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 more likely
to get you a satisfactory answer.
Now that use of open source has become widespread, you can
often get as good answers from other, more experienced users as from
hackers. This is a Good Thing; users tend to be just a little bit more
tolerant of the kind of failures newbies often have. Still, treating
experienced users like hackers in the ways we recommend here will
generally be the most effective way to get useful answers out of them,
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
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, and 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 who 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. It’s OK to be ignorant; it’s not OK to play stupid.
So, while it isn’t necessary to already be technically competent
to get attention from us, it is necessary to
demonstrate the kind of attitude that leads to competence —
alert, thoughtful, observant, willing to be an active partner in
developing a solution. 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
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
(Improvements to this guide are welcome. You can mail
suggestions to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note however that this document is not intended to be a general guide
to netiquette, and we
will generally reject suggestions that are not specifically related to
eliciting useful answers in a technical forum.)
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:
post your question to a forum where it’s off topic
post a very elementary question to a forum where
advanced technical questions are expected, or vice-versa
cross-post to too many different newsgroups
post a personal e-mail to somebody who is neither
an acquaintance of yours nor personally responsible for solving your problem
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.
The first step, therefore, is to find the right forum. Again,
Google and other Web-searching methods are your friend. Use them to
find the project webpage most closely associated with the hardware or
software giving you difficulties. Usually it will have links to a FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions) list, and to project mailing lists and
their archives. These mailing lists are the final places to go for
help, if your own efforts (including reading
those FAQs you found) do not find you a solution. The project page
may also describe a bug-reporting procedure, or have a link to one; if
so, follow it.
Shooting off an e-mail to a person or forum which you are not
familiar with is risky at best. For example, do not assume that the
author of an informative webpage wants to be your free consultant.
Do not make optimistic guesses about whether your question will be
welcome — if you’re unsure, send it elsewhere, or refrain from
sending it at all.
When selecting a Web forum, newsgroup or mailing list, don’t
trust the name by itself too far; look for a FAQ or charter to verify
your question is on-topic. Read some of the back traffic before
posting so you’ll get a feel for how things are done there. In fact,
it’s a very good idea to do a keyword search for words relating to
your problem on the newsgroup or mailing list archives before you
post. It may find you an answer, and if not it will help you
formulate a better question.
Don’t shotgun-blast all the available help channels at once, that’s
like yelling and irritates people. Step through them softly.
Know what your topic is! One of the classic mistakes is asking
questions about the Unix or Windows programming interface in a forum
devoted to a language or library or tool portable across both.
If you don’t understand why this is a blunder, you’d be best off not
asking any questions at all until you get it.
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 many
people than questions serving only a few.
Understandably, skilled hackers and authors of popular software are
already receiving more than their fair share of mis-targeted messages.
By adding to the flood, you could in extreme cases even be the straw
that breaks the camel’s back — quite a few times, contributors to
popular projects have withdrawn their support because collateral
damage in the form of useless e-mail traffic to their personal accounts
Search, then ask on Stack Exchange
In recent years, the Stack Exchange community of sites has emerged as
a major resource for answering technical and other questions and is
even the preferred forum for many open-source projects.
Start with a Google search before looking at Stack Exchange; Google
indexes it in real time. There’s a very good chance someone has
already asked a similar question, and the Stack Exchange sites are
often near the top of the search results. If you didn’t find anything
through Google, search again on the specific site most relevant to
your question (see below). Searching with tags can help narrow down
If you still didn’t find anything, post your question on the
one site where it’s most on-topic. Use the
formatting tools, especially for code, and add tags that are related
to the substance of your question (particularly the name of the
programming language, operating system, or library you’re having
trouble with). If a commenter asks you for more information, edit your
main post to include it. If any answer is helpful, click the up arrow
to upvote it; if an answer gives a solution to your problem, click the
check under the voting arrows to accept it as correct.
Stack Exchange has grown to over 100 sites, but here
are the most likely candidates:
Super User is for questions about general-purpose
computing. If your question isn’t about code or programs that you talk
to only over a network connection, it probably goes
Stack Overflow is for questions about
Server Fault is for questions about server and network
Several projects have their own specific sites, including Android,
Ubuntu, TeX/LaTeX, and SharePoint. Check the Stack Exchange site for
an up-to-date list.
Your local user group, or your Linux distribution, may advertise
a Web forum or IRC channel where newbies can get help. (In
non-English-speaking countries newbie forums are still more likely to
be mailing lists.) These are good first places to ask, especially if
you think you may have tripped over a relatively simple or common
problem. An advertised IRC channel is an open invitation to ask
questions there and often get answers in real time.
In fact, if you got the program that is giving you problems from
a Linux distribution (as is common today), it may be better to ask in the
distro’s forum/list before trying the program’s project forum/list. The
project’s hackers may just say, “use our
Before posting to any Web forum, check if it has a Search
feature. If it does, try a couple of keyword searches for
something like your problem; it just might help. If you did a general
Web search before (as you should have), search the forum anyway; your
Web-wide search engine might not have all of this forum indexed
There is an increasing tendency for projects to do user support
over a Web forum or IRC channel, with e-mail reserved more for
development traffic. So look for those channels first when seeking
As a second step, use project mailing lists
When a project has a development mailing list, write to the
mailing list, not to individual developers, even if you believe
you know who can best answer your question. Check the documentation
of the project and its homepage for the address of a project mailing
list, and use it. There are several good reasons for this
Any question good enough to be asked of one
developer will also be of value to the whole group. Contrariwise, if
you suspect your question is too dumb for a mailing list, it’s not
an excuse to harass individual developers.
Asking questions on the list distributes load among
developers. The individual developer (especially if he’s the project
leader) may be too busy to answer your questions.
Most mailing lists are archived and the archives are
indexed by search engines. If you ask your question on-list and it is
answered, a future querent could find your question and the answer on
the Web instead of asking it again.
If certain questions are seen to be asked often,
developers can use that information to improve the documentation or the
software itself to be less confusing. But if those questions are
asked in private, nobody has the complete picture of what questions
are asked most often.
If a project has both a “user” and a
“developer” (or “hacker”) mailing list or
Web forum, and you are not hacking on the code, ask in the
“user” list/forum. Do not assume that you will
be welcome on the developer list, where they’re likely to experience
your question as noise disrupting their developer traffic.
However, if you are sure your question is
non-trivial, and you get no answer in the “user”
list/forum for several days, try the “developer” one.
You would be well advised to lurk there for a few daysor at least
review the last few days of archived messages, to learn the local
folkways before posting (actually this is good advice on any private or semi-private
If you cannot find a project’s mailing list address, but only
see the address of the maintainer of the project, go ahead and write
to the maintainer. But even in that case, don’t assume that the
mailing list doesn’t exist. Mention in your e-mail that you tried and
could not find the appropriate mailing list. Also mention that you
don’t object to having your message forwarded to other people. (Many
people believe that private e-mail should remain private, even if
there is nothing secret in it. By allowing your message to be
forwarded you give your correspondent a choice about how to handle
Use meaningful, specific subject headers
On mailing lists, newsgroups or Web forums, 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.
One good convention for subject headers, used by many tech support
organizations, is “object – deviation”. The
“object” part specifies what thing or group of things is
having a problem, and the “deviation” part describes the
deviation from expected behavior.
HELP! Video doesn’t work properly on my laptop!
X.org 6.8.1 misshapen mouse cursor, Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset
X.org 6.8.1 mouse cursor on Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset – is misshapen
The process of writing an “object-deviation”
description will help you organize your thinking about the problem in
more detail. What is affected? Just the mouse cursor or other
graphics too? Is this specific to the X.org version of X? To version
6.8.1? Is this specific to Fooware video chipsets? To model MV1005? A
hacker who sees the result can immediately understand what it is that
you are having a problem with and the problem you
are having, at a glance.
More generally, imagine looking at the index of an archive of
questions, with just the subject lines showing. Make your subject
line reflect your question well enough that the next person searching the
archive with a question similar to yours will be able to follow the
thread to an answer rather than posting the question again.
If you ask a question in a reply, be sure to change the subject
line to indicate that you’re 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 quotation
of previous messages to the minimum consistent with cluing in new
Do not simply hit reply to a list message in order to start an
entirely new thread. This will limit your audience. Some mail readers,
like mutt, allow the user to sort by thread and then hide messages in
a thread by folding the thread. Folks who do that will never see your
Changing the subject is not sufficient. Mutt, and probably other mail
readers, looks at other information in the e-mail’s headers to assign
it to a thread, not the subject line. Instead start an entirely new
On Web forums the rules of good practice are slightly different,
because messages are usually much more tightly bound to specific
discussion threads and often invisible outside those threads.
Changing the subject when asking a question in reply is not essential.
Not all forums even allow separate subject lines on replies, and
nearly nobody reads them when they do. However, asking a question in a
reply is a dubious practice in itself, because it will only be seen by
those who are watching this thread. So, unless you are sure you
want to ask only the people currently active in the
thread, start a new one.
Finishing your query with “Please send your reply
to… ” makes it quite unlikely you will get an answer. If you
can’t be bothered to take even the few seconds required to set up a
correct Reply-To header in your mail agent, we can’t be bothered to
take even a few seconds to think about your problem. If your mail
program doesn’t permit this, get a better mail
program. If your operating system doesn’t support any e-mail
programs that permit this, get a better operating system.
In Web forums, asking for a reply by e-mail is outright rude,
unless you believe the information may be sensitive (and somebody
will, for some unknown reason, let you but not the whole forum know
it). If you want an e-mail copy when somebody replies in the thread,
request that the Web forum send it; this feature is supported
almost everywhere under options like “watch this thread”,
“send e-mail on answers”, etc.
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
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”, “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. So don’t use instant-messaging shortcuts.
Spelling “you” as “u” makes you look like a semi-literate boob to save
two entire keystrokes. Worse: 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
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
If you are writing in English but it is a second language for
you, it is good form to alert potential respondents to potential
language difficulties and options for getting around them.
English is not my native language; please excuse typing errors.
If you speak $LANGUAGE, please email/PM me; I may need assistance
translating my question.
I am familiar with the technical terms, but some slang expressions and
idioms are difficult for me.
I’ve posted my question in $LANGUAGE and English. I’ll be glad to
translate responses, if you only use one or the other.
Send questions in accessible, standard formats
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:
Send plain text mail, not HTML. (It’s not hard
MIME attachments are usually OK, but only if they are
real content (such as an attached source file or patch), and not
merely boilerplate generated by your mail client (such as another copy
of your message).
Don’t send e-mail in which entire paragraphs are single
multiply-wrapped lines. (This makes it too difficult to reply to
just part of the message.) Assume that your respondents will be
reading mail on 80-character-wide text displays and set your
line wrap accordingly, to something less than 80.
However, do not wrap data (such
as log file dumps or session transcripts) at any fixed column width.
Data should be included as-is, so respondents can have confidence
that they are seeing what you saw.
Don’t send MIME Quoted-Printable encoding to an
English-language forum. This encoding can be necessary when you’re
posting in a language ASCII doesn’t cover, but many e-mail agents
don’t support it. When they break, all those =20 glyphs scattered
through the text are ugly and distracting — or may actively
sabotage the semantics of your text.
Never, ever expect hackers to be
able to read closed proprietary document formats like Microsoft Word
or Excel. Most hackers react to these about as well as you would to
having a pile of steaming pig manure dumped on your doorstep. Even
when they can cope, they resent having to do so.
If you’re sending e-mail from a Windows machine, turn
off Microsoft’s problematic “Smart Quotes” feature (From
Tools > AutoCorrect Options, clear the smart quotes checkbox under
AutoFormat As You Type.). This is so you’ll avoid sprinkling garbage
characters through your mail.
In Web forums, do not abuse “smiley” and
“HTML” features (when they are present). A smiley or two
is usually OK, but colored fancy text tends to make people think you
are lame. Seriously overusing smileys and color and fonts will make
you come off like a giggly teenage girl, which is not generally a good
idea unless you are more interested in sex than answers.
If you’re using a graphical-user-interface mail client such as
Netscape Messenger, MS Outlook, or their ilk, beware that it may
violate these rules when used with its default settings. Most such
clients have a menu-based “View Source” command. Use
this on something in your sent-mail folder, verifying sending of plain
text without unnecessary attached crud.
Be precise and informative about your problem
Describe the symptoms of your problem or bug carefully and clearly.
Describe the environment in which it occurs (machine, OS, application,
whatever). Provide your vendor’s distribution and release level
(e.g.: “Fedora Core 7”, “Slackware 9.1”, etc.).
Describe the research you did to try and understand the problem
before you asked the question.
Describe the diagnostic steps you took to try and pin down the problem
yourself before you asked the question.
Describe any possibly relevant recent changes in your computer or
If at all possible, provide a way to reproduce the
problem in a controlled environment.
Do the best you can to anticipate the questions a hacker will
ask, and answer them in advance in your request for help.
Giving hackers the ability to reproduce the problem in a
controlled environment is especially important if you are reporting
something you think is a bug in code. When you do this, your odds of
getting a useful answer and the speed with which you are likely to get
that answer both improve tremendously.
Simon Tatham has written an excellent essay entitled How to
Report Bugs Effectively. I strongly recommend that
you read it.
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
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.
Don’t rush to claim that you have found a bug
When you are having problems with a piece of software, don’t
claim you have found a bug unless you are very,
very sure of your ground. Hint: unless you can
provide a source-code patch that fixes the problem, or a regression
test against a previous version that demonstrates incorrect behavior,
you are probably not sure enough. This applies to webpages and
documentation, too; if you have found a documentation
“bug”, you should supply replacement text and which pages
it should go on.
Remember, there are many other users that are not
experiencing your problem. Otherwise you would have learned about it
while reading the documentation and searching the Web (you did do that
before complaining, didn’t you?). This
means that very probably it is you who are doing something wrong, not
The people who wrote the software work very hard to make it work
as well as possible. If you claim you have found a bug, you’ll be
impugning their competence, which may offend some of them even if you
are correct. It’s especially undiplomatic to yell “bug”
in the Subject line.
When asking your question, it is best to write as though you
assume you are doing something wrong, even if you
are privately pretty sure you have found an actual bug. If there
really is a bug, you will hear about it in the answer. Play it so the
maintainers will want to apologize to you if the bug is real, rather
than so that you will owe them an apology if you have messed up.
Grovelling is not a substitute for doing your homework
Some people who get that they shouldn’t behave rudely or
arrogantly, demanding an answer, retreat to the opposite extreme of
grovelling. “I know I’m just a pathetic newbie loser,
but…”. This is distracting and unhelpful. It’s especially
annoying when it’s coupled with vagueness about the actual
Don’t waste your time, or ours, on crude primate politics.
Instead, present the background facts and your question as clearly as
you can. That is a better way to position yourself than by
Sometimes Web forums have separate places for newbie questions. If you
feel you do have a newbie question, just go there. But don’t grovel there
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. If you feel
it’s important to state your guess, clearly label it as such and
describe why that answer isn’t working for you.
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?
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
Since the preceding point seems to be a tough one for many people to
grasp, here’s a phrase to remind you: “All diagnosticians are from
Missouri.” That US state’s official motto is “Show me” (earned in
1899, when Congressman Willard D. Vandiver said “I come from a country
that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy
eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri.
You’ve got to show me.”) In diagnosticians’ case, it’s not a matter of
skepticism, but rather a literal, functional need to see whatever is
as close as possible to the same raw evidence that you see, rather
than your surmises and summaries. Show us.
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. So, your account should
describe precisely what you did, and what the machine and software
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 select options that will add useful
debugging information to the transcript. Remember that more is not
necessarily better; try to choose a debug level that will inform
rather than drowning the reader in junk.
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.
Describe the goal, not the step
If you are trying to find out how to do something (as opposed to
reporting a bug), begin by describing the goal. Only then describe
the particular step towards it that you are blocked on.
Often, people who need technical help have a high-level goal in
mind and get stuck on what they think is one particular path towards
the goal. They come for help with the step, but don’t realize that
the path is wrong. It can take substantial effort to get past
How do I get the color-picker on the FooDraw program to take a
hexadecimal RGB value?
I’m trying to replace the color table on an image with values
of my choosing. Right now the only way I can see to do this is by
editing each table slot, but I can’t get FooDraw’s color picker
to take a hexadecimal RGB value.
The second version of the question is smart. It allows an
answer that suggests a tool better suited to the task.
Don’t ask people to reply by private e-mail
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, helpers get some of their reward for being
respondents from being seen to be competent and knowledgeable by
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 or she does, it’s usually because he or she thinks
the question is too ill-formed or obvious to be interesting to
There is one limited exception to this rule. If you think
the question is such that you are likely to get many answers that
are all closely similar, then the magic words are “e-mail 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 your question
Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as open-ended time
sinks. Those 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 must allocate 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, “Would 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 malfunctioning code, it is
usually smarter to ask for someone to explain what’s wrong with it
than it is to ask someone to fix it.
Don’t ask others to debug your broken code without giving a hint
what sort of problem they should be searching for. Posting a few
hundred lines of code, saying “it doesn’t work”, will get you ignored.
Posting a dozen lines of code, saying “after line 7 I was expecting to
see <x>, but <y> occurred instead” is much more likely to
get you a response.
The most effective way to be precise about a code problem is to
provide a minimal bug-demonstrating test case. What’s a minimal test
case? It’s an illustration of the problem; just enough code to
exhibit the undesirable behavior and no more. How do you make a
minimal test case? If you know what line or section of code is
producing the problematic behavior, make a copy of it and add just
enough supporting code to produce a complete example (i.e. enough that
the source is acceptable to the compiler/interpreter/whatever
application processes it). If you can’t narrow it down to a
particular section, make a copy of the source and start removing
chunks that don’t affect the problematic behavior. The smaller your
minimal test case is, the better (see the section called “Volume is not precision”).
Generating a really small minimal test case will not always be
possible, but trying to is good discipline. It may help you learn
what you need to solve the problem on your own — and even when
it doesn’t, hackers like to see that you have tried. It will
make them more cooperative.
If you simply want a code review, say as much up front, and be
sure to mention what areas you think might particularly need review
Don’t post homework questions
Hackers are good at spotting homework questions; most of us have
done them ourselves. Those questions are for you
to work out, so that you will learn from the experience. It is OK to
ask for hints, but not for entire solutions.
If you suspect you have been passed a homework question, but
can’t solve it anyway, try asking in a user group forum or (as a last
resort) in a “user” list/forum of a project. While the
hackers will spot it, some of the advanced users
may at least give you a hint.
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.”
In general, asking yes-or-no questions is a good thing to avoid
unless you want a yes-or-no
Don’t flag your question as “Urgent”, even if it is for you
That’s your problem, not ours. Claiming urgency is very likely
to be counter-productive: most hackers will simply delete such
messages as rude and selfish attempts to elicit immediate and special
attention. Furthermore, the word ‘Urgent’ (and other similar attempts
to grab attention in the subject line) often triggers spam filters –
your intended recipients might never see it at all!
There is one semi-exception. It can be worth mentioning if
you’re using the program in some high-profile place, one that the
hackers will get excited about; in such a case, if you’re under time
pressure, and you say so politely, people may get interested enough to
This is a very risky thing to do, however, because the hackers’
metric for what is exciting probably differs from yours. Posting from
the International Space Station would qualify, for example, but
posting on behalf of a feel-good charitable or political cause would
almost certainly not. In fact, posting “Urgent: Help me save
the fuzzy baby seals!” will reliably get you shunned or flamed
even by hackers who think fuzzy baby seals are important.
If you find this mysterious, re-read the rest of this how-to
repeatedly until you understand it before posting anything at
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.
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
However, if you’ve got your technical ducks in a row,
politeness does increase your chances of getting a useful
(We must note that the only serious objection we’ve received
from veteran hackers to this HOWTO is with respect to our previous
recommendation to use “Thanks in advance”. Some hackers
feel this connotes an intention not to thank anybody afterwards. Our
recommendation is to either say “Thanks in advance” first
and thank respondents afterwards, or express
courtesy in a different way, such as by saying “Thanks for your
attention” or “Thanks for your
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.
Optimally, the reply should be to the thread started by the
original question posting, and should have ‘FIXED’,
‘RESOLVED’ or an equally obvious tag in the subject line.
On mailing lists with fast turnaround, a potential respondent who sees
a thread about “Problem X” ending with “Problem X –
FIXED” knows not to waste his/her time even reading the thread
(unless (s)he personally finds Problem X interesting) and can
therefore use that time solving a different problem.
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. Say what action solved the problem, but you
need not replay the whole troubleshooting sequence.
For problems with some depth, it is appropriate to post a
summary of the troubleshooting history. Describe your final problem
statement. Describe what worked as a solution, and indicate avoidable
blind alleys after that. The blind alleys should
come after the correct solution and other summary material, rather
than turning the follow-up into a detective story. Name the names of
people who helped you; you’ll make friends that way.
Besides being courteous and informative, this sort of followup
will help others searching the archive of the mailing-list/newsgroup/forum
to know exactly which solution helped you and thus may also help
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 goodwill that
scratching that itch earns you will be very, very helpful to you next
time you need to pose a question.
Consider how you might be able to prevent others from having the
same problem in the future. Ask yourself if a documentation or FAQ
patch would help, and if the answer is yes send that patch to the
Among hackers, this sort of good followup behavior is actually
more important than conventional politeness. It’s how you get a
reputation for playing well with others, which can be a very valuable
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
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 e-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
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.
Sometimes people will attack you personally, flame without an
apparent reason, etc., even if you don’t screw up (or have only
screwed up in their imagination). In this case, complaining is the way
to really screw up.
These flamers are either lamers who don’t have a clue but
believe themselves to be experts, or would-be psychologists testing
whether you’ll screw up. The other readers either ignore them, or find
ways to deal with them on their own. The flamers’ behavior creates
problems for themselves, which don’t have to concern you.
Don’t let yourself be drawn into a flamewar, either. Most flames
are best ignored — after you’ve checked whether they are really flames,
not pointers to the ways in which you have screwed up, and not cleverly
ciphered answers to your real question (this happens as well).
How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way
Be gentle. Problem-related stress can make
people seem rude or stupid even when they’re not.
Reply to a first offender off-line. There
is no need of public humiliation for someone who may have made an
honest mistake. A real newbie may not know how to search archives or
where the FAQ is stored or posted.
If you don’t know for sure, say so! A wrong
but authoritative-sounding answer is worse than none at all. Don’t
point anyone down a wrong path simply because it’s fun to sound like
an expert. Be humble and honest; set a good example for both the
querent and your peers.
If you can’t help, don’t hinder. Don’t make
jokes about procedures that could trash the user’s setup — the
poor sap might interpret these as instructions.
Ask probing questions to elicit more
details. If you’re good at this, the querent will learn
something — and so might you. Try to turn the bad question into
a good one; remember we were all newbies once.
While muttering RTFM is sometimes justified when replying
to someone who is just a lazy slob, a pointer to documentation (even
if it’s just a suggestion to google for a key phrase) is
If you’re going to answer the question at all, give
good value. Don’t suggest kludgy workarounds when somebody
is using the wrong tool or approach. Suggest good tools. Reframe the
Answer the actual question! If the querent has been so thorough
as to do his or her research and has included in the query that X, Y,
Z, A, B, and C have already been tried without good result, it is
supremely unhelpful to respond with “Try A or B,” or with
a link to something that only says, “Try X, Y, Z, A, B, or
Help your community learn from the
question. When you field a good question, ask yourself
“How would the relevant documentation or FAQ have to change so
that nobody has to answer this again?” Then send a patch to the
If you did research to answer the question, demonstrate your
skills rather than writing as though you pulled the answer out of your
butt. Answering one good question is like feeding a hungry person
one meal, but teaching them research skills by example is showing
them how to grow food for a lifetime.