How to ask a question on an Internet forum

It seems so simple, but it never is.

Over the years, forums have become a major staple of the internet. In many ways, they have displaced media like Usenet and newsgroups as a source for interaction with people and, when needed, help.

Many people have seen How To Ask Questions The Smart Way, written by Eric Raymond and Rick Moen. It's often linked to, probably in part due to ESR's geek-fame (amongst other things, he is the current maintainer of the Jargon File). It's a useful page, but its focus is predominantly on mailing lists and its tone is, shall we say, prickly. And, frankly, it's pretty darn long.

But what gets lost in that page, and in much of the discussion of such things, is the nature of the split citizenry of a typical modern "tech support" forum (that is, one that does not exist solely for discussion). Two core groups exist: those who ask questions, and those who answer them. There are those that oscillate between the two camps a bit, but in general most users fit into one of these categories. And it's important to realize that the people that answer questions read the forum because they want to answer questions. They want to help, really (most of the time). Don't be afraid of them.

However. There are some very important guidelines to follow if you want help. Collectively, they make up a major part of what is often called netiquette. Most seem common-sensical; some are less obvious. All are important.

1. Search first, ask later

On most forums, there are certain questions that come up again and again. This is the nature of the beast. Most people accept it as a fact of life. To a point.

Some of these questions, though, can be very easily answered with a simple web search. In fact, many of them. Again, most people are very forgiving about this up to a point, but if it becomes apparent you are using the forum as your own personal search engine you will make a lot of people very unhappy with you. So before you ask, search. Try a few different query terms or even (blasphemy!) a few different search engines.

Don't feel like you have to exhaust every line of inquiry. If you try several searches and find nothing useful, then by all means ask for help. Perhaps more importantly, if you find that the information you find by searching is beyond your depth feel free to ask and mention this. The people reading your question don't know how much you know. But if it's clear you have tried to answer your own question and just need some explanation, your odds of getting such an explanation are good.

The key point here is to try, and show that you have made an effort. It is a truism that people want to help those that help themselves. Not only does it show you genuinely want to figure things out, it shows you have the commitment to see it through.

2. Choose wisely

There are many, many forums out there. Choosing one to ask a question in can be daunting.

If you read a non-tech support forum, you may find it has its own tech support subforum (they are not quite as ubiquitous as off-topic forums, but close). Often this is a good place to start because it is somewhere relatively familiar, and therefore more comfortable. And getting help from people you already know can be less intimidating.

Failing that, you may want to find a dedicated tech support forum. There are plenty to choose from, and in the interests of neutrality I will not recommend any in particular here. But there are some basic criteria to use in choosing a forum. If you have just a single question, and is specific to a particular product or service, consider seeking out forums devoted to that company's products or services. Many companies now host such forums on their own servers. If you find no such forums, expand your scope a little and look for forums that focus on the appropriate industry. If this still doesn't do the trick, or you have a number of relatively diverse questions, or simply want to build up your general technical knowledge, try a more general forum.

Many forums, of course, have subforums. The process of selecting a subforum is essentially the same as the above: try to post in the most specific forum that you think is appropriate for your question. If all else fails, look for a sort of "catch all" subforum, and go with that.

You're almost ready to post a question. But first, search. Search the forum to see if someone has already asked your question. If you find that they have, you may want to post in that thread (if it's recent) or post a link to it in a new thread (if it isn't). Be careful about adding on to another thread. If your question is different, even if it's related, start a new thread. It is considered very bad form to add a semi-related question to an existing thread, and this is one of the relatively few things that will often cut short people's patience with a new user.

3. Breathe.

Be calm when you post. Don't rush. Don't panic. Remember that other people need to be able to understand you.

Write a title line for your thread first. Try to make it descriptive and clear (not "Please help") but not overly wordy. Now take that title and throw it into a search engine. This is essentially what many people will do when trying to help you; if the first hit clearly answers your question, it will look like you haven't done your homework before asking.

4. Write like you made it through grade school

Do not use chat speak. Do not use leet speak. Do not abbreviate "you're" to "ur". Etc. These will make your question difficult to follow and will call into question your ability to understand the help given to you. The half-second it may save you is not worth it.

That doesn't mean a single typo is going to get you in big trouble. It doesn't mean your grammar has to be perfect. But it does mean that you need to make it look like a good-faith effort at being correct. In the event that English is not your first language, you may want to include a brief note as such; frankly, most people will figure it out anyway.

5. Be complete, but concise

It is very important to include the most pertinent details of your question. If your motherboard just died and you need recommendations for a replacement, you must provide information like what socket you need. If you fail to do this it may lead to a slow, tedious serious of probing questions as others try to elicit this information from you. Or worse, it may lead to sarcastic responses which answer the question as posed but are obviously unhelpful.

Equally, try not to run too long. Most questions can be condensed down into two mid-length (3-4 sentences) paragraphs or less. Very long questions are tiring to read and many people simply won't bother. If you wish to include information on the hardware in your computer (which is often wise), consider using a brief list rather than attempting to write it out in a sentence. In some cases you may be tempted to drop this information into your forum signature rather than type it into your post; if you do this, bear in mind that most forums allow users to turn off signatures, and some users may not be able to see yours.

6. Proofread, then proofread again

Check your facts. Make sure you haven't forgotten anything important. Look for common spelling or grammatical errors. Don't feel like you have to be perfect; occasional mistakes are perfectly understandable. But getting these things right shows you are serious about getting help, and makes it easier for others to help you.

7. Be polite

You catch more flies with honey, etc. Be nice and generally others will be nice back. In the context of a forum, being nice may mean more than saying please and thank you (though that's a good start). It's often not obvious what it really does mean, and so we have the following list.

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