How to be helpful
Along the lines of the many, many "netiquette" sermons out there, here
is a sermon on how to give good help on a technical mailing list.
If you want to provide an answer to someone:
- Make sure your information is APPLICABLE. This boils down to being
sure you understand the question. If you don't understand the question,
or even worse if you misunderstand it, your advice will be useless at
best and damaging at worst. If necessary, ask questions to clarify the
- Make sure your information is CORRECT. There is a very big difference
between confidence and knowledge. Don't be "reasonably sure" or "fairly
confident" or any other hazy equivalent: KNOW. Basically this means that
you have had either the same problem or a very similar one yourself, and
have found a solution.
- Make sure your information is EXACT. If you recommend specific
actions (a command, a script, a click sequence etc.) then make sure you
have actually carried out precisely those actions yourself. If you have
not done this, then SAY SO and make it clear to all that they must
triple check everything themselves. Be especially clear about this if
the actions are dangerous.
- Make sure your information is COMPLETE. Terse is OK. Obtuse is not.
If someone asks how to flibble a wodget, don't just answer
"run /usr/sbin/flibbler". Direct them to a man page, or to a good
description on the Web, or give a short description of the appropriate
command and parameters, or whatever. Definitely warn them about any dire
side effects, or things they may need to do before or after the wodget
has been flibbled.
- Make sure your information is QUALIFIED. An answer that makes sense
in one context might be very dangerous in another context. For example,
advising someone to run a particular program as root may be a valid
solution to their particular problem. Advising them to run *all*
programs as root to solve their problem would be very bad advice. Also,
not everybody is running the same hardware or the same versions of the
operating system. If your advice has limited applicability, state those
- Make sure information is CLEAR. Don't obscure what you are saying
with jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, weird punctuation or bad spelling.
Keep it simple and straight.
- Don't be sarcastic, don't be rude, don't make jokes. Not everyone
will be able to distinguish sarcastic advice or joke advice from real
advice, and rudeness just obscures your message. Telling a newbie to "rm
-fr /" is not original, not helpful and NOT FUNNY. And it's not just
newbies; many people do not speak or read English very well.
- Separate FACT from OPINION. If you wish to state an opinion, make
sure it is CLEAR that your statement is opinion. Opinion - other than
about a technical issue, of course - is very rarely appropriate on any
- CHECK your answer. Read it through, carefully. Go through the above
checklist in your head. Then ask yourself "If it was my problem, and I
got this response, would I be pleased?" If the answer is anything but
"yes", don't send your message. There'll be a next time...
Page last updated 12 June 2008