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I have been exploring the website a little bit, and I notice that most of the users vote for highly rated members (imagine that) when they pick their answer choice. Clearly, there is very good reason for this (in fact I notice a strong correlation between brilliant answers and member rating), yet I am wondering how to answer someone's question, and get chosen as an answer choice ; this poses a problem, considering a low rated member's opinion is more than likely to be eclipsed by a more notable user (clearly, there is good reason for this). I really like this website, and I would like to use it in order to educate myself, and help others educate themselves.

So, my question is: What do you find to be the most effective method to answer a person's question? What idiosyncrasies separate good answers from great ones?

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migrated from physics.stackexchange.com May 29 '14 at 8:03

This question came from our site for active researchers, academics and students of physics.

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    $\begingroup$ you should ask this on physics meta. $\endgroup$ – Isomorphic May 29 '14 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ You might like:meta.stackexchange.com/q/7656. And forget about reputation and whose answer gets marked. Education has nothing to do with virtual points. $\endgroup$ – jinawee May 29 '14 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ I feel that a very low-rated user can be very successful here (of course, he'll turn into a high-rated user fairly quickly, but that's a good thing ;) ) if he displays a good command of physics and math. I personally don't look at who answered before reading the answers anyways... $\endgroup$ – Danu May 29 '14 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ "Correctly" :-). I agree that most of us don't look at the responders' rep first but rather look at the coherence and accuracy of the answer. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft May 29 '14 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ define "high rated" $\endgroup$ – Nick May 30 '14 at 12:16
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I won't answer a question if there is already a correct answer. If I think the existing answer could be clarified I sometimes add an answer but make it clear it's just a footnote to the existing answer. So you needn't feel concerned I'll trample over your answers. I suspect this applies to most of the high rep users.

I agree that people do seem to vote up high rep users even when their answers aren't especially good. I've even had answers upvoted when I've subsequently decided the answer was actually wrong and deleted it. Quite why this happens I'm not sure.

I think a good answer is a clear answer that explains the underlying physics, preferably with equations to make it absolutely clear how the physics works. I see no end of answers that are vague and arm waving. Unless you can write down the equations behind the physics, then work through them to show how the answer emerges I don't think you understand the problem well enough to explain it to someone else. If your answer is clear and logical it will get upvoted whatever your reputation - we all started with a reputation of 1 (or 101 if we came from another SE site).

As jinawee comments, reputation shouldn't be your principal motivation for answering questions. I found that answering questions forces me to learn about areas of physics that I'd ignored in the 30 years (!) since leaving university and it's always enjoyable to feel you are learning something. It's also nice when someone leaves comments like thanks, I understand it better now - we all like to make the world a better place :-)

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    $\begingroup$ John Rennie and others like him deserve their reputations. They put many hours in, and generally each question shows thought. Most of my questions earn 0 - 2 votes. That shows they mostly help the original poster. In part this is because I give intuitive answers with few equations. In part I choose less technical questions and users for whom these answers are better. Some other factors: Questions more than a few hours old are read less. Answers with points are more likely to be read again and upvoted again. $\endgroup$ – mmesser314 May 29 '14 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. An important factor is also the amount of time spent writing the answer. It's not a guarantee, of course, but taking your time to write an answer is one of the decisive differences between a sufficient answer and a good one. This is one of the reasons I haven't been answering many questions lately. I simply can't put in the time needed to write what I consider a decent answer. I've never really had the time to write a good answer and when I (sort of) did, that had its effects on my studies. So I've taken a bit of break and now mostly answer questions that need little explanation. $\endgroup$ – Wouter May 31 '14 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ Just to throw in my two cents: a good answer is just as John described, but it also doesn't hurt to throw in a little humour or pep. If you can make it more enjoyable to read while still being correct, it will get upvotes much faster. In fact, one of my highest voted answers was (while technically correct) a straightforward jest. I meant it as a joke answer with hidden truth and never thought I'd get more than 2 or 3 votes. So don't be afraid to make learning fun. $\endgroup$ – Jim Jun 3 '14 at 15:01
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Yes, ask yourself:

1) Does my answer have something new to say that is not provided by the other answers? (For instance, you have a theoretical approach to something that is answered empirically)

2) Do I know a clear path from first principles to an answer?

I rarely look at the author until after I've upvoted. And I've certainly written wrong answers before (and seen the same effect John Rennie describes).

If you keep on writing correct things, you'll find yourself with reputation soon enough.

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People come to this site for understanding of physics (and sometimes for homework help, but that's a topic for another day...). One of the things that sets a great answer apart from an OK answer is the ability to bridge the gap in understanding that led to the question in the first place.

I find that great answers often include:

  1. An intuitive explanation of the concept
  2. A diagram (or several) that explains what is going on
  3. A rigorous (and correct!) analysis of the underlying physics
  4. References to "further reading"

When people read an answer like that, they appreciate "yes, that's really how it is; my understanding of physics just improved" - and the answer has some lasting value. Visitors recognize that, and they will reward it regardless of your current reputation.

Don't worry about the reputation of others. If you strive to follow the above principles, you will come up with some great answers, and soon you will get the rep points you deserve.

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