At times people will ask questions which on the surface appear to be constructed of elements and scaffolding that would leave the readers scratching their heads wondering to themselves how they should at first tackle the complexity that is the make up and read of the actual question itself.

This before they are even close to figuring out what the question is then asking about.

How can one attack this problem, of writing their question up in a way as to not seem too troublesome to understand or parse, but at the same time, none too trivial and without people skimming over the more cogent points raised or at issue/concern?


How do you present a complex question simply?

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    proper grammar would be a good start. – GSto Dec 11 '09 at 15:13
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    Tribbles are small furry animals on Star Trek. – nb69307 Dec 11 '09 at 15:14
  • Have a look at this question: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/15308/… – Brandon Dec 11 '09 at 15:15
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    I think somebody over-edited this question, since it bears essentially no resemblance to the original. If I had edit privileges on MSO, I'd revert it. The original question was very short and in bad English, which suggests some of the problems behrooz may have had. It certainly didn't suggest overcomplicated questions, and the edited version leaves out the problem of not knowing English well. – David Thornley Dec 11 '09 at 15:34
  • @Thornley You probably have that right. But it was hard to understand in the first place. Hence, the hopefully not as hard to understand edit. Which may have gone a little too wordy. But then it wound up looking too much, yet being a simple question/problem. – random Dec 11 '09 at 15:41
  • @random: Yes, it was hard to understand, but that made it an excellent example, and the current version doesn't seem to me to ask the same question! As I interpreted it, it was why he asks questions that look simple but turn out to be trouble, not the best way to ask a complicated question. – David Thornley Dec 11 '09 at 19:42
  • I add a summary. – Pollyanna Dec 11 '09 at 19:45
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    "masses" is ambiguous. Please consider updating with either "lard sacks" or "proletariat" depending on your intent. – Pollyanna Dec 11 '09 at 19:57

That's a really hard question.

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  • Interesting. This answer was deleted over on so some 30 seconds before the question was transferred here. – innaM Dec 11 '09 at 15:28
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    Perhaps answers are undeleted on migration? This would be easy to test. – Ether Dec 11 '09 at 23:04

I assume you're asking about questions that don't look that hard to you, but which people seem to have trouble answering.

First, if you can write questions in good English, do so. As you can tell from my first paragraph, I wasn't entirely clear what you were asking. If you're not good with English, err on the side of writing too much. If you express yourself more than one way, even if neither way is good, people have a better way to guess what you want. Terseness is good if you can get away with it, but you need to have a good command of English (which many people don't have) to make it work.

Second, include all relevant information. Don't assume that people will know what you're doing. For StackOverflow questions, include the operating system you're using, the tools you're using, describe what you're trying to accomplish, and (most importantly) quote all relevant error messages exactly. (If you haven't gotten far enough to get error messages, you probably haven't worked on the problem enough to benefit from a Q&A site like this.) For example, in this question, you could have linked to a question or two.

Third, if you don't know the answer you don't know whether it's hard or not. People misjudge this all the time. Expect it to happen now and then.

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  • I don't really agree with this. It sounds like you're suggesting that stackoverflow should be used like a forum or mailing list for the project that this question is related to. – user139349 Dec 11 '09 at 19:32

When I have something that is complex that I can't break down into several smaller questions, then I like to write it just like the middle school english teacher taught:

  • Intro paragraph - very simple overview with the main question(s) highlighted so they know what to look for in the meat of the question
  • Meat - The problem(s) explained further, relevant code, links, explanations, etc
  • What I've tried - What worked, what didn't, why the things that worked couldn't be used
  • Conclusion - Re-iterate the specific problem you have, and ask very short, specific questions so people know exactly what type of answer to write, rather than addressing something in the meat that they think is important, but actually is tangential.

This really turns a TLDR into a "read the summary, read the conclusion, and if still interested in the problem, go for the meat" issue. I usually bold the questions in the conclusion so people's eye's are drawn to them, even if they skip over the meat.

But this is a last resort - only to be used when the problem can't be simplified or broken down further.

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I'd suggest not portraying yourself as small and furry, or hiding in grain barges, singing and annoying Klingons.

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  • unless there actually are Klingons around; they can be fun to annoy. – quack quixote Dec 11 '09 at 15:47

This is a good question.

I find that I ask most difficult questions when I'm doing research. I write questions that either do not fit into a conventional use of a particular technology or it's being used outside of it's recommended use.

For me the answer to your questions, is if the question seems complicated, then I must not understand enough about the problem. I find that it helps to search stackoverflow for similar questions by keywords. It allows me to see other questions that are asked on this topic.

When I "really, really" want to know the answer to a question, no matter how difficult the question is, I put a bounty on it. I've had a lot of success with this, because people tend to put a lot more effort in trying to understand the background of what you are asking and provide you with an answer that is more detailed. I find that I learn more from these details then from a lot of the research that i do on my own.

PS: I posted this answer on stackoverflow before it was moved to meta.stackoverflow

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