10 golden rules of asking questions in the OpenSource community

Based on my tutorial website I frequently receive questions from users. Some are very nice, precise, encouraging and some are of perceived bad quality. I also ask lot of questions in the Eclipse community and I try to ask good questions. Of course I frequently fail to ask good questions ;-) but at least I try.

So what makes a question, a good or even an excellent question?

I personally believe the following rules are a good guideline:

10 Golden Rules

  1. Don’t be rude
  2. Try to be as precise and as short as possible
  3. Do your homework before asking (Google, search newgroups, read tutorials,…)
  4. Try to ask one question at the time
  5. Proof-read your question after writing it
  6. Don’t expect others to do your work
  7. Avoid private email if other channels exists
  8. Remind yourself that people help you voluntarily
  9. Read and follow up on suggestions
  10. If you get a solution let others know

What do you think? Did I miss an important point?

For a detailed discussion of how to ask good questions see How to ask smart questions.

About Lars Vogel

Lars Vogel is the founder and CEO of the vogella GmbH and works as Eclipse and Android consultant, trainer and book author. He is a regular speaker at international conferences, He is the primary author of vogella.com. With more than one million visitors per month this website is one of the central sources for Java, Eclipse and Android programming information.
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19 Responses to 10 golden rules of asking questions in the OpenSource community

  1. Wim Jongman says:

    11. Do not add “this is urgent”

  2. Johannes Wachter says:

    12. Choose a descriptive title. (e.g. not “Hibernate problem”)

    If you’re writing on a mailing list or forum you can satisfy rule 2 perfectly, but still miss out by giving the post a misleading title.

  3. Paul says:

    I second #12, though it does tie in with #2 as well. A small peeve of mine is browsing a newsgroup and seeing multiple subject headings along the lines of “Please HELP!” with no indication at all as to what the real problem is. These are usually the same people that fail at #3 and #6.

    Very much like #10. I especially appreciate those that answer their own questions later on even if no one else was willing/able to.

  4. Eike Stepper says:

    Hi Lars,

    Good points. If there is an ordering on the points I’d move 3) to 1) and 7) to 2). I don’t think 4) is important. One thing that bothers me a lot is that often a “problem” or an exception is mentioned but no stack trace provided. That’s not very helpful. Ah, and often the version of the used software is not mentioned, which usually creates another post round-trip. Maybe this falls into the precision category ;-)

    Cheers
    /Eike

  5. Lars Vogel says:

    Thank you all for your feedback.

    @Wim I agree with “This is urgent” should not be used and I think it is somehow related to “Don’t expect others to do your work”.

    @Johannes @Paul The “descriptive title” is also very important and I see it as part of “Try to be as precise and as short as possible”.

    @Eike I believe “Don’t be rude” is still the most important rule as a otherwise well written question is still not good if the person insults you in the progress of asking the question. 4.) is based on the my personal observation that it is difficult to answer questions if the person ask to many different topics at the some time. The missing stacktrace falls in my opinion into 2.)

  6. Ed Merks says:

    Sometimes I’m struck by the extreme laziness in how questions are asked. In cases like that, I try to keep my answer shorter than the question. Or I’ll ask my own question instead of answering their question. I’m not sure what makes people think someone else will invest more effort in helping them than they’ve invested in helping themselves.

  7. Lars Vogel says:

    @Ed I agree with your approach in situations where it is very clear that the person did not spend effort on their question.

    I believe I quoted you once with a statement which was similar to the following: “The quality of the answer is directly proportional to the amount of work you put into the question”.

  8. christian campo says:

    #rule 13: If you describe an error, dont say “…..and then I receive an error”, say what error, what message, stacktrace, go as detailed as possible

    #rule14: if you can reproduce your use case problem in a snippet, that increase your chances by roughly 400 %

  9. George Graves says:

    I know that it is hard to put effort into answering someone’s question. Especially a newbie who asked that question we all learned many moons ago. But remember, you too were a newbie at one time and you wanted that question answered. If you don’t know, we who read forums are teachers and we have a wealth of knowledge to share. I know it is our passion to share our wealth. As long as the person asking the question is not being a jerk, cut them some slack. No disrepect to Lars and the others who have commented, but these rules seem to be more for a formal conference than forum questions. I too hate all the questions that make me not want to read anymore, but I wade through and if I know the answer I tried to continue. 1, 3, 6, 9 and 10 are necessary, but the others seem like good suggestions. So I say bring the ridiculous silly poorly proof read questions on. Two thing to remember. One, you don’t have to read and/or answer the questions. Two, my father always told me the only dumb question is the question not asked.

  10. Isabel Njihia says:

    pure wisdom right there!
    It’s a pity that some of us who know tend to reach a point of forgetting that at one point we were in the dark. Thanks George for the wake up call.

  11. Lars Vogel says:

    @George @Isabel: These rules should help asking good question, this applies for starter questions as well as more advanced question.

  12. 5M7X says:

    How one should ask for help (not only in the openSource-Community) has allready been defined very well *imho*. Take a look at “Howto ask questions the smart way” -> http://catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

  13. Lars Vogel says:

    @5M7X If you read this blog entry you find that I also quoting this reference.

  14. Michael Uplawski says:

    Trying to blend in George’s and Isabel’s opinions, I could devise yet another rule like this:
    #15: if practicable, feel the ambience in the forum, that you address, take your time to sense the way that those people people tend to interact, before you ask questions.

    The rule or what I hope to gain from my adherence to it, should make some of the others obsolete in some specific communities. As always, rules aren’t laws aren’t imposed on us by nature. ;-)

  15. Lars Vogel says:

    @Michael that is also good advice. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Elan says:

    #rule 14: Thank every time, irrespective of quality of answers you receive.

  17. Eric Darchis says:

    It is better to ask the question on a site like stackoverflow.com and send a link to the person we want to ask. That way, you can ask several people, people you did not expect will also answer and all will see each other’s answers.

  18. #16. Do not bump the thread to get attention.

    Posting a meaningless message, or a repeat query back-to-back with the previous one, only to attract the attention could be treated an bumping.

  19. david says:

    #17. Don’t post off topic or irrelevant messages.
    #18. Don’t follow up to a thread months after it seems to have ended (DOH!)

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