I found a question about the interpretation or meaning of a text that I want to answer. I've noticed that such answers, in many ways, a lot harder to write compared to answers on other Stack Exchange sites. Or someone suggested in a comment that my answer is not supported by sufficient analysis. How can I write a good interpretation or meaning answer that is as helpful and high quality as possible?


1 Answer 1


Answer well-asked questions

Not all interpretation or meaning questions can (or should) be answered here. Save yourself some frustration and avoid answering questions which...

  • are unclear or lacking specific details that can uniquely identify the problem;
  • solicit opinions rather than facts;
  • have already been asked and answered before;
  • require too much guidance for you to answer in full, or request answers to multiple questions;
  • are not on topic on this site as defined in the Help Center.

These questions tend not to be useful to future readers.

Make sure you actually answer the question asked by the OP

There are so many times where a question asks about a specific quote or scene, and someone writes an very broad answer about some general trends while neglecting to even mention the quote the question asked about. The answer is helpful to someone looking for a broad explanation, but given that the question is about a specific quote, the answer isn't actually helpful to anyone with the actual question that the OP asked!

After you write an answer, take a minute to check that you've actually answered the question. If you find that you've written an answer to a completely different question, there is nothing stopping you from asking a new question and writing a self answer.

Back up all your claims

On this site, it is critical that you back up all of your claims with evidence, arguments, or experience.

The primary purpose of Stack Exchange sites, including this one, is to serve as a repository of knowledge, not merely a repository of discussion or opinions.

Imagine you are a student writing a paper, or someone doing research, in other words, someone who is likely to find our questions through Google, which is the source of most of our traffic. Let's say you Google a question about literature, and a similar question from this site is the first result. You click on the question, hoping that the answers will be helpful for your research.

What you find is that while the answers make many claims, they provide nothing to back their claims up. Since this is the internet, anyone can make up even the most basic of facts. Since you're doing research and want information that is true, and since you have no way of knowing whether the claims made by the answers are, in fact, true (you are just starting out on your research), you leave the site in disgust and keep using Google. This is an outcome we want to avoid.

Now imagine that the answers backed up their claims using quotes, citations, arguments, or experience. All of these things make it very easy to verify whether the claims are correct. For example, with a citation or a quote, it's easy to tell whether the citation is real and reputable. Researchers arriving from Google will be able to be confident that our answers will be correct.

The point of this example is that it's not enough to be correct; answers must also be persuasive. This means backing claims up with quotes, citations, arguments, or experience.

Backing claims up is important in every Stack Exchange site, but it is particular important on a subjective site like this one. We frequently get questions where there are multiple correct answers, i.e. legitimate arguments can be made for answers that have different conclusions. To avoid getting into counterproductive debates, we need answers to give arguments, not unsupported claims. Doing so transforms pointless fights (Shakespeare was a pseudonym! No you're wrong!) into reasoned debates (using this evidence, I conclude... that's interesting, but have you considered...).

Good answers explain why and how

Compare the following two answers:

According to Professor So and So, thing x in poem y represents z.

Professor So and So believes that thing x in poem y represents z. She gives the following arguments...

Providing arguments instead of appealing to authority makes answers more valuable.

Intention is not the same thing as meaning

Many readers (and beginning students of literature) are tempted to look for information by or about the author that provides clues or even explicit statements about their intent, and take those statements for a text's "true meaning". However, in the previous century the New Criticism declared that meaning is inherent in the text, regardless what the author's intentions really were. Even though not all schools of literary criticism have taken the same strict stance towards the author's intent as the New Criticism, the text itself has remained the primary source of meaning, and meaning has never been reduced to the author's intentions. Using information by or about the author can be helpful, but you should bear in mind that they are not the last word about the meaning of a text.

Close reading can improve your answer

In keeping with their stance towards authorial intent, the New Critics stressed the importance of close reading, which refers to careful analysis of a (usually rather brief) text, looking themes, characters, motifs, metre, poetic devices, rhetorical devices, etcetera, before moving on to the actual interpretation. Even after the New Criticism, close reading remained an essential aspect of literary analysis.

If the question is about the interpretation of a short text (e.g. a relatively short poem) or excerpt, starting with a close reading of the text that the OP asks about contributes to your answers quality, even if you don't include the close reading itself into the answer.

Make your answer accessible

Not everyone can see images or see them well. For this reason, you should provide descriptions of your images. A description should convey the same message the picture it describes would. In the case of a comic panel, it's good to transcribe the dialogues, as well as the current scene.

Make your answers last

It's a fact that sometimes links stop working on the Internet. For this reason, we ask posters to provide more than just a link in their answers - at least a summary of the linked material should be present.

The same goes for image, though there exists a simple solution - the SE network provides its own hosting, which is easily accessible when writing a question or an answer. Please host your images on Stack Imgur, or, if they're larger than 2 megabytes, on Imgur (or any other hosting you know for a fact is permanent and supports serving images over HTTPS).


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