We recently received a question about a haiku-like poem written by the OP. Formally, the question seemed to ask for interpretations of the poem, but it also asked what the effect would be of replacing one word with a specific other word. It looked very much like a critique request disguised as an interpretation question.

Five non-mod users cast close votes:

  • two votes used a custom close reason;
  • two claimed the question was opinion-based;
  • a fifth said the question needed "more focus".

We don't normally close interpretation questions as opinion-based. We have an tag and since it is absolutely normal for non-trivial works of literature to allow multiple interpretations, both "needs more focus" (assuming it stands in for "allowing multiple interpretations") and "opinion-based" look inappropriate as close reasons for a haiku-length poem. One close vote said the question "is about a self-written poem, not Literature", which does not sound logical. (Why would a poem written by someone without a Stack Exchange count as literature and a poem by someone with a Stack Exchange as ... not literature?)

Closing the question would have made sense if we had a policy that said that we don't accept requests to critique works written by the OP. Currently, on What topics can I ask about here?, one of the off-topic types of questions is "Questions about creating literature yourself—you may want to try the Writing Stack Exchange.". If we want a policy to ban this type of critique requests, we may tweak this as follows:

Questions about creating literature yourself—you may want to try the Writing Stack Exchange—or literature that you have written?

Since Writing SE has also banned critique requests, the new part should be added at the end, not in the middle. What do people think about modifying What topics can I ask about here? in this way?

(Not every bit of scoping policy needs to go into that Help Centre page, but since this is about tweaking an existing sentence, I might just as well try.)

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  • I used the "needs more focus" close reason as I was unsure what the OP was actually asking to do (interpretation vs. word choice) and it seemed like it might be more than one unique thing (i.e. more than one question). – Skooba Jun 27 at 13:02

Since Writing SE quite straightforwardly list

Requests to critique your work

in their list of questions that aren't allowed there, why don't we just follow suit? Tagging it on to a topic we are referring people to another SE to discuss, is just going to cause confusion.

If it is out of scope just say so, as unambiguously as possible.

Editing to add: And I do think it should be out of scope. The concept of the death of the author in regards to literary interpretations is one thing, I can't get behind that extending to the author asking us what their own work means.

Accepting such a question will likely lead to us getting all the low quality 'critique my work' questions, that Writing SE currently shuts, down dumped here instead. That then puts us on the spot for deciding whether, and how, we sift those for quality. As the linked Writing SE answer says:

Here's the thing: writers can get real, full critiques at other places without all the trouble. There are, in fact, some truly excellent websites available which thrive on mutual feedback and critique circles; I don't see any benefit to anybody in forcing critique requests into a Q&A format.

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  • 3
    Should we write "Requests to critique your work or to improve the quality of any writing? That would close the loophole of people trying to get a critique by passing of their own work as somebody else's (cf. discussion in chat). – Tsundoku Jun 26 at 12:57
  • That sounds like a plan. – Spagirl Jun 26 at 15:55
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    @Tsundoku and Spagirl: I think it's important to clarify what we mean by "critique". Asking for suggestions to improve any piece of writing should be off-topic, I agree; but I don't see any problem with people asking exactly the same type of question we're used to answering anyway (e.g. meaning, interpretation, etc. for a piece of writing) just about their own work. – Rand al'Thor Jun 27 at 8:57
  • @Randal'Thor I have to confess that I’m confused by the idea of a writer asking us what their own work means. I certainly have no interest in answering such questions here, obviously others may have a different view. – Spagirl Jun 27 at 19:30
  • @Spagirl Couldn't we treat such questions much the same as a question asking what any other work means? It might be a strange question for someone to ask, but it could be answered regardless of who asked it. – Rand al'Thor Jun 27 at 19:37
  • @Randal'Thor that really goes to my comment on your answer, who are we answering for? – Spagirl Jun 30 at 19:14

For scope and on-topicness, I don't think authorship should matter.

Obviously there's a separate issue of spamming and self-promotion: if someone asks about their own work while concealing the fact that they're the author, or asks dozens of questions about their own work just to promote themselves, then they risk falling foul of existing network-wide policies on promotion and spamming. But let's leave that aside since it's not the issue at hand here.

Similar to our policy on homework questions, I think we should judge questions on their objective quality and answerability, rather than where they come from or who asked them. If someone asks a question about how to interpret a poem, then we should treat that the same no matter who wrote the poem. Sure, some of the standard methods of answering won't work for self-written poems (like citing academic papers on the topic, or finding online interviews with the author), but analysing the text directly can still be workable.

But we're not a proofreading/critiquing service.

I do agree with the concerns raised by Spagirl about low-quality "critique my work" questions, but let's try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can still apply a policy of treating questions the same no matter who wrote the story: I think asking how to rewrite/improve one of Shakespeare's sonnets should also be off-topic (although much less likely to actually happen here).

The distinction I'm trying to draw here is between interpreting a work of literature (which is already within our bailiwick) and making constructive criticisms to rewrite it. And that distinction can be made without caring about who wrote it. Here's my suggestion for the help centre:

Questions about creating literature yourself—you may want to try the Writing Stack Exchange—or requests for feedback or suggestions on a piece of writing.

I feel like this is the best way to keep the types of questions we want while disallowing those we don't:

  • "What is the meaning of this passage in a story?" - ON-TOPIC
  • "How can this poem be interpreted?" - ON-TOPIC
  • "Would this word or that word be better to use here?" - OFF-TOPIC
  • "How can this poem be improved?" - OFF-TOPIC

And all of these scope determinations can be made without knowing who wrote the story. The problem with any policy that relies on OP honesty to detect off-topicness is that it encourages people to be dishonest in order to ask their questions. If we decide on a policy that "questions about your own work are off-topic", then anyone who wants to ask about their own work will just lie about it (make up an obscure author or say they read it somewhere and can't remember where), and we can't require exact verifiable citations for every question. Then some people will believe the OP, others will accuse them of lying, and the whole thing can descend into an ugly "he said, she said" without any means of being sure.

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  • For me part of the issue is ‘who are answers for’? My understanding of SE is that the goal is to build up a repository of answers of interest not only to the poser, but to people in the future with the same question. I can’t see how interpreting an author back at that author is of interest or help to anyone else. Even more so if that author isn’t published. – Spagirl Jun 27 at 19:37
  • @Spagirl With a policy against critique requests in place, I think the risk of getting critique requests disguised as interpretation question will be very low. In addition, with so few people currently participating in close votes, we don't want to start researching where a passage or work comes from. We just ask the OP what the source is. – Tsundoku Jun 28 at 15:51

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