How to ask questions the smart way

As an IT professional, I often have to use online fora (well, ok, forums, if you insist) to find answers to my questions. One of the things that has always amused and sometimes frustrated me, however, is how some people using these resources are averse to doing even the most basic research before asking for help. Often such people do not understand why they are subsequently ignored or treated with sarcasm – or even hostility – by those who are more knowledgeable.

I came across this article on the subject by Eric Raymond – a big name in the computer industry – that says it better than I ever could. Note, however, that he uses the word “hacker” correctly – “a knowledgeable technical person” rather than the media “techno-vandal” definition that the media have foisted upon us.Here are some quotes:

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, 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”).

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.

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.

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. 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.

Highly recommended reading.

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