How To Ask And Answer Questions The Smart Way

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It is important to ask questions well, if you want to get helpful answers. This involves doing some work ahead of time, clearly stating what problem you're trying to solve, and also what you're trying to accomplish, in case there's a better path to the solution than what you've considered.

You'll also need to develop a little bit of a thick skin, since there is a long tradition of treating beginners like lower life forms. This attitude is actively encouraged by documents such as ESR's original How To Ask Questions The Smart Way document, which inspired the creation of this one.

Don't be deceived - it is still absolutely critical that you ask smart questions. But we realize that in today's IT world, it's simply impossible to know everything about everything, and that most of us are very solutions-oriented. When we need to solve a problem, we typically don't have time to learn the entire stack before solving that problem. Thus, this document is addressed both to the asker and to the answerer.

While acknowledging that much of the burden rests on smart questions, the authors of this document also believe that patience, respect, and kindness are an important part not merely of answering questions, but of being human.


Before You Ask

Before asking a technical question by e-mail, on IRC, or on a website chat board, do the following:

When you ask your question, it's useful to display what you have already tried, so that you don't get a list of things to try that you've already tried. Furthermore, this demonstrates that you're not asking for people to do your work for you, but that you've done some research yourself.

Try to phrase your question in terms of goals, rather than in terms of steps. That is, state what you are trying to accomplish, rather than merely stating what step isn't working. Thinking carefully about the problem statement often leads you to thinking of alternate solutions. Also, having a larger context, rather than single breaking step, will help the answerer have a better idea of why the step matters, and thus motivate them to help.

Where to ask

It is often far from obvious where the best place to ask a question is going to be, and it varies a great deal from one software project to another. It's worth your time to look around at the various support venues, and see what kind of conversation happens in each, to judge where you're likely to get the best results. Some rules of thumb are:

Search the Web

You are not alone. Someone else has had exactly the problem that you are asking about. Lots of someones. And several of them have written blog posts or articles about it. Several more of them have asked your question on various mailing lists and websites.

Search the web for the exact error message that you are seeing. In most cases, this will lead directly to the solution you need, or, at least, to a discussion of what to investigate.


The StackExchange family of websites have become the de-facto documentation for many software projects, as well as many non-technical topics. Over time, the wealth of questions a thorough answers has grown to the point where you can almost always find a discussion of your problem written up there, complete with exhaustive solutions and links to further discussion.

Because these sites are question-based, rather than traditional documentation, the answers tend to be very solution-based, providing ready-to-use examples that you can use to solve practical problems.

The down side to these sites is that every scenario is slightly different, and so the specific problem statement might be different enough from yours that the solution doesn't exactly match.

Stack Exchange consists of close to 150 distinct sites, which are topic-specific. Here's a quick overview of the major sites.


IRC - Internet Relay Chat - is a means of having a live conversation with a group of people over the Internet. There are several very popular IRC networks where you're likely to find help on a wide variety of topics.

To use IRC, you'll first need an IRC client - software used to connect to the IRC servers. Popular ones include xChat, Colloquy, mIRC, IRSSI, and others. Wikipedia has a comparision of IRC clients which will help you choose one that's right for your needs. Also, most major IRC networks have a web interface, if you don't want to install a client.

We do recommend, however, that you obtain and install an IRC client, as you are likely to need IRC frequently in your quest for knowledge.

Popular IRC networks include:

Other networks are listed on the mIRC website.

Several helpful tips for asking on IRC:

IRCHelp is a great place to start if you're an IRC newbie and you want to get up to speed on the arcana of using IRC.

Web Forums

Many projects have moved to web forums for technical support. They have the advantage that answers are archived forever, but the disadvantage that answers tend to arrive much more slowly than on live channels such as IRC.

If a project has a web forum, it will be linked to from the website. Use the search feature before you dive in with your question, because someone else has probably already had the same problem.

Note that many projects just rely on the StackExchange family of sites. (See above.)

Project Mailing Lists

Most software projects have one or more mailing lists. Mailing lists are probably the very best place to get support, because everyone that's involved in the project is practically guaranteed to be there.

Here, too, the conversation is usually archived somewhere, although the ease of use of mailing list archives varies greatly. Sites like GMANE and MarkMail archive thousands of open source mailing lists in searchable formats, which may be easier to use than the official archives, which tend to be less searchable.

Most projects will have (at least) two mailing lists - one which is user-centric, where it's appropriate to ask questions, and another which is developer-centric, where the work of developing the software happens.

To ask a question on a mailing list, you will typically have to subscribe to the mailing list first. This may be by sending email to a special address (for example, or via a web interface (for example the rdo-list subscribe page).

Simply sending email to a mailing list that you are not subscribed to usually doesn't work, as replies will go back to the list, and you won't see them.

Mailing lists may be a handful of people, or they may be tens of thousands of people scattered across every time zone. Be patient. It may take a full day for the right person, in the right time zone, to see your question.

Some helpful tips that will contribute to you getting good answers are:

Use a meaningful subject line

Mailing lists can get a lot of traffic. Frequent answerers tend to filter by subject line. That is, they will skip messages that don't appear to be in their area of interest or expertise. Your subject line should say what the message is about. If possible ask the question in the subject line. If not, make sure you mention important keywords.

Subject lines like "Help!", "I have a question." or "Looking for assistance" will cause your message to be ignored by many potential helpers. Subject likes like "[OpenStack Neutron] Failed to find some config files: /etc/neutron/plugins_conf.ini" on the other hand, will draw the attention of the right helper.

As an added benefit, good subject lines make your message easier to find in a search by a future person in need of help. Remember that it may even be yourself, searching your own email for that answer.

Provide all the details

In your question, you should provide all of the details, including all error messages. If you have log files, provide them, either in the message body if they are reasonably short, or on a pastebin, or downloadable on your website.

The more details you provide, the less time you'll waste in being asked for yet another piece of information.

Don't say things like "it doesn't work" or "it's broken", but rather say what you're trying to do, what is happening, and in what way it differs from what you expect to be happening. This is absolutely critical, and skips the step where the helper says "what do you mean by doesn't work".

Never say "I'm getting an error" without saying what that error is. (This would be a good time to search Google for that error.)

If you've already tried some things, mention that. Copious use of pastebins for code and configuration examples are very helpful here.

If you are following a particular howto or tutorial, mention that, providing a link. Say how far you got.

Mention what operating system you're using (Windows, Mac, Linux), and, if relevant, what version (Fedora 22, Windows 8, etc.). Say what version of the software in question you're using (Apache web server 2.4.10) and what associated programs are involved (PHP 5.4.41).

If you are experiencing a consistently repeatable problem, mention the steps that are involved in creating that problem scenario.

Be thorough, but also attempt to be concise. Don't provide random additional information that may cloud the issue. If you're unsure, provide additional information on a pastebin, and link to it.

Be specific as to what your question is

Make sure that you actually ask a question. Describing a scenario, but not what your actual question is, feels very open-ended, and, thus, a huge potential time sink. Make sure you state very specifically what problem you're trying to solve, and what your intended outcome is.

Be patient

As mentioned above, open source communities may be scatterd all across the globe. It may take a day or two for it to reach the right person in the right time zone.

The response may come from someone who does not share your first language. Focus on the message, rather than on the phrasing or grammar.

Don't ask people to reply to you off-list, and don't ask if you can contact someone personally off list. These are considered rude, anti-cmmunity behaviors. There's a public mailing list because your question, and the answers to it, benefit the entire community. Taking that conversation off-list is seen as selfish.

When asking about code

Don't post homework questions

Don't use weasel words

Be polite

Follow up when you find a solution

How To Interpret Answers

Dealing with rudeness

If You Can't Get An Answer

How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way



A pastebin is a place where you can paste large quantities of text, so that someone else can then find it later, without having to paste that text into email, an IRC channel, or other similar place.

Popular pastebin sites include pastie and hastebin. We recommend that you avoid because it tends to be blocked in large parts of the world, including China.