How to Appropriately Ask for Assistance
Before You Ask
Before asking a technical question by e-mail, or in a newsgroup, or on a website chat board, do the following:
Try to find an answer by searching the archives of the forum or mailing list you plan to post to.
Try to find an answer by searching the Web.
Try to find an answer by reading the manual.
Try to find an answer by reading a FAQ.
Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.
Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.
If you're a programmer, try to find an answer by reading the source code.
When you ask your question, display the fact that you have done these things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated they can learn from the answers.
Use tactics like doing a Google search on the text of whatever error message you get (searching Google groups as well as Web pages). This might well take you straight to fix documentation or a mailing list thread answering your question. Even if it doesn't, saying “I googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that looked promising” is a good thing to do in e-mail or news postings requesting help, if only because it records what searches won't help. It will also help to direct other people with similar problems to your thread by linking the search terms to what will hopefully be your problem and resolution thread.
Take your time. Do not expect to be able to solve a complicated problem with a few seconds of Googling. Read and understand the FAQs, sit back, relax and give the problem some thought before approaching experts. Trust us, they will be able to tell from your questions how much reading and thinking you did, and will be more willing to help if you come prepared. Don't instantly fire your whole arsenal of questions just because your first search turned up no answers (or too many).
Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that having put thought and effort into solving your problem before seeking help, the more likely you are to actually get help.
Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on faulty assumptions, J. Random Hacker is quite likely to reply with a uselessly literal answer while thinking “Stupid question...”, and hoping the experience of getting what you asked for rather than what you needed will teach you a lesson.
Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren't, after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you earn it, by asking a substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking question — one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.
On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start. “Would someone provide a pointer?”, “What is my example missing?”, and “What site should I have checked?” are more likely to get answered than “Please post the exact procedure I should use.” because you're making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if someone can just point you in the right direction.
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 software configuration.
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.
Volume is not precision
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.