READ BEFORE POSTING: How To Ask Smart Questions (or, Dealing With The Oldschool Guys)
In the world of import automotive high performance, the kind of answers you get to your technical questions depends as much (or more) on the way you ask the questions as it does on the difficulty of developing the answer. This guide will teach you how to ask questions in a way more likely to get you a satisfactory answer.
The first thing to understand is that a lot of the technical people you'll find around here actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we'll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. "Good question!" is a strong and sincere compliment.
Despite this, a lot of us oldschool guys have a reputation for meeting simple questions with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like we're reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn't really true.
What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking a question. People like that are time sinks - they take without giving back, and they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer.
We realize that there are many people who just want to drive the car, and who have no interest in learning technical details. For most people, a car is merely transportation, a means to an end; they have more important things to do and lives to live. We acknowledge that, and don't expect everyone to take an interest in the technical matters that fascinate us. Nevertheless, our style of answering questions is tuned for people who do take such an interest and are willing to be active participants in problem-solving. That's not going to change. Nor should it; if it did, we would become less effective at the things we do best.
We're volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter what we answer. In particular, we don't reply to questions from people who appear to be "time sinks" in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, On people who will use the information we provide & will learn from it...
If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check your assumptions. We're not asking you to genuflect to us -- in fact, most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to make that possible. But it's simply not efficient or practical for us to try to help people who are not willing to help themselves. It's OK to be ignorant; it's not OK to be stupid.
So, while it isn't necessary to already be technically competent with the car to get attention from us, it is necessary to demonstrate the kind of attitude that leads to competence - alert, thoughtful, observant, willing to be an active partner in developing a solution. If you can't live with this sort of discrimination, we suggest you stop working on the BMW, sell it and buy a Honda Civic (they are cheap & reliable if left stock) instead of asking us to personally donate help to you.
If you decide to come to us for help, you don't want to be one of the "time-sinks". You don't want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a person with smarts, confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular problem.
Before You Ask
Before asking a question do the following:
Try to find an answer by searching this website.
Try to find an answer by reading the Bentley Manual. If you don't have one, buy one, you are going to need it.
Try to find an answer by skimming bimmerdiy.com and pelicanparts.com both of these are excellent resources you should familiarize yourself with.
Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.
When you post your question, display the fact that you have done these things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated they can learn from the answers.
Search! This might well take you straight to a thread answering your question. Even if it doesn't, saying "I searched on the following phrase but didn't get anything that looked promising" is a good thing to include in your post requesting help.
Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that having put thought and effort into solving your problem before seeking help, the more likely you are to actually get top shelf help.
Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on faulty assumptions, someone is quite likely to reply with a uselessly literal answer while thinking "Stupid question...", and hoping the experience of getting what you asked for rather than what you needed will teach you a lesson.
Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you don't pay us for the service. However you can (and will) earn an answer, by asking a substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking question - one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.
On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start. "Would someone provide a pointer?", "What test am I missing?", and "What should I have searched for?" are more likely to get answered than "Please post the exact procedure I should use." because in the former examples you're making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if someone can just point you in the right direction. In the last you want someone to read you the manual. Go buy one.
How to Search
Search with key words related to your issue. Read the threads that are returned. Modify your search to include new terms you learned from the previous results. This will yield more/different results. Do this, until you have exhausted the variety of terms applicable, and you may just find the answer before you make a new thread. This works on forum searches and Google searches. Try it.
Use Meaningful, Specific Subject Headers
On forums, the subject header is your golden opportunity to attract qualified experts' attention in 50 characters or less. Don't waste it on babble like "Please help me" (let alone "PLEASE HELP ME!!!!"; messages with subjects like that get discarded by reflex). Don't try to impress us with the depth of your anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description instead.
One good convention for subject headers, 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.
Engine running rough at idle
Engine running rough at idle after CAI install
The process of writing an "object-deviation" description will help you organize your thinking about the problem in more detail. What is affected? Does it idle roughly or die with throttle applied? Someone who sees a good subject line can immediately understand what it is that you are having a problem with and the problem you are having, at a glance.
More generally, look at the thread list in a forum. Note that just the subject lines are showing. Make your subject line reflect your question well enough that the next guy browsing the forum with a question similar to yours will be able to follow the thread to an answer rather than posting the question again.
Do not simply hit reply to a list message in order to start an entirely new thread. If you are going off in a different direction, search for a thread that applies to that subject. If you don't find it then post a new question. Changing the subject is not a good way to do things. Once a thread has a title it does not change even if you change the subject of your individual post. This makes it harder for people to find.
Make It Easy To Reply
Never end your post with something like "Please send your reply to email@example.com". If you can't be bothered to take even the few seconds required to come back and check your thread, we can't be bothered to take even a few seconds to think about your problem. On forums, asking for a reply by e-mail is outright rude, unless you believe the information may be sensitive (and somebody will, for some unknown reason, let you but not the whole forum know it). If you want an e-mail copy when somebody replies in the thread use the "subscribe to this thread" option.
Most of us believe solving problems should be a public, transparent process during which a first try at an answer can and should be corrected if someone more knowledgeable notices that it is incomplete or incorrect. Also, helpers get some of their reward for being respondents from being seen to be competent and knowledgeable by their peers.
When you ask for a private reply, you are disrupting both the process and the reward. Don't do this. It's the respondent's choice whether to reply privately - and if he does, it's usually because he thinks the question is too ill-formed or obvious to be interesting to others.
Write in Clear, Grammatical, Correctly-Spelled Language
Most of us have found by experience that people who are careless and sloppy writers are usually (there are exceptions) careless and sloppy at thinking and working on cars. Answering questions for careless and sloppy thinkers is not rewarding; we'd rather spend our time elsewhere.
So expressing your question clearly and well is important. If you can't be bothered to do that, we can't be bothered to pay attention. Spend the extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be stiff or formal in fact, the car culture values informal, slangy and humorous language used with precision. But it has to be precise; there has to be some indication that you're thinking and paying attention.
Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't confuse "its" with "it's", "loose" with "lose", or "they're" with "there". Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS; this is read as shouting and considered rude. (All lowercase is only slightly less annoying, as it's difficult to read.)
More generally, if you write like a semi-literate boob you will very likely be ignored. Writing like a l33t script kiddie hax0r or a gangsta from the ghetto is the absolute kiss of death with us and guarantees you will receive nothing but stony silence (or, at best, a heaping helping of scorn and sarcasm) in return.
If you are asking questions on our forum and English is not your native language, we will give you a reasonable amount of slack for spelling and grammar errors - but no extra slack at all for laziness (and yes, we can usually spot that difference).
Be Precise and Informative About Your Problem
Describe the symptoms of your problem or project carefully and clearly.
Describe the car in which it occurs (1994 325is 5-spd with ASC). List any mods or recent work you may have done to your car clearly in the post or, provide your full mod list in your sig.
Describe the research you did to try and understand the problem before you asked the question.
Describe the diagnostic steps you took to try and pin down the problem yourself before you asked the question.
Describe any possibly relevant recent changes to your car. After 10 posts and queries it's maddening to see "oh yea, I forgot to mention I swapped out the fuel pump the day before".
Do the best you can to anticipate the questions a people will ask, and answer them in advance in your request for help.
Volume Is Not Precision
You need to be precise and informative. This end is not served by simply writing a long winded description of the date you were on, or what had for dinner into your help request. If you have a large, complicated situation, try to trim it and make it as small as possible.
This is useful for at least three reasons:
1. Being seen to invest effort in simplifying the question makes it more likely you'll get an answer
2. Simplifying the question makes it more likely you'll get a useful answer.
In the process of refining your post, you may develop a fix or workaround yourself.
Describe Your Problem's Symptoms In Chronological Order
The clues most useful in figuring out something that went wrong often lie in the events immediately prior. So, your description should provide precisely what you did, and what the car did, leading up to the blowup. "I stopped to get gas and then problem x happened" can save us all a lot of work.
All E36s have diagnostic codes. Check the ECU for them before posting a question. Include any codes you got in your description.1992-1995 models use OBDI, and codes can be obtained using the pedal trick. 1996+ models are OBDII and you will need an OBDII code reader to pull the codes.
If your post ends up being long (more than about four paragraphs), it might be useful to succinctly state the problem up top, then follow with the chronological tale. That way, people will know what to watch for in reading your account.
Describe the goal, not the step
If you are trying to find out how to do something (as opposed to reporting a problem), begin by describing the goal. Only then describe the particular step towards it that you are blocked on.
Often, people who need technical help have a high-level goal in mind and get stuck on what they think is one particular path towards the goal. They come for help with the step, but don't realize that the path is wrong. It can take substantial effort to get past this.
How do I make 400RWHP on my M50?
I want to run 12 second Ό times, is 400RWHP enough to make an otherwise stock car run them?
The second version of the question is smart. It allows an answer that suggests a tool or part better suited to the task.
Be Explicit About Your Question
Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as open-ended time sinks. Those people most likely to be able to give you a useful answer are also the busiest people (if only because they take on the most work themselves). People like that are allergic to open-ended time sinks, thus they tend to be allergic to open-ended questions.
You are more likely to get a useful response if you are explicit about what you want respondents to do (provide pointers, suggest parts, check your install method, whatever). This will focus their effort and implicitly put an upper bound on the time and energy a respondent must allocate to helping you. This is good.
To understand the world the experts live in, think of expertise as an abundant resource and time to respond 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.
So it is useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment required for an expert to field it - but this is often not the same thing as simplifying the question. Thus, for example, "Would you give me a pointer to a good explanation of VANOS?" is usually a smarter question than "Would you explain VANOS, please?".
Prune Pointless Queries
Resist the temptation to close your request for help with semantically-null questions like "Can anyone help me?" or "Is there an answer?" First: if you've written your problem description halfway competently, such tacked-on questions are at best superfluous. Second: because they are superfluous, people find them annoying - and are likely to return logically impeccable but dismissive answers like "Yes, you can be helped" and "No, there is no help for you."
In general, asking yes-or-no questions is a good thing to avoid unless you want a yes-or-no answer.
Courtesy Never Hurts, and Sometimes Helps
Be courteous. Use "Please" and "Thanks for your attention" or "Thanks for your consideration". Make it clear you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free.
To be honest, this isn't as important as (and cannot substitute for) being grammatical, clear, precise and descriptive, etc.; We would all in general would rather get somewhat brusque but technically sharp posts than polite vagueness. (If this puzzles you, remember that we value a question by what it teaches all of us.)
However, if you've got your technical ducks in a row, politeness does increase your chances of getting a useful answer.
Follow Up With A Brief Note on the Solution
Post after the problem has been solved; let everyone know how it came out and thank everyone again for their help. I can't stress how important this is.
Your followup doesn't have to be long and involved; a simple "Hey! It was a failed fuel pump! Thanks, everyone. - Bill" would be better than nothing. In fact, a short and sweet summary is better than a long dissertation unless the solution has real technical depth. Say what action solved the problem, but you need not replay the whole troubleshooting sequence.
For problems with some depth, it is appropriate to post a summary of the troubleshooting history. Describe your final problem statement. Describe what worked as a solution, and indicate avoidable blind alleys and wastes of time after that. The blind alleys and wastes of time should come after the correct solution and other summary material, rather than turning the follow-up into a detective story. Name the names of people who helped you; you'll make friends that way.
Besides being courteous and informative, this sort of followup will help others searching the forum to know exactly which solution helped you and thus may also help them.
Last, and not least, this sort of followup helps everybody who assisted feel a satisfying sense of closure about the problem. If you are not a techie or mechanic yourself, trust us that this feeling is very important to the gurus and experts you tapped for help. Problem narratives that trail off into unresolved nothingness are frustrating things; we itch to see them resolved. The goodwill that scratching that itch earns you will be very, very helpful to you next time you need to pose a question.
Consider how you might be able to prevent others from having the same problem in the future. Ask yourself if a sticky or addition to the FAQ would help, and if the answer is yes, ask a mod or admin to stick or copy to the FAQ.
We really like to see this, and this sort of good followup behavior is actually more important than conventional politeness. It's how you get a reputation for playing well with others, which can be a very valuable asset.
RTFM and Search! - or - How To Tell You've Seriously Screwed Up
There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that reads "RTFM", the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The F*cking Manual. He or she is almost certainly right. Go read it.
RTFM has a younger relative. If you get a reply that reads Search!, the person who sent it thinks you should have searched the site. He or she is almost certainly right. Go search it. (The milder version of this is when you are told "Google is your friend!") In fact, someone may even be so kind as to provide a pointer to the previous thread where this problem was solved. But do not rely on this consideration; do your searching before asking.
Often, the person telling you to do a search has the manual or the web page with the information you need open, and is looking at it as he or she types. These replies mean that he thinks (a) the information you need is easy to find, and (b) 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; by our standards, your respondent is showing you a rough kind of respect simply by not ignoring you. You should instead be thankful for this grandmotherly kindness.
Sometimes an answer will be "Bentley EWD 153" - this means your question is answered in the Bentley in the Electrical Wiring Diagram section on page 153" - if you don't have a Bentley, buy one. (There are PDFs of it online, but we'd rather see you pay for that copyrighted material to encourage our manufacturer to keep printing the manuals.
If 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 (The Bentley, DIYs, the Web, skilled friends) to understand the answer. Then, if you still need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.
For example, suppose I tell you: "It sounds like you've got a dirty MAF; you'll need to clean it" Then: here's a bad followup question: "What's a MAF?" Here's a good followup question: "OK, I read the Bentley and page and I found the MAF, but it doesn't say anything about cleaning it. Can you point me to directions for the best way to clean the MAF?"
Dealing With Rudeness
Much of what looks like rudeness in our circles is not intended to give offence. Rather, it's the product of the direct, cut-through-the-bullsh*t communications style that is natural to people who are more concerned about the tech and solving problems than making others feel good about themselves.
When you perceive rudeness, try to react calmly. If someone is really acting out, it is very likely an admin like me on the forum will call him or her on it. If that doesn't happen and you lose your temper, it is likely that the person you lose it at was behaving within the community's norms and you will be considered at fault. This will hurt your chances of getting the information or help you want.
On the other hand, you will occasionally run across rudeness and posturing that is quite gratuitous. The flip-side of the above is that it is acceptable form to slam real offenders quite hard, dissecting their misbehavior with a sharp verbal scalpel. Be very, very sure of your ground before you try this, however. The line between correcting an incivility and starting a pointless flamewar is thin enough that even moderators and administrators themselves not infrequently blunder across it; if you are a newbie or an outsider, your chances of avoiding such a blunder are low. If you're after information rather than entertainment, it's better to keep your fingers off the keyboard than to risk this. We do ban people for using this as a form of entertainment. Please don't do it.
In the next section, we'll talk about a different issue; the kind of "rudeness" you'll see when you misbehave.
On Not Reacting Like A Complete Loser
Odds are you'll screw up a few times on the forum - in ways detailed in this article, or similar. And you'll be told exactly how you screwed up, possibly with colorful asides. In public.
When this happens, the worst thing you can do is whine about the experience, claim to have been verbally assaulted, demand apologies, scream, hold your breath, threaten lawsuits, complain to people's employers, leave the toilet seat up, etc. Instead, here's what you do:
Get over it. It's normal. In fact, it's healthy and appropriate.
Community standards do not maintain themselves: They're maintained by people actively applying them, visibly, in public. Don't whine that all criticism should have been conveyed via private e-mail: That's not how it works. Nor is it useful to insist you've been personally insulted when someone comments that one of your claims was wrong, or that his views differ. We don't have time to teach everyone on a one on one basis. If you get slammed in public, everyone learns from it.
There have been forums where, out of some misguided sense of hyper-courtesy, participants are banned from posting any fault-finding with another's posts, and told "Don't say anything if you're unwilling to help the user." The resulting departure of clueful participants to elsewhere causes them to descend into meaningless babble and become useless as technical forums. We don't want that to happen here. Grow a thicker skin.
Motivations for Calling You on Your Bad Behavior
Remember: When that someone tells you that you've screwed up, and (no matter how gruffly) tells you not to do it again, he's acting out of concern for (1) you and (2) his community. It would be much easier for him to ignore you and filter you out of his life. If you can't manage to be grateful, at least have a little dignity, don't whine, and don't expect to be treated like a fragile doll just because you're a newcomer with a theatrically hypersensitive soul and delusions of entitlement. We don't have time for it.
Sometimes people will attack you personally, flame without an apparent reason, etc., even if you don't screw up (or have only screwed up in their imagination). In this case, complaining is the way to really screw up.
These flamers are either idiots who don't have a clue but believe themselves to be experts, or would-be psychologists testing whether you'll screw up. The other readers either ignore them, or find ways to deal with them on their own. The flamers' behavior creates problems for themselves, which don't have to concern you. Trust us, the administrators and moderations staff will handle these people.
Don't let yourself be drawn into a flamewar, either. Most flames are best ignored - after you've checked whether they are really flames, not pointers to the ways in which you have screwed up, and not cleverly ciphered answers to your real question (this happens as well).
Good and Bad Questions
Finally, I'm going to illustrate how to ask questions in a smart way by example; pairs of questions about the same problem, one asked in a stupid way and one in a smart way.
Stupid: Where can I find out stuff about the M50 intake mani swap for an M52? - (This question just begs for "Search..." as a reply.)
Smart: I used search to try to find out about the M52 -> M50 intake mani swap, but I got no useful hits. Where can I find out how it affects low end torque ?
Stupid: I'm having problems with my car. Can anybody help? - (The average response to this is likely to be "Yes, if you'd tell us what is wrong..")
Smart: I tried X, Y, and Z on on my car. When that didn't work, I tried A, B, and C. Note the curious symptom when I tried C. Obviously the ignition isn't getting power, but the results aren't what one might expect. Anybody got ideas for more tests I can run to pin down the problem?
The second person here seems worthy of an answer. He/she has exhibited problem-solving intelligence rather than passively waiting for an answer to drop from on high.
In the last question, notice the subtle but important difference between demanding "Give me an answer" and "Please help me figure out what additional diagnostics I can run to achieve enlightenment."
If You Can't Get An Answer
If you can't get an answer, please don't take it personally that we don't feel we can help you. Sometimes the members of the asked group may simply not know the answer. No response is not the same as being ignored, though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from outside.
'Bumping' your question more than once every 24 hours is a bad idea. This will be seen as pointlessly annoying. Have patience: the person with your answer may currently be asleep, in a different time-zone, on vacation, etc.
There are also plenty of commercial companies you can go to for help, both large and small. Don't be dismayed at the idea of having to pay for a bit of help! Mechanics & shops exist for reason.
Participating: How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way
Be gentle. Problem-related stress can make people seem rude or stupid even when they're not. Sometimes they are just freaked out that this car they have dumped thousands of dollars into is now dumping on them!
If you don't know for sure, say so! A wrong but authoritative-sounding answer is worse than none at all. Don't point anyone down a wrong path simply because it's fun to sound like an expert. Be humble and honest; set a good example for both the querent and your peers. If someone corrects you, accept it with good grace.
If you can't help, don't hinder. Don't make jokes about procedures that could trash the car - the poor sap might interpret these as instructions. I've seen this happen!
Ask probing questions to elicit more details. If you're good at this, the querent will learn something - and so might you. Try to turn the bad question into a good one; remember we were all newbies once.
While just muttering "Search" is sometimes justified when replying to someone who is just a lazy slob, a pointer to documentation (even if it's just a suggestion to search for a specific key phrase) is better.
If you're going to answer the question at all, give good value. Don't suggest crappy workarounds when somebody is using the wrong tool or approach. Suggest good tools, the right parts - Reframe the question.
Help your community learn from the question. When you field a good question, ask yourself "How would the relevant documentation or DIYs have to change so that nobody has to answer this again?" Then contact a mod or admin for a sticky or consider framing your answer into a new DIY.
If you did research to answer the question, demonstrate your skills rather than writing as though you pulled the answer out of your butt. Answering one good question is like feeding a hungry person one meal, but teaching them research skills by example is teaching them to grow food for a lifetime.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and showing an interest in being a valuable part of our community. We all look forward to interacting with you, helping you, and learning from you.
On behalf of all of us here at Bimmerfest,
Original Text Mike Donohue, "Supracentral" on SupraMania.com
Edited & Adapted for E36 use Chad Thompson, "E36 Phantom" on BimmerFest.com
// Chad //
// 2001 BMW 740i M-Sport // 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid //
// 1994 Land Rover Range Rover Classic // 1999 Chevy Tahoe //
// 2009 Kawasaki Concours 14 // 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 250 //
Originally Posted by SlimKlim
You're a derbanana