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Asking Questions of The Answer Gang

Updated Sep 12 2003
Please send any corrections and additions to Ben Okopnik

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 that is likely to get you a satisfactory answer.
 -- Eric S. Raymond, "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way"

This document draws heavily on several sources, including Tad McClellan's Posting Guidelines for comp.lang.perl.misc and the Netiquette Guidelines RFC. How to Ask Smart Questions by Eric S. Raymond and Rick Moen is also strongly recommended as a general guide to getting good Net.answers.

General Info About The Gang

The Answer Gang is a group of volunteers at the Linux Gazette. It is the source of the Gazette's tech support columns, The Mailbag, 2-Cent Tips, and The Answer Gang. To gather relevant questions to respond to, we run an open mailing list where anyone is welcome to ask their Linux-related questions.

Each member of The Gang has a set of Linux-relevant interests, skills, and abilities; whether you get an answer or not depends on how well you engage those. There is no guarantee that your question will be answered at all: however, interesting questions of broad scope (i.e., those that would be of interest to a number of our readers), especially presented by folks who are pleasant, polite, and have a sense of humor are not likely to be ignored.

Be Warned: The answers themselves may range from friendly to gruff and often contain sharp humor, horseplay, fluff, pedantry, and pontification; the discussion spawned by your question may well wander off-topic and possibly back on again - with all of this reflected in your mailbox. Thin-skinned folks, those who expect "their answer" and nothing else, and narrow-minded people are urged to take the appropriate precautions. (Yellow helmets and fire- and bullet-proof underwear are available in the shop just off the main lobby.)
 


BEFORE POSTING

Here's something you can do right away that will greatly increase your chances of "winning the TAG lottery", even before you fire up your e-mail software: prequalify your question by running it through the following info-gauntlet. If it comes through without being answered, we'd be interested in at least looking at this rare beast - and you'll gain status points by telling us about having done this and the results you got.

Check your local resources:


Use the Web:


Check out the LG treasure trove:

 

POSTING TO TAG
 

  • Question should be about Linux, or of interest to Linux community

  • The Linux Gazette has a rather obvious and clearly stated purpose; our target readership is the Linux community. We may post humorous pieces, or "spam slams", or other non-Linux content - but in general, that's not what we do. We don't usually give out advice on cooking rhubarb, passing tests in American history, or making your Wind*ws program work... actually, we have done all of those in the past, but relying on it would be just plain silly. Confine your questions to Linux-specific or Linux-related content.
     
  •   Carefully choose the contents of your Subject header

  • You have 40 precious characters of Subject in which to make your first impression. Spend them indicating what problem we can expect to find in your query. Don't waste them telling us about your experience level ("Guru", "Newbie"...) Don't waste them pleading ("Please read", "Urgent", "HELP!!!"...) Don't waste them on non-subjects ("Linux question", "Could I ask a question?"...) Part of the beauty of Net forum dynamics is that you can contribute to the community with your very first post! If your choice of subject leads a fellow searcher to find the thread you are starting, then even asking a question helps us all.
     
  •   Beware of saying "doesn't work"

  • This is a "red flag" phrase, one that gives no useful information and tends to annoy the people who are trying to help you. If you find yourself writing it, pause and see if you can't describe what is not working without saying "doesn't work". That is, describe how it is not what you want. Try to explain the problem to another person using only words (i.e., don't show it to them - just describe it.) If they can understand what you mean, write down the explanation you used and send it to us!
     
  •   Use an effective follow-up style

  • When composing a reply, intersperse your comments following the sections of quoted text that you're replying to. There's a good guide on quoting in the
    Quoting and Answering section of "How Do I Quote Correctly On Usenet?"; knowing how to do is a skill that will serve you not only here but in any mailing list or Usenet forum.
     
  •   Provide enough, but not too much information

  • (Heather Stern "The EditorGal"'s addendum, with modifications)
    Too Much Info: Where you bought the computer and whether you still have a receipt. What color the case is. Your passwords or anything else you wouldn't discuss in the bookstore or at a picnic.
    Not Enough Info: "So I plugged everything in but it doesn't work."

    Questions whose answers (from you) would give us enough to run with:

    What, exactly, did you plug in? Into what?
    What did you expect to happen?
    What happened instead?
    What were the exact error messages?
    What have you changed since then?
    Where does Linux come into the puzzle? (feel free to guess)
    Which Linux distribution?
    Which version of the problem software package (you did upgrade to the latest one, right?) are you using?
    For a more complete treatment of this topic, see Simon Tatham's excellent
    How to Report Bugs Effectively.
     
  •   Send text-only content

  • Plain text is something that any mail program can read. Don't post Word documents, PDFs, HTML, or MIME (a number of stupidly-designed e-mail programs do this by default; here are the
    instructions for turning many of them off); your question will not be easily readable if you do, and that often spells "delete". Binary attachments sent to The Answer Gang are thrown into the trash basket without even a glance. Yes, we are aware that MIME Quoted-Printable can be useful in preserving non-English character sets, but mail to TAG in a language other than English is very rare. Use it when it's necessary; avoid it otherwise.
     
  •   Remove all "confidential" notices or cancel them explicitly (asking for your name not to be posted is OK)

  • Published answers benefit the entire community; this is what we do here in TAG. If you have a "This is to be kept confidential" blurb in your post, forget about having it answered: it just isn't going to happen. Don't expect people to do one-on-one problem resolution unless you're willing to pay for it. If your company automatically glues a "confidential" tag to all your e-mail, either e-mail us from home or preface your question with an explicit permission for us to publish. In fact, here's one you can simply copy and paste:
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------
    I hereby give my explicit permission for the Linux Gazette to publish the
    material in this e-mail, as well as all future responses or discussion that
    result from it. This notice supersedes all other restrictions.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------
    (Heather Stern "The EditorGal"'s addendum) If you know that it includes some sort of message about who it's intended for, you can make that more clear. This example asks for anonymizing... Note that we normally hide your company anyway, unless you are with a company that helps maintain the application being discussed. But email addresses are normally shown with Tips, in case the readers have any comments.


    So - you've already done one of The Right Things by reading this document; presumably, you've already done more than one Right Thing by working through the preceding list. If you still haven't found an answer, go ahead and send your question to The Answer Gang - we'll be glad to hear from you, if reading this hasn't aged you to the point where you need a Nursing Home! ;)

    Tux