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A current FAQ on How do I write a good title? seems ambiguous on whether titles that begin with “How do I ⟨do something⟩?” or “How to ⟨do something⟩?” are desirable on Stack Exchange sites generally, or whether a shorter title like “Doing ⟨something⟩” is to be preferred.

By ambiguous I mean things like the most upvoted answer saying:

4. Don't start with "How do I..."

Writing in that style ensures that your title will fail criteria 1-3, and get less attention than it deserves.

This is a question site, and people will understand your titles are questions.

while the FAQ title starts with:

"How do I..."

Without going into all other possible title structures, and individual sites may already have clarified this in their own Metas, is there generally a case for preferring one of the above over the others while performing more comprehensive editing of a question?

A similar question (Preferred title format: gerund or "how to"?) was asked long ago from what I suspect was a pure Stack Overflow perspective. It was made a duplicate of How do I write a good title? an hour and a bit later which, in retrospect, seems to have been hasty because unambiguous advice on this particular aspect is not offered in that FAQ.

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    Since "How do I" is discouraged, and "title" is a tag, that post should be retitled as "Write good".
    – user315433
    Feb 22, 2018 at 1:27
  • @FTP I almost agree - but I think "Writing good titles?" would be better in this instance.
    – PolyGeo
    Feb 22, 2018 at 1:29
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    I think FTP's comment is a tongue-in-cheek since it's deliberately referring to "don't put a tag in the title" (while it's not always the case) :p. Alternatively, the title can be changed to "Tips on writing good titles" without a question mark... or similar to that. Feb 22, 2018 at 8:55
  • @HTTP I got the double entendre but it made an opening for me to say what I would write as a title for that FAQ.
    – PolyGeo
    Feb 22, 2018 at 9:36

2 Answers 2

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I think it looks cumbersome and repetitive to see the front page or any search for questions return a list of titles like:

  • How do I start a Python script?
  • How to update Blender?
  • How do I write a good question title?
  • How do I open an event?
  • How to innovate in Operations Research?

I find them quicker to read/scan when they are of the form:

  • Starting a Python script
  • Updating Blender
  • Writing a good question title
  • Opening an event
  • Innovating in Operations Research

I think that replacing "How do I …", etc by using "ing" (a gerund) instead is a typical way to construct titles in technical writing, and I see Stack Exchange sites as being a form of technical writing.

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On most sites, "how do I" questions are too large and vague for the site. "How do I build a house?" "How do I ski down a mountain?" "How to become a video game developer?". Quibbling about the wording of a fundamentally wrong question title is not useful.

Better questions are more precise and focused. "Why do I get this error message?" "What is this spiky leaved white flowered plant?" "Why do my questions have so few views compared to other people's on the same site?"

If you find yourself writing a title that might start "how do I", stop and think about what your actual answerable precise question is, and ask that instead.

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    I disagree with conflating "How do I"/"How to" questions with large/vague questions. e.g., "How to attach 1/4" thick plywood to 15/32" thick plywood at 90° and being able to remove and attach again?" is a very precise question. Conversely, "Why" and "What" questions can be too large and vague.
    – cigien
    Mar 7 at 14:54
  • "Too large and vague for the site" - I have 156 StackOverflow questions which say differently, 19 questions on TeX.SX etc. I would say your statement is incorrect. Many how do I questions are vague and/or lacking in focus, but many others - aren't. Just one example: "How do I cite RFC documents in an academic paper?"
    – einpoklum
    Mar 9 at 16:47
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    In my experience, Stack Overflow "how do I?" questions are more useful than "what's wrong with my code?" questions - because people can sometimes give a clear description of an atomic task (and recognize what's atomic), but almost never actually debug their code and produce a proper minimal reproducible example for the problem. Further, attempting to add code for an existing attempt to a "how do I?" question almost always makes it worse. (Code used to describe setup for the problem is fine, and so is code to verify a result, although the latter is fairly rare.) Mar 10 at 2:17

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