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I recently wrote an answer to Programmers.SE which has caused some controversy. I'm starting to realize that the biggest issue is probably not the content (or lack of content) of the answer, but its wording; it's written in strong, colorful language, and obviously some readers see only that surface. I've tried to clarify the answer here.

I was thinking about re-wording the answer so that it wouldn't invoke unintentional reactions. But then, I've got 90 upvotes from people who apparently liked the answer as it is. Is it fair to completely rewrite such an answer? What about those people who gave their vote - if they wouldn't like the answer after the rewrite, then the voting results are obviously screwed, because the answer isn't any more the one that was voted.

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    If you rewrite, then put a note at the top noting how much the answer has changed from the original. – user1249 Jul 31 '11 at 9:32
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I think so long as the answer remains true to the original spirit then rewriting it in a way that you think makes it better should be positively encouraged.

A couple of things to remember:

  • if you make an edit people can recast their vote - anyone who objects to the edit can remove their up vote.
  • if your edits are particularly unreasonable a suitably rep-ed up member of the community can revert them

Essentially there are checks and balances against abuse of edits, though I think in this case (with the insight I've got from the other discussions we're having) I don't think it's an abuse at all, anything but.

In the interests of transparency I'd probably include a brief note explaining what you've done and why but broadly speaking I think if you want to make changes you think are significant improvements that can only be a good thing.

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    ^ This.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ +1 – Josh K Jul 21 '11 at 13:36
  • Mostly-agree, except for the "original spirit" bit - too vague. If your original answer is/was demonstrably wrong, then staying true to the spirit of wrongness is irresponsible. Fix it, & let folks vote how they wish. – Shog9 Jul 25 '11 at 20:49
  • @Mr. CRT - If the original answer is demonstrably wrong I'd say that should be left as a comment and a new correct answer posted. People casting votes for an answer has to count for something and it's wrong to change and answer completely. – Jon Hopkins Jul 25 '11 at 22:04
  • @Jon: Comments should really never be depended on to house valuable information; yes, you could post a second answer... But now you're just making more work for future readers, who you really should be more concerned about than past voters. If you want to leave your old answer intact and add a brief explanation of why it was wrong, great - this could be very useful. – Shog9 Jul 26 '11 at 3:53
  • @Mr. CRT - I agree you could do a complete edit if it's your own answer, I'd be reluctant to say this is a good idea if it's someone elses. – Jon Hopkins Jul 26 '11 at 9:01
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I think that there is only one semi-strict rule about editing across Stack Exchange, and that is "don't start an edit war with the original author." Since you're the OA, that obviously doesn't apply here.

There's some other guidance in the above link, but it's kind of dated, and not even the site owners really agree on a single universally-applicable methodology. There are basically three schools of thought which I suspect will always exist in isolation:

  1. The everyman school: Don't edit anything unless it's totally safe, like a barely readable post that's been downvoted.

  2. The Jeff school: Only edit to fix minor errors like spelling, grammar, and formatting.

  3. The Joel school: Edit whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want, as long as it substantially improves the question/answer (and therefore makes the internet a better place).

Personally, I'm a stalwart supporter of the Joel school. Excepting extreme cases like the bait-and-switch, which loosely fall into the general "don't be a jerk" guidance, you shouldn't be afraid to perform major reconstructive surgery on any post, even if it's somebody else's.

If you own it, it's practically your responsibility to improve it, especially if it's highly-voted/accepted and even if it means a total rewrite. This isn't just armchair speculation from me, trying to convince you to rewrite your answer; I practice what I preach. I don't have that many answers on P.SE to demonstrate, but I've done this frequently on my home turf after realizing that one of my earlier answers was... well, crap.

It makes no sense to tell people not to change the content of their answers if the original content is wrong, misleading, incomplete, or simply not the best that it could be. The whole aim of this crowdsourcing exercise is deliver the best possible answers we can.

Editing unfreezes voting, so if the people who voted for the previous answer no longer like the "new" answer, they are free to rescind their votes. Which means that you might lose reputation, but (a) I doubt that'll happen if the edit is truly an improvement, and (b) if you're really worried about that then you might be posting for the wrong reasons.

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You do need to be careful when editing posts to make sure that you don't change the meaning as you could end up removing the part people agree with as well as the bits that people disagree with. In fact these might well be the same parts!

If you have something new to add or have found a link to back up your claims etc. then, of course you should edit the post.

If you are revisiting the post after receiving a comment and you agree that some of the language is more "colourful" than it needs to be then, yes edit the post.

The whole point of Stack Exchange is that you can come back to your posts and edit them to improve them - indeed anyone can come along and (hopefully) improve it either directly or by suggesting an edit.

It's only when you change and answer completed from "Do it this way" to "Do it that way" that you are subverting the system as then you have gained people's votes by subterfuge.

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