How to Ask For Help

I have seen lots of requests for help, both through this website and on various forums, where it is completely impossible to work out just what the person is asking about. Their request for help is so ambiguous that there are dozens of different things that they might be asking about or they provide so little information that there is no information at all on which to base an answer.

When asking for assistance, you are far more likely to get a useful answer if you ask for help in such a way that those reading your request are actually able to tell what it is that you are asking about. If people can't tell what you are asking then either they will not answer at all or they will answer what they think you are asking which may be completely different from what you are actually asking. I have even seen forums where those who are prepared to attempt to answer a question end up disagreeing as to which of several possible interpretations of the question is the correct one.

The first thing you need to do when asking for help is to make sure that you place the question in the correct category. With the form on this site where you can ask for help, you get to select from the list of categories where I know enough about the topic to be able to answer a reasonable percentage of the likely questions (provided that I can understand what is being asked).There are a significant number of questions that I am sent that have nothing whatever to do with the selected category though - the most problematic categories being questions labelled as 'mainframe' that have nothing whatever to do with mainframe computers, 'os/2' questions that have nothing to do with that now rarely used operating system, 'graphics software' questions that are about graphics hardware, and 'pc software' questions that are about pc hardware. That immediately eliminates the possibility that I will publish the question for others to help if I don't know the answer and also since the question is often not something I know enough about to answer (or there'd be a category that the question would match), I am also unlikely to be able to answer.

Similarly, questions posted into the wrong category on a forum are unlikely to get answered since those likely to know the answer may not visit that particular category (particularly if the category is one they know little or nothing about). The best you can hope for there is that a forum moderator will see your post and move it tho where it belongs. You greatly improve your chances of an answer if you post it in the right place to start with.

All the questions entered on this site are automatically emailed to me so that if I know the answer I can answer them and if I don't and the person asking has given permission then I can post the question to ask others for help. On forums no one automatically sees your question, all they see is a list of all the headings. If the heading on your post just says something like "I need help" then far fewer people are likely to open it and read your question because they don't know if they know anything about what you are asking. If you want people to actually read your question then the heading has to tell them what your question is about. Try to say in just a few words what area your problem is in and you will greatly improve the chance that someone who can answer your question will look at it.

Being specific doesn't end there. You also need to be as specific as possible and provide as much information as possible in the request itself. Just stating that a particular program doesn't work is unlikely to get you any meaningful answer. For someone to be able to help you work out why it doesn't work they need to know just what exactly isn't working plus other information about your system that might provide them with clues as to what the problem is. Now of course if you knew exactly what information is needed to figure out the answer then you'd be able to answer the question yourself so it is expected that you will not necessarily provide all the information needed in your first post. You should at least try to incluude some information so that those reading have a reasonable idea of what you are asking about. Also if the program produces an error message then including that in your post is essential as that is the best clue as to what the problem is.

If you are asking for help on how to do something then you also need to make sure that your request is clear as to exactly what it is you are trying to do. If your question talks about uploading images to your site but is not clear as to whether you are asking how to upload them, where to upload them, or how to ensure that people visiting your site can see them then the answer you get may not be related to the question you meant to ask even though it is a possible answer for what you actually did ask.

One final thing to consider when asking your question is to make sure that you are only asking one question. If you have more than one question then ask each one separately. The person who knows the answer to one of your questions may not be able to help out with answering the other questions and if you ask two or more questions together then people who can only answer one of them may not answer at all. It can also get confusing when you do start to get answers as to which of your questions each person is attempting to answer.

As well as including all of the information that you believe might be relevant for someone to be able to answer your question, you should also leave out everything that you know isn't relevant. If you have a problem with the way a part of your web pages are displaying then the number of pages where you have the problem is not relevant since the same fix will apply to most if not all of them so you only need to provide one of the pages where the problem is occurring when asking for help. Telling people that you have hundreds or thousands of other pages with the same problem isn't going to make any difference to getting this problem fixed and if you haven't made the question clear enough so that it makes it look like you are asking for help to fix hundreds or thousands of pages then the answers you are more likely to get are suggestions that you employ someone to fix them all. While people don't mind providing help with specific problems via a forum, they don't expect to be asked to fix up an entire web site without their receiving an appropriate payment for doing so.

There are always going to be people who post questions asking for help where the question is so ambiguous that either there will not be any answer or the answer may not relate to what the question was supposed to be asking and so doesn't help. Those people may end up deciding that no one wants to help them but that is not true, it is just that they are not asking in a way that allows anyone to help them.

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