How to ask a Smart Question on SO?

I've been spending a lot of time perusing SO and there seem to be a lot of people asking what I'm going to call ineffective questions (I will refrain from linking to examples because that tends to generate heated argument about what's wrong with the post instead of answering the question posed). There seem to be a number of posts on SO regarding stupid questions, the steps you should take before asking a question, and what to do if you don't get an answer to the question.

But only twos posts on actually asking an effective question.

I have found a few links to Eric S. Raymond's essay How To Ask Questions The Smart Way (probably one of the best resources available on this topic), but we don't seem to be encouraging people to read it.

What is your advice for asking an effective question on SO (RTFM and LMGTFY are irrelevant as the aim of Stack Overflow is to be repository for programming information)? As the person answering a question what information helps you to provide an effective answer? What are some questions on SO that you feel are particularly well thought out and what did those questions do right?

  • not-a-real-question. Jan 15, 2009 at 18:46
  • This seems like a topic that is pertinent to the community as a whole so I'm curious as to why people are voting to close it. Jan 15, 2009 at 18:59
  • I'll be the bad guy and cast vote #3. This is a dupe, so perhaps anyone who wants to partcipate can vote up the other question and answer there.
    – user27414
    Jan 15, 2009 at 19:12
  • Its not a duplicate at all. This question is asking how we can improve the community, not about a particular question.
    – Justin Standard
    Jan 15, 2009 at 19:12
  • .. not to mention the oh so sweet irony of having a question about how to effectively ask a question closed thus being proven ineffective. Verbal Darwinism FTW.
    – Mihai Limbasan
    Jan 15, 2009 at 19:15
  • I will admit, this is something of a lost cause: the people who we need to read a post like this will likely not do so.
    – Justin Standard
    Jan 15, 2009 at 19:15
  • Guys: The duplicate thing isn't subjective. If you're voting to re-open an obvious duplicate, then perhaps you need to revisit why SO was created. It's not a discussion site. Jan 15, 2009 at 19:17
  • If you look at the responses to stackoverflow.com/questions/386760/… I think it's quite clear why I brought this up again. @Jon B that solution certainly works although the question could use a little refinement. Jan 15, 2009 at 19:17
  • @Justin Standard if only %1 of those people skim this and apply some of it haven't we made an improvement? Jan 15, 2009 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Kevin: Questions aren't meant to be 'brought up again' (or more correctly, re-asked). Deal with the original question, update it, and post an update to that. Not this. SOINAF (Stack Overflow Is Not a Forum). Jan 15, 2009 at 20:16

3 Answers 3


See also this MSFT kb article http://support.microsoft.com/kb/555375

  1. Performing some sort of research yourself should take place before asking the question - search mailing lists, any relevant knowledge bases and Google's Blog search is a useful tool.
  2. After searching this site, begin to construct your question. Make sure to explicitly pose your question in bold text, while supplying lots of relevant information: examples, code snippets, expected output, real output, versions - things like that.

We are never going to get every user to ask questions in a clear, well thought out manner. It is as much a rule of the internet as any that people won't read faq's, search for already asked questions and sure as hell aren't going to read a lengthy article on how to ask a question.

The main flaw with articles like "How To Ask Smart Questions" is they cater to no one. The types of people who are willing to read that article already are going to ask smarter questions than 99% of the world.

In fact, I think linking users to resources like that instead of helping is not only counter-produtive, but reminiscent of the elitist attitude of the IRC/Newsgroup/Mailing List gurus. It goes against what this site is about. This site has thousands of people who can act as "moderators" and that is a game changer.

The solution is simple: fix their questions for them.

Fix their poor grammar, their awkward phrasing, poorly descriptive titles and their lack of coherence. Turn bad questions into good ones. A person has a far better of learning what is a "good" question by seeing how their own questions are edited by the community than by reading a long-winded diatribe on how to ask questions. If not for poster then do it for the next users to stumble on the question and for the overall quality of SO's question bank.

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