How to ask a question

You want help from the community at large; you've decided where you're going to ask your question, but how do you phrase it?

Excellent “general” advice (how to ask questions of anyone) is contained in Eric Raymond's article on the topic. Eric's an extremely self-confident person, and this comes through in his advice; but his guidelines are very good, even for us in the un-self-confident majority. It's important to remember that you don't have a right to advice from the world, but that if you express yourself well, you will usually find someone who will be pleased to help.

So how do you express yourself in the (La)TeX world? There aren't any comprehensive rules, but a few guidelines may help in the application of your own common sense.

  • Make sure you're asking the right people. Don't ask in a TeX forum about printer device drivers for the Foobar operating system. Yes, TeX users need printers, but no, TeX users will typically not be Foobar systems managers.

Similarly, avoid posing a question in a language that the majority of the group don't use: post in Ruritanian to de.comp.text.tex and you may have a long wait before a German- and Ruritanian-speaking TeX expert notices your question. - If your question is (or may be) TeX-system-specific, report what system you're using, or intend to use: “I can't install TeX” is as good as useless, whereas “I'm trying to install the mumbleTeX distribution on the Grobble operating system” gives all the context a potential respondent might need. Another common situation where this information is important is when you're having trouble installing something new in your system: “I want to add the glugtheory package to my mumbleTeX v12.0 distribution on the Grobble 2024 operating system”. - If you need to know how to do something, make clear what your environment is: “I want to do x in Plain TeX”, or “I want to do y in LaTeX running the boggle class”. If you thought you knew how, but your attempts are failing, tell us what you've tried: “I've already tried installing the elephant in the minicar directory, and it didn't work, even after refreshing the filename database”. - If something's going wrong within (La)TeX, pretend you're submitting a LaTeX bug report, and try to generate a minimum failing example. If your example needs your local xyzthesis class, or some other resource not generally available, be sure to include a pointer to how the resource can be obtained. - Figures are special, of course. Sometimes the figure itself is really needed, but most problems may be demonstrated with a “figure substitute” in the form of a \rule{width}{height} command, for some value of ‹width› and ‹height›. If the (real) figure is needed, don't try posting it: far better to put it on the web somewhere. - Be as succinct as possible. Your helpers don't usually need to know why you're doing something, just what you're doing and where the problem is.

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