testing software for 8 years or thereabouts and done a lot of interesting things in that time) , and one without the expertise can be a disaster area.

      As always, it depends…

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