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What do you think is the strongest format for a question title?

I run into a lot of posts where I can't always figure out what the person is looking for, presumably for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • unfamiliarity with the topic
  • unfamiliarity with SO
  • use of a translator
  • lack of effort

I understand that sometimes a brief description of the issue in the post is a good alternative than trying to summarize the question. Other times, it just obfuscates the real question. This is often complicated by the fact that users will sometimes post substandard questions (for the same reasons that their topics are less than satisfactory).

One of my personal pet peeves is questions of the format 'How to X?' Where X is their goal. It's not grammatically correct, and its basically just slapping a question mark onto the end of a statement, and in general indicates that not very much thought went into the question. As I see it anyway.

Questions

  • Is it OK to edit a question to make the topic better (subject to your opinion)?
  • Is it OK to modify a question on no more than the grounds that it was asked sloppily and could have been done better?
  • What sort of titles do you look for when browsing for questions to answer?
  • Is it OK to downvote a question because it has a crappy title, even if the rest of the question is OK?
  • If you were to retitle this question, what would you title it?

Discussion

  • Why or why not would you consider trying to answer the following questions, purely based on appearance? Comment on effectiveness from both a grabbing perpective and a meaning perspective, i.e. how likely are you to stop and read it, and how close to the my actual question is it. These are titles requiring comment, not questions.
    • What do you look for in a question title on StackOverflow?
    • What to look for in question titles?
    • Unsure of the best question title format, what to include, what to omit
    • Trying to figure out how to ask effective questions
    • How to ask good question?
  • If you had to pick the strongest, most eye catching, information carrying, effective topic you've ever seen in a question, what would it be? Bonus: dig through questions you've answered and use a real example

For the record

I don't have the reputation to edit posts at will yet, I can only suggest. It takes a while for my suggested edits to go through.

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2  
"most eye catching" hmm... there's some very stiff competition: Why are my balls disappearing? Throwing the fattest people off of an overloaded airplane. C++ won't let me make friends –  Mysticial Jul 16 '12 at 16:53
    
Haha lol. You should write up an answer. –  Wug Jul 16 '12 at 18:59
    
Robert's answer pretty much covers it. Those 3 examples are the only ones I can think off the top of my head. (on SO - there's a lot more on Arqade...) –  Mysticial Jul 16 '12 at 19:17
    
@mystical I strongly recommend skipping overt cleverness in titles, because most people aren't nearly as clever as they think they are. Just try to be clear. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 16 '12 at 19:49
    
@JeffAtwood I didn't get your ping since you left out the "i". Yes, I agree: Those examples aren't necessarily good titles - they're just eye-catching. –  Mysticial Jul 16 '12 at 20:01

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The strongest format for a question title is a question, as in "What is the strongest format for a question title?" The second strongest is a summary statement, such as "Fooing the Bar when the Baz is corrupted". The weakest is a question that looks like a Google search, such as "C# Collections issue"

Answers to your bullets:

  • Yes.
  • Yes.
  • Titles that actually describe the question.
  • You can use downvotes any way you want to, so long as you don't target a specific user. That said, having a bad title is not necessarily the best reason for a downvote; you would be downvoting a substantial percentage of all questions.
  • Titles that actually describe the question.
  • They need to be specific enough so that I know whether I should open the actual question or not. Vague titles are often ignored. A good title is like a newspaper headline; it should catch my attention, and help me know if I should read further.
  • Omit tags. Avoid titles that look like Google search terms.
  • There are lots of resources to help people ask better questions. My favorite is "Ask the Duck."
  • Ditto.
  • Flash CS4 refuses to let go. Now, I'm not saying that you should craft a story around every one of your questions, but notice that, clever as the question is, the OP was careful to provide all of the information needed to answer the question, and his grammar and punctuation are perfect.

I'm beginning to suspect that many titles on SO are crappy because they are written first. The title should be the last thing you write, after you've thought about, formulated, and written your question body.

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"Flash CS4 refuses to let go" was so touching I cried. –  Wug Jul 16 '12 at 16:44
    
"What is the strongest format for a question title?" - closed as not constructive :P –  Mysticial Jul 16 '12 at 16:57
    
@Mysticial: Well, there is that. –  Robert Harvey Jul 16 '12 at 16:57
    
Another awesome (if inappropriate) title: stackoverflow.com/questions/11066050/… –  Manishearth Jul 16 '12 at 17:52
    
That's a strong argument for moving title to the bottom. I do find that I frequently come up with better titles after I've written the body. I worry that might be too radical a change for average folks though. Can you name any email client that puts the title of the email below the body compose area? –  Jeff Atwood Jul 16 '12 at 19:47
    
@JeffAtwood Email is a little of a different monster. That said, I'm all for it. Maybe you could make it a configurable user preference? –  Wug Jul 18 '12 at 4:15
    
Also, this is a great answer, but I don't want to accept it until I have more than one opinion. –  Wug Jul 19 '12 at 14:16

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