How to ask for help in on-line forums and news groups

Posted on 30 Sep 2010 by Alan Burns

Whether trying to fix a computer problem or make sure a souffle rises, many people now turn to on-line forums and news groups. There are ways to increase the odds of finding the help you seek and having a good experience.

There are no stupid questions?

The old adage, “There are no stupid questions”, may be comforting, but there is a variant: “There are no stupid questions; only stupid people asking questions.” There are many inappropriate, impatient, poorly written questions in on-line forums. Those often get ignored, or worse. With a bit of planning and a good attitude, you can ask better questions and get better help.

First, do your homework

Before posting, do your own research. Check appropriate web sites. For example, if you’re having trouble with your Quackenfeffer accounting software, check the Quackenfeffer web site.

If it’s an issue with some Windows software, try the F1 key, possibly the most under-used key on the keyboard. In most Windows applications, pressing F1 launches that application’s own help tool, within which you may browse topics or search by keyword.

Microsoft Support provides a wealth of information in their knowledge base:

Use a search engine, such as Google or Yahoo, for broader searching. It’s amazing how often this will find a discussion or tutorial related to your issue.

There is even a web site called “Let me Google that for you”, often used by knowledgeable folks to provide a helpful link to newbies while also admonishing them that they should have searched themselves. For example, if someone asks “how do I change my desktop theme”, someone might provide this URL:
Go ahead, try that URl to see the message.

Use a forum’s internal search tool, to see if your topic has been covered previously. In the forums I frequent, we see the same questions repeatedly. Those posters could have found the answers themselves, and more quickly, by searching the forum rather than starting a new post.

Pick the right venue

Choose an appropriate forum or group. Don’t ask for beekeeping advice in a Mack truck forum. Each forum has some raison d’etre, so choose one that discusses topics similar to your query. Most forums will have an FAQ or an “About” link to help to identify its focus.

Use a meaningful subject line

Ask good questions, beginning with a descriptive title or subject line.

“Help needed!” or “Urgent help required”, each of which I have seen too many times, are useless. “Windows XP QuickLaunch toolbar disappeared” is a good subject line. It provides sufficient information to identify the problem, making it more likely that the right person will read and respond.

Be clear

Describe, succinctly, what has occurred. Explain what you were doing leading up to the issue at hand. List the steps that you have tried and their results.


Include pertinent details, for example the operating system, software version, hardware details if relevant, etc. It can be useful to state such things at the top of your message. This may be brief or lengthy, depending upon how much information you think respondents would need to know. Here’s what I placed at the top of a recent post I made regarding an Internet Explorer issue:

Windows XP Home Edition, version 2002, Service Pack 3
Internet Explorer 8
No third-party toolbars or plugins

When posting for assistance in the group for SquirrelMail, a webmail application I use on my WebHostingBuzz VPS hosting account, more detail is required so I place a block at the top of each post to clearly identify the environment. Here’s just part of that block from an old post:

SquirrelMail 1.4.15
PHP 5.2.9, SuPHP module, Zend Optimizer
Dovecot 1.1.11 (in a cPanel release)
Maildir mail storage format
Mail is stored in /home/webaccountname/mail/mailusername/
Apache 2.0.63, cPanel virtual web hosting account
ESMTP Exim 4.69
IMAP Server Address:
SMTP Server Address:
Server side sorting is enabled
Server side thread sorting is disabled
… etc.

Describe symptoms, not your theories

Identify your goal, what you are ultimately trying to accomplish, rather than the step that you assume you need. For example: “How to I set a cronjob to pipe my mail to SMTP?” will have folks scratching their heads about why you would ever need to do such a thing. “I want to have incoming mail saved in my inbox and also forwarded to another address” tells people what you’re trying to accomplish, so they can recommend the best solution.

Writing matters

I’ve seen too many posts that are more than half a page long consisting of only a few hugely long sentences in a single impenetrable paragraph. Make it easy for someone to read your post, and you’re more likely to receive a reply. Bulleted lists or short-form points can help make lists of facts quickly readable.

Incomplete or incoherent posts may just be ignored.

Be polite

Remember that most forum members are unpaid volunteers. They are not required to help you, so rudeness or impatience will get you nowhere.

I’ve been on both sides. I provide help in forums, and I have benefitted from help offered by others. I continue to be amazed at how, after struggling with some arcane computer problem, I receive help from a stranger who provides the solution.

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