How To Ask Questions The Smart Way


Table of Contents
Introduction
Before You Ask
When You Ask
How To Interpret Answers
On Not Reacting Like A Loser
Questions Not To Ask
Good and Bad Questions
If You Can't Get An Answer

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 that is likely to get you a satisfactory answer.

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 do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks -- they take without giving back, 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 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. 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 winner — 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 esr@thyrsus.com.)


Before You Ask

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

  1. Try to find an answer by reading the manual.

  2. Try to find an answer by reading a FAQ.

  3. Try to find an answer by searching the Web.

  4. Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.

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 peoples' time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated that they can learn from the answers.

Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that you have put thought and effort into solving your problem before asking for 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 that 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 question that is substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking — 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. "Can someone provide a pointer?", "What is my example missing?" and "Is there a site I should 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 simply 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:

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.

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 a lot of people than questions which only serve a few.


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" or "loose" with "lose". Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS, this is read as shouting and considered rude. If you write like a semi-literate boob, you will very likely be ignored. 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 net. By writing in English you minimize your chances that your question will be discarded unread.


Send questions in formats that are easy to understand

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:


Use meaningful, specific subject headers

On mailing lists or newsgroups, 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.

Stupid:

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

Smart:

XFree86 4.1 misshapen mouse cursor, Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset

If you ask a question in a reply, be sure to change the subject line to indicate that you are 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 quotes of previous messages to the minimum consistent with cluing in new readers.


Be precise and informative about your problem

Do the best you can to anticipate the questions a hacker will ask, and to answer them in advance in your request for help.

Simon Tatham has written an excellent essay entitled How to Report Bugs Effectively. I strongly recommend that you read it.


Volume is not precision

You need to be precise and informative. This end is not served by simply dumping huge volumes of code or data into a help request. If you have a large, complicated test case that is breaking a program, try to trim it and make it as small as possible.

This is useful for at least three reasons. One: being seen to invest effort in simplifying the question makes it more likely that you'll get an answer, Two: simplifying the question makes it more likely you'll get a useful answer. Three: In the process of refining your bug report, you may develop a fix or workaround yourself.


Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses

It's not useful to tell hackers what you think is causing your problem. (If your diagnostic theories were such hot stuff, would you be consulting others for help?) So, make sure you're telling them the raw symptoms of what goes wrong, rather than your interpretations and theories. Let them do the interpretation and diagnosis.

Stupid:

I'm getting back-to-back SIG11 errors on kernel compiles, and suspect a hairline crack on one of the motherboard traces. What's the best way to check for those?

Smart:

My home-built K6/233 on an FIC-PA2007 motherboard (VIA Apollo VP2 chipset) with 256MB Corsair PC133 SDRAM starts getting frequent SIG11 errors about 20 minutes after power-on during the course of kernel compiles, but never in the first 20 minutes. Rebooting doesn't restart the clock, but powering down overnight does. Swapping out all RAM didn't help. The relevant part of a typical compile session log follows.


Describe your problem's symptoms in chronological order

The most useful clues in figuring out something that went wrong often lie in the events immediately prior. So, your account should describe precisely what you did, and what the machine did, leading up to the blowup. In the case of command-line processes, having a session log (e.g., using the script utility) and quoting the relevant twenty or so lines is very useful.

If the program that blew up on you has diagnostic options (such as -v for verbose), try to think carefully about selecting options that will add useful debugging information to the transcript.

If your account ends up being long (more than about four paragraphs), it might be useful to succinctly state the problem up top, then follow with the chronological tale. That way, hackers will know what to watch for in reading your account.


Don't ask people to reply by private email

Hackers believe solving problems should be a public, transparent process during which a first try at an answer can and should be corrected if someone more knowledgeable notices that it is incomplete or incorrect. Also, they get some of their reward for being respondents from being seen to be competent and knowledgeable by their peers.

When you ask for a private reply, you are disrupting both the process and the reward. Don't do this. It's the respondent's choice whether to reply privately — and if he does, it's usually because he thinks the question is too ill-formed or obvious to be interesting to others.

There is one limited exception to this rule. If you think the question is such that you are likely to get a lot of answers that are all pretty similar, then the magic words are "email me and I'll summarize the answers for the group". It is courteous to try and save the mailing list or newsgroup a flood of substantially identical postings — but you have to keep the promise to summarize.


Be explicit about the question you have

Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as open-ended time sinks. The people most likely to be able to give you a useful answer are also the busiest people (if only because they take on the most work themselves). People like that are allergic to open-ended time sinks, thus they tend to be allergic to open-ended questions.

You are more likely to get a useful response if you are explicit about what you want respondents to do (provide pointers, send code, check your patch, whatever). This will focus their effort and implicitly put an upper bound on the time and energy a respondent has to put in to helping you. This is good.

To understand the world the experts live in, think of expertise as an abundant resource and time to respond as a scarce one. The less of a time commitment you implicitly ask for, the more likely you are to get an answer from someone really good and really busy.

So it is useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment required for an expert to field it — but this is often not the same thing as simplifying the question. Thus, for example, "Can you give me a pointer to a good explanation of X?" is usually a smarter question than "Would you explain X, please?". If you have some code that isn't working, it is usually smarter to ask for someone to explain what's wrong with it than it is to ask someone to fix it.


Prune pointless queries

Resist the temptation to close your request for help with semantically-null questions like "Can anyone help me?" or "Is there an answer?" First: if you've written your problem description halfway competently, such tacked-on questions are at best superfluous. Second: because they are superfluous, hackers find them annoying — and are likely to return logically impeccable but dismissive answers like "Yes, you can be helped" and "No, there is no help for you."


Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps

Be courteous. Use "Please" and "Thanks in advance". Make it clear that you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free.

To be honest, this isn't as important as (and cannot substitute for) being grammatical, clear, precise and descriptive, avoiding proprietary formats etc.; hackers in general would rather get somewhat brusque but technically sharp bug reports than polite vagueness. (If this puzzles you, remember that we value a question by what it teaches us.)

However, if you've got your technical ducks in a row, politeness does increase your chances of getting a useful answer.

(We must note that the only serious objection we have received to this how-to from veteran hackers is to the recommendation to use "Thanks in advance". Some hackers feel this connotes an intention not to thank anybody afterwards. Our recommendation is to do both.)


Follow up with a brief note on the solution

Send a note after the problem has been solved to all who helped you; let them know how it came out and thank them again for their help. If the problem attracted general interest in a mailing list or newsgroup, it's appropriate to post the followup there.

Your followup doesn't have to be long and involved; a simple "Howdy - it was a failed network cable! Thanks, everyone. - Bill" would be better than nothing. In fact, a short and sweet summary is better than a long dissertation unless the solution has real technical depth.

Besides being courteous and informative, this sort of followup will help others searching the email archive (or google groups, etc) to know exactly which solution helped you and thus may also help them.

Last, and not least, this sort of followup helps everybody who assisted feel a satisfying sense of closure about the problem. If you are not a techie or hacker yourself, trust us that this feeling is very important to the gurus and experts you tapped for help. Problem narratives that trail off into unresolved nothingness are frustrating things; hackers itch to see them resolved. The good karma that scratching that itch earns you will be very, very helpful to you next time you need to pose a question.


How To Interpret Answers

RTFM and STFW: How To Tell You've Seriously Screwed Up

There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that reads "RTFM", the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The Fucking Manual. He is almost certainly right. Go read it.

RTFM has a younger relative. If you get a reply that reads "STFW", the person who sent it thinks you should have Searched The Fucking Web. He is almost certainly right. Go search it.

Often, the person sending either of these replies has the manual or the web page with the information you need open, and is looking at it as he types. These replies mean that he thinks (a) the information you need is easy to find, and (b) you will learn more if you seek out the information than if you have it spoon-fed to you.

You shouldn't be offended by this; by hacker standards, he is showing you a rough kind of respect simply by not ignoring you. You should instead thank him for his grandmotherly kindness.


If you don't understand...

If you don't understand the answer, do not immediately bounce back a demand for clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and answer your original question (manuals, FAQs, the Web, skilled friends) to understand the answer. If you need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.

For example, suppose I tell you: "It sounds like you've got a stuck zentry; you'll need to clear it." Then:

Here's a bad followup question: "What's a zentry?"

Here's a good followup question: "OK, I read the man page and zentries are only mentioned under the -z and -p switches. Neither of them says anything about clearing zentries. Is it one of these or am I missing something here?"


Dealing with rudeness

Much of what looks like rudeness in hacker circles is not intended to give offence. Rather, it's the product of the direct, cut-through-the-bullshit communications style that is natural to people who are more concerned about solving problems than making others feel warm and fuzzy.

When you perceive rudeness, try to react calmly. If someone is really acting out, it is very likely that a senior person on the list or newsgroup or forum will call him or her on it. If that doesn't happen and you lose your temper, it is likely that the person you lose it at was behaving within the hacker community's norms and you will be considered at fault. This will hurt your chances of getting the information or help you want.

On the other hand, you will occasionally run across rudeness and posturing that is quite gratuitous. The flip-side of the above is that it is acceptable form to slam real offenders quite hard, dissecting their misbehavior with a sharp verbal scalpel. Be very, very sure of your ground before you try this, however. The line between correcting an incivility and starting a pointless flamewar is thin enough that hackers themselves not infrequently blunder across it; if you are a newbie or an outsider, your chances of avoiding such a blunder are low. If you're after information rather than entertainment, it's better to keep your fingers off the keyboard than to risk this.

(Some people assert that many hackers have a mild form of autism or Asperger's Syndrome, and are actually missing some of the brain circuitry that lubricates `normal' human social interaction. This may or may not be true. If you are not a hacker yourself, it may help you cope if you think of us as brain-damaged. Go ahead. We won't care; we like being whatever it is we are, and generally have a healthy skepticism about clinical labels.)

In the next section, we'll talk about a different issue; the kind of `rudeness' you'll see when you misbehave.


On Not Reacting Like A Loser

Odds are, you'll screw up a few times, on hacker community forums — in ways detailed in this article, or similar. And you'll be told exactly how you screwed up, possibly with colourful asides. In public.

When this happens, the worst thing you can do is whine about the experience, claim to have been verbally assaulted, demand apologies, scream, hold your breath, threaten lawsuits, complain to people's employers, leave the toilet seat up, etc. Instead, here's what you do:

Get over it. It's normal. In fact, it's healthy and appropriate.

Community standards do not maintain themselves: They're maintained by people actively applying them, visibly, in public. Don't whine that all criticism should have been conveyed via private mail: That's not how it works. Nor is it useful to insist you've been personally insulted when someone comments that one of your claims was wrong, or that his views differ. Those are loser attitudes.

There have been hacker forums where, out of some misguided sense of hyper-courtesy, participants are banned from posting any fault-finding with another's posts, and told "Don't say anything if you're unwilling to help the user." The resulting departure of clueful participants to elsewhere causes them to descend into meaningless babble and become useless as technical forums.

Exaggeratedly "friendly" (in that fashion) or useful: Pick one.

Remember: When that hacker tells you that you've screwed up, and (no matter how gruffly) tells you not to do it again, he's acting out of concern for (1) you and (2) his community. It would be much easier for him to ignore you and filter you out of his life. If you can't manage to be grateful, at least have a little dignity, don't whine, and don't expect to be treated like a fragile doll just because you're a newcomer with a theatrically hypersensitive soul and delusions of entitlement.


Questions Not To Ask

Here are some classic stupid questions, and what hackers are thinking when they don't answer them.

Q: Where can I find program X?
Q: My {program, configuration, SQL statement} doesn't work
Q: I'm having problems with my Windows machine. Can you help?
Q: I'm having problems installing Linux or X. Can you help?
Q: How can I crack root/steal channel-ops privileges/read someone's email?

Q: Where can I find program X?

A: The same place I'd find it, fool -- at the other end of a web search. Ghod, doesn't everybody know how to use Google yet?

Q: My {program, configuration, SQL statement} doesn't work

A: This is not a question, and I'm not interested in playing Twenty Questions to pry your actual question out of you — I have better things to do. On seeing something like this, my reaction is normally of one of the following:

  • do you have anything else to add to that?

  • oh, that's too bad, I hope you get it fixed.

  • and this has exactly what to do with me?

Q: I'm having problems with my Windows machine. Can you help?

A: Yes. Throw out that Microsoft trash and install Linux.

Q: I'm having problems installing Linux or X. Can you help?

A: No. I'd need hands-on access to your machine to troubleshoot this. Go ask your local Linux user group for hands-on help. (You can find a list of user groups here.)

Q: How can I crack root/steal channel-ops privileges/read someone's email?

A: You're a lowlife for wanting to do such things and a moron for asking a hacker to help you.


Good and Bad Questions

Finally, I'm going to illustrate how to ask questions in a smart way by example; pairs of questions about the same problem, one asked in a stupid way and one in a smart way.

Stupid: Where can I find out stuff about the Foonly Flurbamatic?

This question just begs for "STFW" as a reply.

Smart: I used Google to try to find "Foonly Flurbamatic 2600" on the Web, but I got no useful hits. Does anyone know where I can find programming information on this device?

This one has already SFTWed, and sounds like he might have a real problem.

Stupid: I can't get the code from project foo to compile. Why is it broken?

He assumes that somebody else screwed up. Arrogant of him.

Smart: The code from project foo doesn't compile under Nulix version 6.2. I've read the FAQ, but it doesn't have anything in it about Nulix-related problems. Here's a transcript of my compilation attempt; is it something I did?

He's specified the environment, he's read the FAQ, he's showing the error, and and he's not assuming his problems are someone else's fault. This guy might be worth some attention.

Stupid: I'm having problems with my motherboard. Can anybody help?

J. Random Hacker's response to this is likely to be "Right. Do you need burping and diapering, too?" followed by a punch of the delete key.

Smart: I tried X, Y, and Z on the S2464 motherboard. When that didn't work, I tried A, B, and C. Note the curious symptom when I tried C. Obviously the florbish is grommicking, but the results aren't what one might expect. What are the usual causes of grommicking on MP motherboards? Anybody got ideas for more tests I can run to pin down the problem?

This person, on the other hand, seems worthy of an answer. He has exhibited problem-solving intelligence rather than passively waiting for an answer to drop from on high.

In the last question, notice the subtle but important difference between demanding "Give me an answer" and "Please help me figure out what additional diagnostics I can run to achieve enlightenment."

In fact, the form of that last question is closely based on a real incident that happened in August 2001 on the linux-kernel mailing list. I (Eric) was the one asking the question that time. I was seeing mysterious lockups on a Tyan S2464 motherboard. The listmembers supplied the critical information I needed to solve them.

By asking the question in the way I did, I gave people something to chew on; I made it easy and attractive for them to get involved. I demonstrated respect for my peers' ability and invited them to consult with me as a peer. I also demonstrated respect for the value of their time by telling them the blind alleys I had already run down.

Afterwards, when I thanked everyone and remarked how well the process had worked, an lkml member observed that he thought it had worked not because I'm a "name" on that list, but because I asked the question in the proper form.

Hackers are in some ways a very ruthless meritocracy; I'm certain he was right, and that if I had behaved like a sponge I would have been flamed or ignored no matter who I was. His suggestion that I write up the whole incident as an instruction to others led directly to the composition of this guide.


If You Can't Get An Answer

If you can't get an answer, please don't take it personally that we don't feel we can help you. Sometimes the members of the asked group may simply not know the answer. No response is not the same as being ignored, though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from outside.

In general, simply re-posting your question is a bad idea. This will be seen as pointlessly annoying.

There are other sources of help you can go to, often sources better adapted to a novice's needs.

There are many online and local user groups who are enthusiasts about the software, even though they may never have written any software themselves. These groups often form so that people can help each other and help new users.

There are also plenty of commercial companies you can contract with for help, both large and small (Red Hat and LinuxCare are two of the best known; there are many others). Don't be dismayed at the idea of having to pay for a bit of help! After all, if your car engine blows a head gasket, chances ar you would take it to a repair shop and pay to get it fixed. Even if the software didn't cost you anything, you can't expect that support will always come for free.

For popular software like Linux, there are are at least 10,000 users per developer. It's just not possible for one person to handle the support calls from over 10,000 users. Remember that even if you have to pay for support, you are still paying much less than if you had to buy the software as well (and support for closed-source software is usually more expensive and less competent than support for open-source software).