How to ask for (and get) good help in forums and elsewhere

How to get good help

Before you ask

Before asking a technical question by email, in a newsgroup, chatroom or a website forum, try the following:

  • Search the web;
  • Read the program’s manual;
  • read the FAQs;
  • Try finding an answer by inspection or experimentation.
  • Ask a skilled or knowledgeable friend.

If all those efforts prove fruitless, then here goes:

1. Use meaningful, specific subject headers

On web forums, the subject header is your golden opportunity to attract experts’ attention in around 30 characters or fewer. Don’t waste it on headers like ‘Please help me’ (let alone ‘PLEASE HELP ME!!!!’); use the space for a super-concise problem description instead.

2. Be precise and informative about your problem

Describe the computer in which the problem occurs, To find out about your computer, type hwinfo into the command line. You should copy and paste that information into your first post. If you are unsure of how to copy and paste then you need to do this course.

Describe the research you did to try to understand the problem before you asked the question. Did you look at the Help Page first?

Describe the symptoms of your problem carefully and clearly.

3. Describe your problem’s symptoms in chronological order

The clues most useful in figuring out something that went wrong often lie in the events immediately prior to the problem occurring. So your account should describe precisely what you did (and what the machine did!) leading up to that problem. If you are using the command line, quoting the relevant lines is very useful (cut and paste the output).

4. Courtesy never hurts and sometimes helps

Be courteous. Use ‘Please’ and ‘Thanks for your attention’ or ‘Thanks for your consideration’. Make it clear you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free.

Although this isn’t as important as (and cannot substitute for) being grammatical, clear, precise and descriptive, it will nevertheless be appreciated. If you need any more guidance, please consult RFC1855 , the definitive guide to netiquette.

To ask your first question

First you need to register with a forum for your particular Linux distro, creating a username and password, then you can ask away once your user account has been set up, but before asking, check previous posts to see if your question has already been asked and/or answered.

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Christian Wach has written 34 articles