# Asking Thoughtful Questions
CS 5430 Spring 2017
The classic guide to how to ask technical questions is by [Raymond and
Moen][smart]. It is highly recommended (though perhaps acerbic) reading!
Here, I summarize some of its main points and interpret them in light
of this course.
*Acknowledgement: nearly all the prose in this document is excerpted
from Raymond and Moen. They deserve any credit; Clarkson deserves any
## Before Asking
**Try to find the answer.** Search Piazza, the web, or
a manual. Google and the Find function (probably Ctrl-F) in your browser
are your ally. Read the course notes, slides, handouts, and textbooks.
Do some experiments with whatever software you're using. Read any
available, relevant source code.
Take your time. Do not expect to be able to solve a complicated problem
with a few seconds of googling. Read, sit back, relax, and give the
problem some thought before posting on Piazza. Trust me, the instructors
(and many of your peers) will be able to tell from your questions
how much reading and thinking you did, and will be more willing to help
if you come prepared. Don't instantly fire your whole arsenal of
questions just because your first search turned up no answers (or too
When you violate this advice for particularly easy to find information,
you're likely to receive an answer in the form of a vague pointer: "The
answer to that is in the course notes" or "See the assignment writeup".
Often, the person telling you this has the web page with the information
you need open, and is looking at it as they type. These replies mean
that the responder thinks you will learn more if you seek out the
information than if you have it spoon-fed to you. You shouldn't be
offended by this kind of response; it is helping you become a better
## When Asking
**Prepare your question.** Think it through. Hastily-asked
questions tend to get hastily-written answers, or none at all. The more
you do to demonstrate that you have put thought and effort into solving
your problem before seeking help, the more likely you are to actually
Display the fact that you have done your homework by trying to find
the answer first, per the discussion of that above; this will help
establish that you're not wasting the time
of your fellow students or the instructors. Better yet, display what
you have learned from doing these things. Instructors like answering questions
for people who have demonstrated they can learn from the answers. Even
saying "I googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that
looked promising" is a good thing to do when requesting help, if only
because it records what searches won't help.
**Summarize carefully.** Put careful thought into what Piazza calls the
"Summary" of your question, or what in an email might be called the
"Subject." The summary is your golden opportunity to attract attention
in around 50 characters or fewer. (Although Piazza allows up to 100,
shorter is better.) Don't waste your space on fluff like "Please help
me" (let alone "PLEASE HELP ME!!!!"; messages with summaries like that
get ignored by reflex). Don't try to impress others with the depth of
your anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description
One good convention for summaries, used by many tech support
organizations, is "object - deviation". The "object" part specifies what
thing or group of things is having a problem, and the "deviation" part
describes the deviation from expected behavior. The process of writing
an "object - deviation" description will help you organize your thinking
about the problem in more detail.
* **Bad:** HELP! A1 issues
* **Good:** A1 - specification broken
* **Splendid:** A1 release code method Foo.Bar() - spec inconsistent
Imagine looking at the left-hand pane of Piazza, with just the summaries
showing. Make your summary reflect your question well enough that the
next student searching with a question similar to yours will instantly
recognize your post as being related to their question, so that they
won't need to post the question again.
**Focus your question.** Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as
open-ended time sinks. You are more likely to get a useful answer if you
are explicit about what you want respondents to do. This will focus
their effort. Think of expertise as an abundant resource and time as a
scarce one. The less of a time commitment you implicitly ask for, the
more likely you are to get an answer from someone really good and really
busy, whether that's a fellow student, a TA, or the professor. So it is
useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment required
for an expert to field it.
* **Bad:** Would you explain snarks again?
* **Good:** Would you give me a pointer to a good place to start reading
* **Splendid:** I've googled for snarks, read the Wikipedia article on them [url],
as well as the paper cited as  there, which seems to be the main source for
the article. But I'm confused about what it means by "mixing" and the paper
it cites for that [url] is behind a paywall. Can you point me to a place
where I can read more about "mixing"?
**Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language.** Spend the
extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be stiff or
formal. In fact, I enjoy informal, slangy, and humorous language used
Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS;
this is read as shouting and considered rude. Don't use
instant-messaging shortcuts and acronyms such as "u" or "lol", unless it
is with calculated irony.
Never, ever flag your question as "Urgent" and especially not "URGENT".
Doing so runs the risk of being perceived as selfishly attempting to
elicit immediate and special attention. A well-written question
is more likely to receive that attention than a so-called "urgent"
Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps. Use "Please" and "Thanks".
Make it clear you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free
(if they are fellow students) or outside their scheduled office hours
(if they are instructors). To be honest, this isn't as important as being
grammatical, clear, and precise. But if you've got the rest of your
ducks in a row, politeness does increase your chances of getting a
quick and useful answer.
This advice especially applies to the main question. Sometimes
a follow-up thread will proceed casually, and that can be okay.
But if your follow-up is still attempting to pursue a quest for
knowledge related to the original question, keep it linguistically shiny.
**Use plain text as much as possible.**
Piazza offers many formatting options, which can be used for better or
for worse. Bold face, bullets, and headings can all be useful for
conveying structure in longer questions. Unfortunately, the rich text
editor has been rather buggy recently with respect to preformatted text
and code blocks. If you take the time to use these features, also take
the time to re-read your post to make sure they are being rendered in
the way you intended.
Screenshots are useful supplements to a post but should never be the
primary content. The contents of them are not searchable and might be
difficult to read on the viewer's device. Make sure to clearly prepare
your question in descriptive text first, then provide the screenshot
purely as augmentation.
**For tech support, skip Piazza altogether.**
Remote tech support is always a poor substitute for one-on-one
problem solving. Come to office hours instead.
**Don't rush to claim that you have found an error.** When you are
having problems with an assignment, don't claim you have found an error
in it unless you are sure of your ground. It's especially undiplomatic
to yell "error" in the summary line of your post. Remember, there are
many other students that are not experiencing your problem—otherwise
you would have learned about it while searching Piazza.
So when asking your question, it is best to write as though you assume you
are doing something wrong, even if you are privately pretty sure you
are right. If there really is an error, you will hear about
it in the answer. Play it so the instructors will want to apologize to
you if the error is real, rather than so that you will owe them an apology
if you have messed up.
It's also best to construct your question with what you think the fix
to the error is, or at least a candidate for that fix. For example,
if you think a sentence in an assignment is in error, you should provide
the original sentence and what you believe to be a corrected version of it.
The above discussion applies to slides and notes, too, but I freely admit
that the probability of errors on those materials is much higher than
the probability of errors on assignments, which are vetted quite closely.
I certainly want to fix any errors in the slides and notes, so please do
not hesitate to write a post suggesting corrections. When it comes
to small typos, if they are of a technical nature I'll certainly fix them,
but do forgive me if in the rush of the semester I forget to fix smal
* **Bad:** BUG in A1?! That `41` can't be right lol.
* **Good:** On Problem 2 of A1, I think the `41` is wrong.
* **Splendid:** On Problem 2 of A1, I tried completing the problem with the
`41` that is given as a sample input, but I got an answer that is
nonsensical (and that I won't post here because of AI concerns). Can you
suggest where I read more about the material behind this problem,
so that I can figure out what I'm doing wrong?
* **Amazing:** On problem 2 of A1, it gives a sample run of
`answer(life, universe, everything)` and says the output should be `41`.
I noticed that's inconsistent with the writings of Douglas Adams that
we studied this week. In the course notes [url] it says `42` instead.
I was just wondering whether that inconsistency was deliberate or not.
## After Asking
**How to respond to an answer you don't understand.** If you don't
understand the answer, do not immediately bounce back a demand for
clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and answer your
original question (Piazza, the web, a manual, Google, course notes,
slides, handouts, textbooks, etc.) to understand the answer. Then, if
you still need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.
For example, suppose you receive the answer, "It sounds like you've got a stuck
zentry; you'll need to clear it."
* **Bad followup:** What's a zentry?
* **Good followup:** Thanks! I read the man page, and zentries are
only mentioned under the -z and -p switches. Neither of them says
anything about clearing zentries. Is it one of these or am I missing
**What if your question is going unanswered for several days?**
Don't take it personally. No response is not the same as being ignored,
though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from outside. Simply
re-posting your original question is a bad idea. There is some reason
your question isn't being answered.
So go back to the advice above. Figure out how to improve your
question, then edit or retract the original. Ask a thoughtful question
instead. Or go to office hours to ask there; afterwards, do everyone a
favor and turn the question into a note with an improved version of the
question (if needed) and a summary of the answer.
**How to interpret seemingly terse answers.**
Sometimes students find answers, either from other students or from
instructors, on Piazza to be terse, gruff, or salty. The underlying
problem is most likely time, not intent. Your fellow students and your
instructors rarely have the time to write a gushing, emotionally
effusive response. Efficiency demands terse writing. So, as an answer
seeker, please don't confuse terseness with hostility. And as an answer
giver, don't cloak hostility in terseness: be respectful, and give
your peers the benefit of the doubt.