After spending an hour answering a yes or no question, Is carbon-14 still increasing in the atmosphere?, I am concerned that I spent too much time giving insufficient background on a complex topic when the background was not required to answer the question. I think that one or two figures with a brief explanation would have been sufficient.

My question for meta is:

How much background information is required, at what point will it detract from the answer?

General answer preferred; specific critique welcome.


2 Answers 2


Length is not as much of an issue as understandability and keeping the reader's interest long enough to be helpful. If you take forever to get to the point, many users may just give up, leaving uninformed.

Ideally, you want to summarize the general answer in the first paragraph or two and then get into the details. A quick summary at the beginning will help your readers understand where you're going, and maintain their interest better than if they are confused about what you're trying to communicate.

Being excessively long can sometimes be a problem, but err on the side of length if unsure. We can also work on the text afterwards. That's what the edit function is for!

  • 1
    I'd also add don't be afraid of linking off to further reading and background information if you don't want to be distracted by it. This is a situation where linking to Wikipedia is appropriate.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:43



Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

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