My stance on edits is simple: a closed question doesn't get answers and can't help the asker or any future visitors. If an edit can turn a non-productive closed question in to a resource, then that is a net positive.
But the devil is in the details. I think there are three issues that need to be tackled:
- What balance between asker happiness and question quality are we after?
- When should we edit to maximize that balance?
- How should we inform the people whose questions we edit?
We are not going to be able to find an edit policy which keeps every single asker happy, and still maintains high quality standards that keep questions open. Often questions are very off-topic when originally asked, and minor edits will not make a difference on whether the question stays open or closed. Some askers may be put off by an aggressive edit at first, but that is just an invitation to have them work with us to make it on-topic. If someone is not willing to put in the effort to work with the community, I won't lose any sleep over it if they decide not to participate here.
I think we need to judge the balance based on three criteria:
- What percent of edited questions do we want to remain open?
- What percent of edited questions do we want positive feedback from the asker on?
- What percent of edited questions are we okay with having negative feedback on?
I think we should aim for a 90% success rate in keeping questions we edit open. If we edit the question and it doesn't stay open, we run the risk of alienating the user and we don't manage to actually help them out. I think we should aim for at least a quarter of the users we help thanking us for our support. And I think we should aim for less than 5% of people being actively upset with our edits. These are all fuzzy numbers, based roughly on my experience in the Aggressive Edits meta question (my stats are 90%, 40%, and 10%).
When Should We Edit?
Part of the issue with the reaction to edits has to do with timing. If a question is closed and downvoted with no answers, there will likely be a lot less opposition than if the question has upvotes, answers, and is open. If a question has been open for 12 hours and then is edited, it is going to have a very different reaction than if it's been open for 12 minutes, or if it has been around for 12 days.
I think that questions should either be edited soon after being asked, or that we should wait until they are closed (or soon to be closed, if it has 4 close votes and you would issue the 5th without an edit, I am okay with that too). If we make a quick edit with a helpful comment, then the asker can participate in the editing process and it feels like they have more control. If you wait 12 hours and they come back to a totally different question with a bunch of answers, they may feel like their question was hijacked without their consent, especially if the answers don't help respond to their concern.
I would recommend something like this for a workflow:
- If the question is new, make a comment first, and make a quick edit to get the asker to participate
- If the question is several hours old and still open, only edit if it looks like it will be closed (it has no good answers, downvotes, close votes, etc.)
- If the question is already closed with no answers, have at it (anything is better than a no-answer closed question)
Comments are Key
Giving a reason for an edit usually makes the edit easier to stomach. The key points of an effective comment are:
- Explaining why you decided to edit this question
- Explaining how this will benefit the asker
- Explaining that the asker is encouraged to participate in the edit process
For instance, take this comment on a question I made an aggressive edit to:
Hello kaushcho, and welcome to the Workplace! This is a great question that is unfortunately attracting a few close votes due to the formatting1. I've edited it a bit to hopefully prevent more close votes and get you better answers2. If you think I missed the point entirely, or otherwise screwed it up, feel free to edit it3 (I took out details on his evaluation, since you are asking about evaluating the cultural -- not technical -- aspects). Thanks for the great question and I hope you'll stick around!
The superscript numbers correspond to the various portions above. I am sure to let the asker know that I'm not just editing for my own sake, that the question was getting close votes. I let them know that I'm editing it for the asker's benefit -- so they can get better answers and not have the question closed. And I make sure to let them know that even though I made the edit, they are encouraged to make sure the question still matches what they want to ask. The rest is just friendliness to take the edge off what is a really aggressive edit.
I think that whenever we make an edit, we should be sure to leave a friendly comment explaining at least these three things to try to involve the asker in improving their own question. Unfortunately, the comment threads in both of the referenced questions have been deleted, so I can't see if that may have been a factor in the bad reactions there.