How To Ask Questions The Smart Way

Translations of this material:

into Ukrainian: Як розумно задавати питання. 35% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by troyane 13.07.2013

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Disclaimer

Many project websites link to this document in their sections on how to get help. That's fine, it's the use we intended — but if you are a webmaster creating such a link for your project page, please display prominently near the link notice that we are not a help desk for your project!

We have learned the hard way that without such a notice, we will repeatedly be pestered by idiots who think having published this document makes it our job to solve all the world's technical problems.

If you're reading this document because you need help, and you walk away with the impression you can get it directly from the authors of this document, you are one of the idiots we are talking about. Don't ask us questions. We'll just ignore you. We are here to show you how to get help from people who actually know about the software or hardware you're dealing with, but 99.9% of the time that will not be us. Unless you know for certain that one of the authors is an expert on what you're dealing with, leave us alone and everybody will be happier.

Introduction

In the world of hackers, the kind of answers you get to your technical questions depends as much on the way you ask the questions as on the difficulty of developing the answer. This guide will teach you how to ask questions in a way more likely to get you a satisfactory answer.

Now that use of open source has become widespread, you can often get as good answers from other, more experienced users as from hackers. This is a Good Thing; users tend to be just a little bit more tolerant of the kind of failures newbies often have. Still, treating experienced users like hackers in the ways we recommend here will generally be the most effective way to get useful answers out of them, too.

The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we'll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. Among hackers, “Good question!” is a strong and sincere compliment.

Despite this, hackers have a reputation for meeting simple questions with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like we're reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn't really true.

What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks — they take without giving back, and they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer. We call people like this “losers” (and for historical reasons we sometimes spell it “lusers”).

We realize that there are many people who just want to use the software we write, and who have no interest in learning technical details. For most people, a computer is merely a tool, a means to an end; they have more important things to do and lives to live. We acknowledge that, and don't expect everyone to take an interest in the technical matters that fascinate us. Nevertheless, our style of answering questions is tuned for people who do take such an interest and are willing to be active participants in problem-solving. That's not going to change. Nor should it; if it did, we would become less effective at the things we do best.

We're (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners.

If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check your assumptions. We're not asking you to genuflect to us — in fact, most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to make that possible. But it's simply not efficient for us to try to help people who are not willing to help themselves. It's OK to be ignorant; it's not OK to play stupid.

So, while it isn't necessary to already be technically competent to get attention from us, it is necessary to demonstrate the kind of attitude that leads to competence — alert, thoughtful, observant, willing to be an active partner in developing a solution. If you can't live with this sort of discrimination, we suggest you pay somebody for a commercial support contract instead of asking hackers to personally donate help to you.

If you decide to come to us for help, you don't want to be one of the losers. You don't want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a person with smarts, confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular problem.

(Improvements to this guide are welcome. You can mail suggestions to [email protected] or [email protected] Note however that this document is not intended to be a general guide to netiquette, and we will generally reject suggestions that are not specifically related to eliciting useful answers in a technical forum.)

Before You Ask

Before asking a technical question by e-mail, or in a newsgroup, or on a website chat board, do the following:

Try to find an answer by searching the archives of the forum you plan to post to.

Try to find an answer by searching the Web.

Try to find an answer by reading the manual.

Try to find an answer by reading a FAQ.

Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.

Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.

If you're a programmer, try to find an answer by reading the source code.

When you ask your question, display the fact that you have done these things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated they can learn from the answers.

Use tactics like doing a Google search on the text of whatever error message you get (searching Google groups as well as Web pages). This might well take you straight to fix documentation or a mailing list thread answering your question. Even if it doesn't, saying “I googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that looked promising” is a good thing to do in e-mail or news postings requesting help, if only because it records what searches won't help. It will also help to direct other people with similar problems to your thread by linking the search terms to what will hopefully be your problem and resolution thread.

Take your time. Do not expect to be able to solve a complicated problem with a few seconds of Googling. Read and understand the FAQs, sit back, relax and give the problem some thought before approaching experts. Trust us, they will be able to tell from your questions how much reading and thinking you did, and will be more willing to help if you come prepared. Don't instantly fire your whole arsenal of questions just because your first search turned up no answers (or too many).

Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that having put thought and effort into solving your problem before seeking help, the more likely you are to actually get help.

Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on faulty assumptions, J. Random Hacker is quite likely to reply with a uselessly literal answer while thinking “Stupid question...”, and hoping the experience of getting what you asked for rather than what you needed will teach you a lesson.

Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren't, after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you earn it, by asking a substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking question — one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.

On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start. “Would someone provide a pointer?”, “What is my example missing?”, and “What site should I have checked?” are more likely to get answered than “Please post the exact procedure I should use.” because you're making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if someone can just point you in the right direction.

When You Ask

Choose your forum carefully

Be sensitive in choosing where you ask your question. You are likely to be ignored, or written off as a loser, if you:

post your question to a forum where it's off topic

post a very elementary question to a forum where advanced technical questions are expected, or vice-versa

cross-post to too many different newsgroups

post a personal e-mail to somebody who is neither an acquaintance of yours nor personally responsible for solving your problem

Hackers blow off questions that are inappropriately targeted in order to try to protect their communications channels from being drowned in irrelevance. You don't want this to happen to you.

The first step, therefore, is to find the right forum. Again, Google and other Web-searching methods are your friend. Use them to find the project webpage most closely associated with the hardware or software giving you difficulties. Usually it will have links to a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list, and to project mailing lists and their archives. These mailing lists are the final places to go for help, if your own efforts (including reading those FAQs you found) do not find you a solution. The project page may also describe a bug-reporting procedure, or have a link to one; if so, follow it.

Shooting off an e-mail to a person or forum which you are not familiar with is risky at best. For example, do not assume that the author of an informative webpage wants to be your free consultant. Do not make optimistic guesses about whether your question will be welcome — if you're unsure, send it elsewhere, or refrain from sending it at all.

When selecting a Web forum, newsgroup or mailing list, don't trust the name by itself too far; look for a FAQ or charter to verify your question is on-topic. Read some of the back traffic before posting so you'll get a feel for how things are done there. In fact, it's a very good idea to do a keyword search for words relating to your problem on the newsgroup or mailing list archives before you post. It may find you an answer, and if not it will help you formulate a better question.

Don't shotgun-blast all the available help channels at once, that's like yelling and irritates people. Step through them softly.

Know what your topic is! One of the classic mistakes is asking questions about the Unix or Windows programming interface in a forum devoted to a language or library or tool portable across both. If you don't understand why this is a blunder, you'd be best off not asking any questions at all until you get it.

In general, questions to a well-selected public forum are more likely to get useful answers than equivalent questions to a private one. There are multiple reasons for this. One is simply the size of the pool of potential respondents. Another is the size of the audience; hackers would rather answer questions that educate many people than questions serving only a few.

Understandably, skilled hackers and authors of popular software are already receiving more than their fair share of mis-targeted messages. By adding to the flood, you could in extreme cases even be the straw that breaks the camel's back — quite a few times, contributors to popular projects have withdrawn their support because collateral damage in the form of useless e-mail traffic to their personal accounts became unbearable.

Web and IRC forums directed towards newbies often give the quickest response

Your local user group, or your Linux distribution, may advertise a Web forum or IRC channel where newbies can get help. (In non-English-speaking countries newbie forums are still more likely to be mailing lists.) These are good first places to ask, especially if you think you may have tripped over a relatively simple or common problem. An advertised IRC channel is an open invitation to ask questions there and often get answers in real time.

In fact, if you got the program that is giving you problems from a Linux distribution (as is common today), it may be better to ask in the distro's forum/list before trying the program's project forum/list. The project's hackers may just say, “use our build”.

Before posting to any Web forum, check if it has a Search feature. If it does, try a couple of keyword searches for something like your problem; it just might help. If you did a general Web search before (as you should have), search the forum anyway; your Web-wide search engine might not have all of this forum indexed recently.

There is an increasing tendency for projects to do user support over a Web forum or IRC channel, with e-mail reserved more for development traffic. So look for those channels first when seeking project-specific help.

As a second step, use project mailing lists

When a project has a development mailing list, write to the mailing list, not to individual developers, even if you believe you know who can best answer your question. Check the documentation of the project and its homepage for the address of a project mailing list, and use it. There are several good reasons for this policy:

Any question good enough to be asked of one developer will also be of value to the whole group. Contrariwise, if you suspect your question is too dumb for a mailing list, it's not an excuse to harass individual developers.

Asking questions on the list distributes load among developers. The individual developer (especially if he's the project leader) may be too busy to answer your questions.

Most mailing lists are archived and the archives are indexed by search engines. If you ask your question on-list and it is answered, a future querent could find your question and the answer on the Web instead of asking it again.

If certain questions are seen to be asked often, developers can use that information to improve the documentation or the software itself to be less confusing. But if those questions are asked in private, nobody has the complete picture of what questions are asked most often.

If a project has both a “user” and a “developer” (or “hacker”) mailing list or Web forum, and you are not hacking on the code, ask in the “user” list/forum. Do not assume that you will be welcome on the developer list, where they're likely to experience your question as noise disrupting their developer traffic.

However, if you are sure your question is non-trivial, and you get no answer in the “user” list/forum for several days, try the “developer” one. You would be well advised to lurk there for a few daysor at least review the last few days of archived messages, to learn the local folkways before posting (actually this is good advice on any private or semi-private list).

If you cannot find a project's mailing list address, but only see the address of the maintainer of the project, go ahead and write to the maintainer. But even in that case, don't assume that the mailing list doesn't exist. Mention in your e-mail that you tried and could not find the appropriate mailing list. Also mention that you don't object to having your message forwarded to other people. (Many people believe that private e-mail should remain private, even if there is nothing secret in it. By allowing your message to be forwarded you give your correspondent a choice about how to handle your e-mail.)

Use meaningful, specific subject headers

On mailing lists, newsgroups or Web forums, the subject header is your golden opportunity to attract qualified experts' attention in around 50 characters or fewer. Don't waste it on babble like “Please help me” (let alone “PLEASE HELP ME!!!!”; messages with subjects like that get discarded by reflex). Don't try to impress us with the depth of your anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description instead.

One good convention for subject headers, used by many tech support organizations, is “object - deviation”. The “object” part specifies what thing or group of things is having a problem, and the “deviation” part describes the deviation from expected behavior.

Stupid:

HELP! Video doesn't work properly on my laptop!

Smart:

X.org 6.8.1 misshapen mouse cursor, Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset

Smarter:

X.org 6.8.1 mouse cursor on Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset - is misshapen

The process of writing an “object-deviation” description will help you organize your thinking about the problem in more detail. What is affected? Just the mouse cursor or other graphics too? Is this specific to the X.org version of X? To version 6.8.1? Is this specific to Fooware video chipsets? To model MV1005? A hacker who sees the result can immediately understand what it is that you are having a problem with and the problem you are having, at a glance.

More generally, imagine looking at the index of an archive of questions, with just the subject lines showing. Make your subject line reflect your question well enough that the next guy searching the archive with a question similar to yours will be able to follow the thread to an answer rather than posting the question again.

If you ask a question in a reply, be sure to change the subject line to indicate that you're asking a question. A Subject line that looks like “Re: test” or “Re: new bug” is less likely to attract useful amounts of attention. Also, pare quotation of previous messages to the minimum consistent with cluing in new readers.

Do not simply hit reply to a list message in order to start an entirely new thread. This will limit your audience. Some mail readers, like mutt, allow the user to sort by thread and then hide messages in a thread by folding the thread. Folks who do that will never see your message.

Changing the subject is not sufficient. Mutt, and probably other mail readers, looks at other information in the e-mail's headers to assign it to a thread, not the subject line. Instead start an entirely new e-mail.

On Web forums the rules of good practice are slightly different, because messages are usually much more tightly bound to specific discussion threads and often invisible outside those threads. Changing the subject when asking a question in reply is not essential. Not all forums even allow separate subject lines on replies, and nearly nobody reads them when they do. However, asking a question in a reply is a dubious practice in itself, because it will only be seen by those who are watching this thread. So, unless you are sure you want to ask only the people currently active in the thread, start a new one.

Make it easy to reply

Finishing your query with “Please send your reply to... ” makes it quite unlikely you will get an answer. If you can't be bothered to take even the few seconds required to set up a correct Reply-To header in your mail agent, we can't be bothered to take even a few seconds to think about your problem. If your mail program doesn't permit this, get a better mail program. If your operating system doesn't support any e-mail programs that permit this, get a better operating system.

In Web forums, asking for a reply by e-mail is outright rude, unless you believe the information may be sensitive (and somebody will, for some unknown reason, let you but not the whole forum know it). If you want an e-mail copy when somebody replies in the thread, request that the Web forum send it; this feature is supported almost everywhere under options like “watch this thread”, “send e-mail on answers”, etc.

Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language

We've found by experience that people who are careless and sloppy writers are usually also careless and sloppy at thinking and coding (often enough to bet on, anyway). Answering questions for careless and sloppy thinkers is not rewarding; we'd rather spend our time elsewhere.

So expressing your question clearly and well is important. If you can't be bothered to do that, we can't be bothered to pay attention. Spend the extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be stiff or formal — in fact, hacker culture values informal, slangy and humorous language used with precision. But it has to be precise; there has to be some indication that you're thinking and paying attention.

Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't confuse “its” with “it's”, “loose” with “lose”, or “discrete” with “discreet”. Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS; this is read as shouting and considered rude. (All-smalls is only slightly less annoying, as it's difficult to read. Alan Cox can get away with it, but you can't.)

More generally, if you write like a semi-literate boob you will very likely be ignored. So don't use instant-messaging shortcuts. Spelling "you" as "u" makes you look like a semi-literate boob to save two entire keystrokes. Worse: writing like a l33t script kiddie hax0r is the absolute kiss of death and guarantees you will receive nothing but stony silence (or, at best, a heaping helping of scorn and sarcasm) in return.

If you are asking questions in a forum that does not use your native language, you will get a limited amount of slack for spelling and grammar errors — but no extra slack at all for laziness (and yes, we can usually spot that difference). Also, unless you know what your respondent's languages are, write in English. Busy hackers tend to simply flush questions in languages they don't understand, and English is the working language of the Internet. By writing in English you minimize your chances that your question will be discarded unread.

If you are writing in English but it is a second language for you, it is good form to alert potential respondents to potential language difficulties and options for getting around them. Examples:

English is not my native language; please excuse typing errors.

If you speak $LANGUAGE, please email/PM me; I may need assistance translating my question.

I am familiar with the technical terms, but some slang expressions and idioms are difficult for me.

I've posted my question in $LANGUAGE and English. I'll be glad to translate responses, if you only use one or the other.

Send questions in accessible, standard formats

If you make your question artificially hard to read, it is more likely to be passed over in favor of one that isn't. So:

Send plain text mail, not HTML. (It's not hard to turn off HTML.)

MIME attachments are usually OK, but only if they are real content (such as an attached source file or patch), and not merely boilerplate generated by your mail client (such as another copy of your message).

Don't send e-mail in which entire paragraphs are single multiply-wrapped lines. (This makes it too difficult to reply to just part of the message.) Assume that your respondents will be reading mail on 80-character-wide text displays and set your line wrap accordingly, to something less than 80.

However, do not wrap data (such as log file dumps or session transcripts) at any fixed column width. Data should be included as-is, so respondents can have confidence that they are seeing what you saw.

Don't send MIME Quoted-Printable encoding to an English-language forum. This encoding can be necessary when you're posting in a language ASCII doesn't cover, but many e-mail agents don't support it. When they break, all those =20 glyphs scattered through the text are ugly and distracting — or may actively sabotage the semantics of your text.

Never, ever expect hackers to be able to read closed proprietary document formats like Microsoft Word or Excel. Most hackers react to these about as well as you would to having a pile of steaming pig manure dumped on your doorstep. Even when they can cope, they resent having to do so.

If you're sending e-mail from a Windows machine, turn off Microsoft's problematic “Smart Quotes” feature (From Tools > AutoCorrect Options, clear the smart quotes checkbox under AutoFormat As You Type.). This is so you'll avoid sprinkling garbage characters through your mail.

In Web forums, do not abuse “smiley” and “HTML” features (when they are present). A smiley or two is usually OK, but colored fancy text tends to make people think you are lame. Seriously overusing smileys and color and fonts will make you come off like a giggly teenage girl, which is not generally a good idea unless you are more interested in sex than answers.

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