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I found this question, which I downvoted because it does not show any research effort. I want to be a good citizen and I don't want to downvote without leaving a comment, but I don't want my comment to take more effort that the original question.

Since What have you tried? is blocked (which finally settles, with Official Words, the long discussion of whether it was a valid comment or not), I could have tried a similar comment such as Have you tried anything? or Try writing some code... but I think that would be cheating the system.

What is the recommended comment in this case?

PS: out of frustration for the blocked comment, I downvoted silently. It seems that I was not the only one to do so.

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@Oded i found that too. so why did it get blocked? –  Daniel A. White Mar 21 '13 at 12:58
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I've flagged the question as Low Quality, and added the same auto comment I usually do: "Very low quality: What have you tried? Where is your code?" It's only comments that only consist of "What have you tried?" that are blocked (see Tim Post ♦'s comment below for more info). –  Danny Beckett Mar 21 '13 at 12:58
    
@DanielA.White - I was not aware that it was. –  Oded Mar 21 '13 at 12:58
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See this recent answer on why it was blocked. –  Tim Post Mar 21 '13 at 12:59
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Meh, that question is pretty much past redemption anyway. Downvote, VTC and don't worry about it. –  ben is uǝq backwards Mar 21 '13 at 13:00
    
and this other one, which Tim's link seems to be a semi-dupe of. –  ben is uǝq backwards Mar 21 '13 at 13:01
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FYI: The user asked a similar sounding question with code. This seems to be a duplicate. –  Jon Ericson Mar 21 '13 at 13:01
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Instead of saying "What have you tried?", you could just go with "Do you have any code that we can start with?". Two huge advantages: it doesn't sound like it's coming from an automaton, and it is specific with regards to what you want from the OP. It also doesn't take a huge amount of effort. –  Asad Mar 21 '13 at 13:47
    
looks related to meta.stackexchange.com/questions/170242/… –  NullPoiиteя Mar 21 '13 at 13:52
    
Downvote silently seems to be the way to go. See meta.stackexchange.com/a/172760/192138 –  Aaron Kurtzhals Mar 21 '13 at 18:13
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Did you notice this question from the same OP asked yesterday. Is it better or worse or the same from your perspective? –  Some Helpful Commenter Mar 21 '13 at 18:24
    
Duplicate? meta.stackexchange.com/questions/172758/… –  Cole Johnson Mar 21 '13 at 18:41
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Close, but not exactly @Cole –  Shog9 Mar 21 '13 at 18:50
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Try this gist? –  Kermit Mar 21 '13 at 19:08

4 Answers 4

up vote 30 down vote accepted

You have some options here, but the first thing you have to make is a decision:

Do I want to help this person write better questions, and learn how to help themselves?

If the answer to that is yes, then:

  • Point out specifically what is lacking in the question, as politely as you can. Try to be encouraging when possible, the down votes that the question is likely receiving tend to sting. Make the comment as immediately actionable by the user as possible by relating it directly to the actual problems in the question.

  • Edit the question to fix anything that you can. It's rare that missing information is the only thing wrong with a question. Show the user through action that we take ownership as a community in all of the content that we curate.

  • Watch out for quicksand - don't let the user make it your responsibility to improve the question. You're there to coach and help, not do their work. If you must exit - do so, but do so politely.

Boilerplate well worded comments can be used, but it's generally good to tailor them a little so they engage specific parts of the question. Otherwise, it looks like someone, well, left a boilerplate comment. While somewhat helpful, that's not very engaging. The more specific you are when you point out issues, the more likely the user is going to be to understand and fix them. If you want to help the user, you need to engage them, not just type at them.

Finally, you can still link to whathaveyoutried.com, provided that you've given some additional context with the link.

If you don't have the time, inclination or patience to help the person, then avoid commenting altogether. As Yannis points out, this doesn't say anything bad about you. Just use your flags and votes and contribute positively on other questions.

Just try not to feel the need, or at least resist the urge to jab the author of the question for asking a poor question. Remember, leaving a comment to help a new user is supposed to be just that - help, not a whitewashed way to show your dislike for the question that they asked.

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I'd like to add that not wanting to help the OP write better questions is not a bad thing. You don't have to comment if you don't have the time, energy or will to write something that's actually helpful. Your close vote and/or your downvote are already helpful enough, you are signalling the community that there's something wrong with the post. Go the extra mile only when you can actually help, everything else is just noise (or worse). –  Yannis Mar 21 '13 at 13:27
    
@Yannis Good point, I edited to include that. –  Tim Post Mar 21 '13 at 13:38
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Sometimes its easier to be negative, than helpful. Whathaveyoutried.com comes off as arrogant or patronizing. –  staticx Mar 21 '13 at 13:40
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@0A0D There's actually some good information there, and some people flat out just don't know how to ask for help on the Internet. If it's given to someone in the obvious spirit of being helpful, which more or less implies friendly, it's nice reading. If it's used pejoratively, then it's like an arrogant white-gloved slap. The context around it is really what makes it digestible or toxic to the recipient. –  Tim Post Mar 21 '13 at 13:43
    
You are right, I am talking about solely using whathaveyoutried.com as the comment. There are ways to use that link without sounding patronizing. –  staticx Mar 21 '13 at 13:44
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@0A0D Whathaveyoutried.com comes off as arrogant or patronizing might be so for you (or/and others) - I think it's perfectly balanced :-) –  kleopatra Mar 21 '13 at 13:48
    
@TimPost: that site really isn't helpful...it is a long rant. Considering how many of our users speak English as a Second Language, it is wildly unhelpful. It takes at least two reads to actually boil down what he's even yelling about. Much simpler and less frustrating to the end users to just ask for some code... –  user7116 Mar 21 '13 at 13:49
    
@kleopatra: It's a rant, sort of frustration. I get the author's point. Bill the Lizard pointed it out in another post.. if we were all nice and helpful to each other, then these Meta posts wouldn't happen. It's better off to leave a note than stating "what have you tried". This keeps the collective "we" from coming off as annoyed, arrogant, or patronizing. It's a social skill many of us still need to perfect and learn. I know I am not always good at it either, so throw a stone at me too, so to speak. –  staticx Mar 21 '13 at 13:51
    
There are also other things one could point to, like Eric Raymond's article on how to ask questions (which is much more condescending and difficult to read, IMHO). But we're not talking about a blanket rule on what to link, or not link - the whole idea is that discretion comes into play instead of just posting the link or the phrase. If you think the person might benefit from it, or any other related resource then sure - let them know it exists, after you've addressed the specific problems they should work on fixing. –  Tim Post Mar 21 '13 at 13:56
    
I thought the blanket rule was to link to the FAQ with a friendly comment? I know this has come up thousands of time before. –  staticx Mar 21 '13 at 14:00
    
The FAQ is fine to link to, it does offer some guidance. Even the new about page is helpful if you're dealing with someone completely new to the system. As long as it follows a short list of specific things the question author can do right then to fix the question, any helpful resource works, whatever suits the context best. –  Tim Post Mar 21 '13 at 18:00
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If the OP won't put forth any effort, then why should we put forth any effort in trying to help him/her? –  Jack Maney Mar 21 '13 at 18:05
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@Jack: sadly, that's less specific than you realize; the response is usually nothing, but when it does prompt the author to offer more information, it tends to be in the form of a code dump. That's great if the problem is actually in his code, but if it's little more than int main() { /*TODO: make this work */ return 0; } then it's just noise. If the question needs code, say that; if the asker should read the docs, say that. If you're just upset 'cause he's lazy, down-vote. –  Shog9 Mar 21 '13 at 18:37
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@Shog9 - Well, a code dump is a step in the right direction, but if it's too large of a code dump, then asking for an SSCCE is the next step (in fact, not only does this help answerers, but it helps the questioner, too, as a form of rubber-ducking). The example of an empty main merely necessitates asking "what did you try for filling in the main method other than return 0;?" If they respond with "nothing", then the OP needs to go back and try something. It really is that simple. –  Jack Maney Mar 21 '13 at 18:42
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@Jack: at that point, you are actually engaged in a dialogue with the asker - which is fine, if you're fine with doing it. But if you're not willing to put the effort in, you might want to just cut to the chase. –  Shog9 Mar 21 '13 at 18:45

It's already in How to Ask:

Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and most of all it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

In the absence of a specific request for clarification about the question asked, this text serves not only as a suggestion on how the question could be improved, but also as a gentle reminder that, yes, they really should have read that page first, before posting.

For the record, I hate "What Have You Tried?" It has turned Stack Overflow from a programmer website into a highly-localized troubleshooting forum.

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"It has turned Stack Overflow from a programmer website into a highly-localized troubleshooting forum." How is that any different from what it was before? –  Nicol Bolas Mar 22 '13 at 1:47
    
@NicolBolas: Well, at one time you could ask questions like the kind that Programmers is now trying to attract (no, not the "best programmer cartoon" kind; the "good subjective" kind). Now all I see is "code broke, how fix?" –  Robert Harvey Mar 22 '13 at 3:10
    
@RobertHarvey - I see that a lot too. Do you think it is a result of many previous questions already being asked which cover the basic theory involved? Once a certain flavor of question is asked, they tend to be judiciously closed as duplicates in the future. –  Travis J Mar 25 '13 at 6:32

As several people pointed out in comments, the author of that question had previously asked a different one - packed to the rafters with what he tried.

If that's actually what you were looking for, then "Please post your code" would suffice as a comment.

If a wall of code is not what you had in mind, then as Tim notes you should go ahead and say what you mean: for instance, if you're just looking for some small indication that the author had done a bit of reading on XML serialization before asking, a comment such as "Have you read up on Java's support for XML serialization?" would probably get your point across.

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Wait... how is "What have you tried?" any different from "Please post your code?". Both can be horribly misused... (I didn't downvote btw.) –  Mysticial Mar 21 '13 at 18:56
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Anything can be horribly misused, @Mystical. If a post needs code, then asking for it seems like an expedient way to get it. If yards of Java are not what a particular question is lacking, then it becomes a stupid, useless comment. –  Shog9 Mar 21 '13 at 18:57
    
If being more specific than "What have you tried?" is the key difference, then fair enough... –  Mysticial Mar 21 '13 at 18:58
    
@Mystical Unless the question is do my project for me, than you can post your code without posting what you've tried. the code can also provide some context for what the form of the ultimate answer should be. –  Sam I am Mar 21 '13 at 20:44
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To be perfectly honest, I think folks post too much code. If you can't sum it up in under a page, you should probably think about expressing the problem in some other fashion. –  Shog9 Mar 21 '13 at 20:51

There are 3 major problems with this question, and it's easy to say that "he didn't put enough effort into it" is "the" problem, but it's merely an umbrella term used to cover all the problems that already are there.


  • The first actual problem with the question is that It's not clear what the OP needs.

I don't know about java, but in c#, I can write a program that takes some sql data and makes an XML representation of that data in about 5 minutes, but even if I do, It's not likely that my solution will be exactly what the OP needs, so You should ask for context.

What do you need to do with the xml. What form do you need the XML to take? are there any requirements that we're missing?


  • the second problem is that the OP is really asking 2 questions. He needs to read data from his database, and he needs to generate some XML. You might point draw attention to this by asking

What do you need help with? reading data from the database or generating the xml?


  • the third problem is that this question is almost certainly a duplicate I know I've seen this exact question elsewhere before.

In which case you can just close this answer as a duplicate. (I know that this question exists as a duplicate somewhere, I see it every day in some form or another). Doing so will automatically leave the possible duplicate comment, and the OP can follow that link and hopefully find an answer to his question.


The benefit of these approaches is clear. Instead of being dismissive, and just asking for what he's tried, you're directing him on how to better ask a question. You're specifically addressing the problems with his question.

The OP is also more likely to give you the relevant information that you asked for instead of a Great Wall of Code which has a good chance of being completely wrong anyway(if it wasn't then the OP probably wouldn't be asking such a question).

And if you're worried about the effort imbalance, don't be. You've just called on the OP to put a little bit of effort into answering your clarifications, and if he's to get any help from you, he will have to put that effort forward.

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