I am new to this site and wanted to check what's considered on-topic. So I went to the /help/on-topic page and found it's just the boilerplate text with no real information.

As mentioned I'm not familiar with the site, so I can't propose a text, but could this be filled in? Answers could be used as proposals for the text.

  • 5
    Yeeeess, I keep trying to bring it up and keep getting told to wait :(
    – Mithical Mod
    May 15, 2017 at 17:01
  • 2
    In fairness, we've gotta ask, what, exactly, are we putting there? It seems like we should have something to say, but I don't think it's as clear as it seems...
    – user80
    May 15, 2017 at 18:13
  • @Emrakul we could try giving some examples of questions that are and are not on-topic. But I don't think we can do more than that without making things up.
    – user111
    May 15, 2017 at 18:17
  • Also, do people really read this page? I know you do, because you're a moderator on another Stack Exchange site. But would someone with no experience with Stack Exchange be able to find the page? (I don't know the answer).
    – user111
    May 15, 2017 at 21:32
  • Don't know; would be interesting to get stats on that @Hamlet. What it does do, regardless of whether first-time visitors read it, is authoritatively summarise what is and isn't on-topic, which seems useful to use as a baseline? May 15, 2017 at 21:35
  • @Carpetsmoker if you're looking for authoritative guidelines on what is and isn't on-topic, then those don't exist at the moment, and they won't exist for quite some time. Literature isn't like "pets" or "programming": there's no authoritative definition. This site is in the process of slowly figuring out what a Stack Exchange site about literature would look like; there's no need to rush the process just to fill out a page on the faq. The best we can give you at the moment is an incomplete list of examples.
    – user111
    May 15, 2017 at 21:52
  • I appreciate that the scope may be difficult to pin down @Hamlet, but I find it hard to believe that the community can't agree on a paragraph about what's on-topic? It doesn't have to cover everything and deal with every possible edge case, just a basic definition of "literature" as understood by this site would be a good start and better than nothing, I think? May 15, 2017 at 21:59
  • The help page from movies.SE might be a good starting point, by the way. May 15, 2017 at 22:04
  • Nice suggestion from Movies, @Carpetsmoker. RPG's help page was also recommended by BESW.
    – Shokhet
    May 16, 2017 at 4:27

2 Answers 2


(Just had a second, contradictory idea that might also be worth consideration, so I'm posting it as a second answer, so that the community can vote on it separately.)

It might be worth listing some examples of what is or isn't on-topic in the help center. For example, it could look like this:

Unfortunately, we haven't been around for that long and therefore don't have an authoritative definition of what is and what isn't on-topic. Philosophers have spent centuries debating what literature is. In some circles, the definition of literature has been politicized to exclude certain cultures. We're still trying to find our place in the world of Literature.

However, we can give an incomplete list of topics that we mostly agree are on- and off-topic. Keep in mind that this list is incomplete; if your question isn't here, then you should try asking it on the main site and seeing what happens. Also keep in mind that this is not an authoritative document; should community consensus change, then the advice here could become out of date.

Topics that will most likely be considered on-topic include:

  1. Questions about how to interpret a specific scene, quote, theme, plot point, etc. in a work of literature.

  2. Specific questions about the publishing process, literary conventions, or tropes in literature.

  3. Story and quote identification questions: if you can't remember a story or a quote, we can help you. Please be as detailed as possible when asking these questions.

What counts as a work of literature for the purposes of allowed questions on this site? We don't have a specific answer--we're still trying to work this out--but questions have been successfully asked about written stories, comic books, plays, and poetry.

Topics that will most likely be closed as off-topic include:

  1. Questions about the English language in general, not just as it relates to literature or specific works of literature. Try asking on the English Language and Usage site or English Language Learners Stack Exchange sites instead.

  2. Questions about creating literature yourself--you may want to try the Writers site.

  3. Questions asking for literature recommendations: try our chat rooms instead.

  • 3
    I'd flip the order around on the list, personally. I'd rather under-emphasize identification questions, and instead focus more on analysis and process questions, at least in the help center. "We are a site for literary thought! Also, we can do ID questions, if you've got 'em."
    – user80
    May 16, 2017 at 6:56
  • I agree with @Emrak - we want to dramphasize those, seeing as they are part of what killed the old Lit - and I'm surprised that you of all people put it on top! :P Additionally, maybe link to English Language Learners as well.
    – Mithical Mod
    May 16, 2017 at 13:06
  • @Emrakul done. (I'm sure you know my opinion about them; I included them because they mostly get lots of upvotes, which is a sign that the community considers them to be good questions).
    – user111
    May 16, 2017 at 16:08
  • 1
    @Mithrandir this is a community wiki so please feel free to edit it.
    – user111
    May 16, 2017 at 16:09
  • 1
    @Emrakul do you think it would be worth specifically mentioning the phrase "literary analysis" or otherwise making the introduction sound more formal? Please edit, it's a community wiki for a reason.
    – user111
    May 16, 2017 at 16:14
  • @Hamlet I wonder if it might be worth removing "The definition of literature has been politicized to exclude cultures who were deemed inferior."—it might be a bit of a controversial claim to put in the help center, with some sort of 'official' weight, and I just don't feel it's the right place to make the point. On a tangent, though, I'd be interested to see a Q&A on this site regarding that; the historical context would be fascinating to know.
    – Aurora0001
    May 16, 2017 at 16:33
  • @Aurora0001 I don't see the statement as being particularly controversial: it doesn't make any claims about a specific event or culture; it just states that something bad happened. I do think the statement is important to include, because it explains the complexities of coming up with a scope for a site about literature. And I think it's good to make this statement official: we aren't accusing anyone of anything, but we are showing that as a community, we are aware of some of these issues, which will make many community members feel more welcome.
    – user111
    May 16, 2017 at 16:55
  • 1
    @Hamlet - I tried to edit it so that it doesn't seem inflammatory, but keep the message.
    – Mithical Mod
    May 16, 2017 at 17:05
  • @Hamlet Perhaps it will make some more people welcome, I don't know, it just seems like the wrong place to be making that point—I would personally suggest just briefly mentioning that it's difficult to determine the scope, e.g. "Literature is a broad topic, and its precise definition has been debated for centuries. We can give an incomplete definition, however...". This way, you avoid going too far on a tangent, and still recognise that the definitions are unclear/subjective. Still, Mithrandir's edit makes the tone far better, and I'm reasonably happy as it is.
    – Aurora0001
    May 17, 2017 at 14:53
  • * Examples of what's on-topic with linky-linked links to relevant meta discussions. May 21, 2017 at 21:43
  • @Aurora0001 I just posted a self-answered question that touches on this concept: literature.stackexchange.com/q/2584/111
    – user111
    May 27, 2017 at 17:57

I certainly appreciate it when people want to know what's on-topic before they ask. Thank you.

That said, we're still trying to determine through trial and error as a community what is and isn't on-topic. So I personally don't think we have enough information at the moment to come up with any clear, useful guidelines.

This is how things are supposed to work. To quote BESW, who knows more about the Stack Exchange platform than anybody I know:

Nah. It's better to assume topicality and define the edges of the Stack's space by what isn't topical, and THAT needs to happen with examples rather than theoreticals.

So as the site gets edge-case questions naturally, it'll slowly figure out the space it can usefully occupy.

If we try to force that, we'll get artificial results based on artificial examples and we'll have to overcome that again later.

And if we try to define the site by what IS on topic rather than what ISN'T, we'll needlessly limit our topicality to only things we can think of beforehand.

It isn't surprising that this is more true on a site about Literature than another Stack Exchange beta. Philosophers have spent centuries debating what literature is. The definition of literature has been politicized to exclude cultures who were deemed inferior. I would say it's normal for a group of mostly amateurs (I count myself as an amateur here) on an internet site wouldn't be able to give an authoritative definition with only a few months of experience.

You're much better off taking a look around the site and seeing what's already been asked. If you want to ask a type of question that hasn't already been asked yet, you can try proposing the question on meta or in chat. Or even better, you can ask the question yourself and see what the reaction is. (If it doesn't get closed, then its acceptable for the site).

Maybe we should consider adding some version of this answer to the help center.

  • 5
    Surely the site's community must have some ideas? I realize the site is new-ish, but not that new. The scope tag has 48 questions. It seems to me that even a terse and brief statement would be better than nothing. Also, mods can always edit the page; once written it's not set in stone. May 15, 2017 at 17:13
  • @Carpetsmoker if you look at the scope tag, you'll see that everyone has very different ideas about the scope. We haven't come to one definition yet; all of the scope questions are about edge cases (e.g. are comic books on topic, is oral literature on topic).
    – user111
    May 15, 2017 at 17:15

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