1

I am primarily involved with Stack Overflow, but I occasionally need help with other things in my life and correspondingly ask questions on other sites in the Stack Exchange network.

However, the audience that is receiving that question and the expected content and format of a Good Question® vary from site to site. I always read the help page for a site before posting, but the instructions there are quite general, and do not always reflect the detailed nuance of the definition of "Good Question" which high-rep users on the site have hashed out at length in the per-site meta.

Therefore, when I come in as a noob to a site, and post a question, I am sometimes misunderstood, and my questions can sometimes be downvoted or closed for being Bad Questions. This is exacerbated by the fact that my questions might seem vague to other users of the site who are relative experts, since I am lacking in the lingo.

However, I don't want to ask Bad Questions; I want to ask Good Questions! Unfortunately, feedback tends to not be the default behavior that most people engage in and is typically limited to comments that paraphrase essentially to "this is a bad question."

My experience on Stack Overflow is that I am not alone here, and that new users routinely ask Bad Questions. I don't think that new users are necessarily lazy or unintelligent, and they certainly aren't trying to ask a Bad Question; they just don't know how to ask a Good Question. Heck, they probably don't even know that there IS a help page that they should read first.

However, many questions that are phrased badly are not inherently Bad Questions. I mean this in the sense that the asker is at a state of knowledge X, would like to acheive a state of knowledge X*, and there exists a Good Question (i.e. on-topic for the site) that would get them from X to X*.

Unfortunately, they do not know how best to ask the Good Question, and in their best attempt they ask a Bad Question. Indeed, being not at X*, they know not the path to X* and thus a Good Question is not obvious from their POV.

In the interest of eliciting constructive feedback, I am curious as to the community's opinion on how best to ask the question "how best do I ask this question?"?

The constructive feedback that I have received in the past suggests that there exist users who, although they do not know the answer to your question, have wonderful insight into how to turn your Bad Question into a Good Question, or at least into a better question.

I picked a random recently downvoted question (it's not my vote) to use as an example here: Imagine, if you will, a meta-question Stack Overflow where one could ask the following question:

I am trying to ask the following question on Stack Overflow: *https://stackoverflow.com/questions/51522720/pandas-continually-merge-2-data-frames-into-one-main-data-frame/51523371#51523371*

When I post the question, I receive no output, only a downvote -1

How do I go about debugging my question?
Are there any obvious semantic errors?
I'm new to questions, so forgive my noobitude.

The question could be a Good Question. From the asker's POV, I'm sure it seems like a Good Question.

However, the question would clearly benefit from, for example, expected output. More of what has been attempted would be nice, as well. However, the downvoter made no attempt to give feedback to help it be a Good Question (neither did I)... it's not a criticism; I just don't want this to happen to me. As such, what could the poster have done to drag that downvoter into the conversation to give constructive feedback?

DISCLAIMER: The foregoing statements reflect the opinions of the author and are not meant to be construed to shame or attack anyone for or for not answering, commenting, feedbacking, editing, asking, whatevering on this site or others. The sole purpose is to lay the stage of my own personal experience when asking the question: "In the interest of eliciting constructive feedback, I am curious as to the community's opinion on how best to ask the question "how best do I ask this question?"?" solutions to which, although perhaps helpful to others, I desire for my own personal hedonistic purposes.

34
  • 2
    I don't know of any other sites which run this kind of thing, but here's the Worldbuilding SE sandbox for proposed questions.
    – user392547
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:32
  • The biggest problem with that question, like so many others, is that it's just so far gone because the author just did so little to ensure that their question was appropriate, that the task of trying to turn it into a good question is likely to be too daunting for anyone who sees it. Fixing the major problems easily solved by just reading through the help center will make it more likely for someone to help you with smaller problems that you might have more trouble fixing without help.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:32
  • 4
    I can't help but feel this is where a major disconnect is going to happen; it's a new user, and they're not doing that badly. But there's already a good chunk of documentation available for new users to read on how to ask good questions. What's stopping them from reading that?
    – fbueckert
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:33
  • Probably, nobody has said "go read the help." I didn't realize that the help was useful until I had been here quite a while. Lots of sites tell me to read a thing when I sign up, and I pretty much always do not.
    – Him
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:36
  • 2
    If you refuse to read the help provided, how is that anyone but the user's problem? We have all this lovely material put in front of you when you first join. We can't make you read it, but it invariably makes new user's life easier when they do.
    – fbueckert
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:40
  • 1
    Strongly related: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/268779/… Jul 25, 2018 at 16:43
  • 2
    It's a pity that stuff like the worldbuilding sandbox model doesn't work on sites which receive huge numbers of questions.The stuff in @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog's comment just seems too overkill/intimidating, though it's just the next logical step beyond the sandbox.A lot of it is the big-community syndrome. On physics, which isn't huuuge, our reviewers usually leave comments about what exactly was wrong with the question. But I've seen SO reviewers say stuff like "Read (the how-to-ask-link) and fix your question."
    – user392547
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:47
  • 3
    Being welcoming doesn't only apply to established users. New users need to [be welcoming] by reading and understanding the stuff they say they are. Additionally, enforcing quality standards, such as downvoting and closing, have absoutely nothing to do with welcoming whatsoever.
    – fbueckert
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:50
  • 2
    Throughout your logic train here, you're implying that being welcoming means we have to help everybody, no matter if their questions fit the criteria, meet the site standards, or is even a good question. You don't say it, but you're implying it heavily. If that's not your intention, I suggest you clarify that. We've gotten a lot of complaints from users who don't understand, and assume that welcoming means we have to help them, no matter what.
    – fbueckert
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:55
  • 1
    @Scott Being welcoming doesn't mean not expecting anyone to read the help, try to improve their own question, not make any effort to ask an appropriate question, or to tolerate low quality questions. It merely means being polite and professional, even when people do things that they shouldn't, like ask a question without doing their due diligence to ensure it's a good one. That doesn't mean you don't tell them that it's wrong.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 17:27
  • 1
    @Scott I personally think that being welcoming doesn't call for going to a community, completely disrespecting their rules and the users there, demanding that they fix other's mistakes, refuse to accept any responsibility for providing acceptable content, and demand that people refuse to so much as inform others that they have done something inappropriate. Being welcoming doesn't mean refusing to have rules, or standards, or enforcing either of those.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 17:50
  • 1
    What would you have us do, Scott? What would satisfy you? Take every question? Help everybody? Repeat the rules a billion times because people can't be bothered to read? I'm having trouble figuring out what you're trying to get out of this conversation.
    – fbueckert
    Jul 25, 2018 at 17:53
  • 1
    @Scott Saying that it is the responsibility of someone asking a question, publicly, to a group of professionals, and asking for a high quality answer to their question, to spend some time and effort constructing a good question does not mean that no one else is responsible for helping anyone ever.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 17:53
  • 1
    @Scott No, it's not orthogonal to the point to point out that people asking questions have a responsibility to do their best to ask an appropriate question, and to not just give up on even trying to ask an appropriate question. There are lots of people willing to help others improve their questions (they are not obligated to, but many do anyway). But those people can't help everyone fix every question. It is not "not welcoming" to state that people are responsible for even trying to follows the rules.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 17:56
  • 4
    @Scott It doesn't take 9 years of university to figure out how to ask a question that's clear, reasonably scoped, contains enough information to be answered, etc. That you think of SE as a place to go instead of trying to answer your own question is the reason for your problems though, because that's not why the site is here, or how it's designed to be used.
    – Servy
    Jul 25, 2018 at 18:10

2 Answers 2

2

I definitely agree with your perspective that when participating in a new site, the help center pages may not exactly be helpful in understanding what exactly is on-topic and what's not. I also do prefer in many cases to have a clean record on a certain site, and not post a question that gets put on hold.

Here's what I end up doing whenever I ask my first question on a new site:

  • First, I check the help center, to see if my question is even within the scope of the site at all. I agree that sometimes information can be fragmented among several pages (e.g. "how to ask", "what not to ask", etc.), but it's definitely a big help.

  • Next, I check to see what reasons with which a question can be closed as off-topic, by clicking the "flag" link on an open question and choosing "should be closed...off-topic". This is easy as I have the association bonus, but users without the bonus need to earn 15 rep on the site to do this.

  • Most importantly, I hop into the site's main chat room and ask site regulars about my question. Those users are generally helpful in guiding me in the right direction, and often point me about potential pitfalls with my question before I even ask it. Overall, I find this to be the most helpful step, and one only needs to have earned 20 rep on a single site to do this (unless they're intending to ask on Stack Overflow, in which case they need 20 rep on SO).

Of course, the latter two steps require users to have earned some reputation, but they can get around this by earning rep on different sites or making approved suggested edits on the site where they wish to ask. I find these solutions rather hacky, and would prefer that there be an official way for users (including totally new users) to draft their questions before posting them.

4
  • "I hop into the site's main chat room and ask site regulars about my question." I've never even been to the chat rooms!
    – Him
    Jul 25, 2018 at 20:52
  • I think that the edit to the title of the question changes the spirit omewhat, but since your answer addresses the original question, I will limit my humbug to this. :)
    – Him
    Jul 25, 2018 at 21:02
  • 1
    Lots of chat rooms frown upon people popping in just to get attention to their posts. This is very bad advise Jul 26, 2018 at 0:38
  • 1
    @JourneymanGeek In this case, the post in question doesn't exist yet, and the author needs help writing it. Jul 26, 2018 at 0:46
9

Simple. Show effort. Show your investment in getting your problem solved. That can manifest by writing a clear, concise question. It can entail editing your question to clarify it when someone doesn't understand, or wants more information. It shows when you add your prior research to solve the problem.

It doesn't include:

  • Ignoring all the documentation put in front of you.
  • Refusing to accept feedback.
  • Using SE as your first recourse when you encounter a problem.

Things like that. Basically, show common courtesy, read and follow the rules, and respect other users. If you follow those guidelines, you generally won't have much of a problem with SE.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .