How To Ask Questions The Smart Way

An excellent essay by EricRaymond and RickMoen found here:

When you ask a question, you are asking people to do you a favor. People have no reason to help you (AmericanCulturalAssumption ... possibly The AmericanCulturalAssumption. Contrast, frinstance, MateShip.), but in general hackers (aka programmers) will happily do so provided you:
  1. show that you've done your homework,
  2. ask nicely, and
  3. make it easy for them to understand what you need.

Compare: IsYourRudenessNecessary.

Similar resources

Please link this page to others and weave it into WardsWiki. Many newcomers could do with seeing this.

Note that the paper is targeted toward a very specific audience: it was originally written in the context of people asking for help on a mailing list used for communication between kernel developers. A forum created for the purpose of asking and answering questions will have a different culture, and therefore different "ground rules". -- TimLesher

These ground rules are not much different though, back when I was studying network engineering I found this guide pretty helpful when asking a professor for help with an assignment. I have never, ever gotten a single question dismissed that way. -- DaNuke?

When I was starting to learn Linux after getting frustrated and formatting Windows ME off my HDD, I quickly learned how to ask questions the smart way: go to a Linux-promoter's forum and say, "Windows does <insert task> better than Linux" or "Linux is bad because it can't do <insert task>". Every time I did this, I was flooded with solutions... unless I was right. Either way, I had my answer. Meanwhile, if I asked questions the smart way as recommended by Raymond, I'd be lucky if I received any answers -- I'd have already done a bunch of research, and this would be clear, so nobody else would feel the need to do experimenting or research on their own to figure it out. My preferred approach can certainly be considered 'rude'. IsYourRudenessNecessary? No... probably not. But it was efficient.

It later amused me to find other people advising to ask questions in that very same manner I had. RtFm... WFM?

It's a very shrewd and cunning approach and I think I'm going to apply this one the next time I really am stumped with my smartphone :3

The above reminds me of an interview with Anthony Bourdain I once read where he said that the best way to get restaurant recommendations on Chowhounds was to get on the list and post about how X restaurant has the best Y in town. This inevitably got more responses providing recommendations for alternative places to go to eat Y than a simple request.

As co-author of the essay in question, I'm always glad it proves even somewhat useful to people. At the same time, I hope I can be forgiven for being sad when it's described as "An excellent essay by EricRaymond" (supra). -- Rick Moen

Rick - the source originally used to prompt this page did not credit you. I'm trying to track it down. In the meantime I've adjusted the first line of this page to credit you properly. Perhaps you'd like to create a HomePage here so people can see more immediately who you are, and that you should be credited.

See Also: HowToSellGoldenHammers


EditText of this page (last edited August 30, 2012) or FindPage with title or text search