MathOverflow has an excellent guide on how to write a good question.
Another great guide exists on meta.stackoverflow.

We will probably want our own site-specific guide on how to ask good questions. No, not everyone will read it, and very few will read it before asking their first question, I am sure. But the question will be asked by people who get downvoted and receive negative comments, so it will be helpful to have a definitive answer that we can point people to when they ask

"How can I ask a good question on math.stackexchange.com?"

EDIT: It is impossible at this point to enforce policy for the simple fact that there is no policy. I will attempt to provide some things that I think are important as individual items in separate answers to this question (and I will try to be fair and noncombative - please join me in posting some individual items). This way we can vote up or down and argue the merits of discrete aspects of a final policy.

Please engage in the ensuing discussion! (also note that answers will be community wiki - so let's even do some wordsmithing.)

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-1, this thread is a duplicate meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/550/… –  anon Aug 12 '10 at 22:00
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@muad: No, "how to ask questions well" is different from your thread about "what questions not to ask". –  ShreevatsaR Aug 13 '10 at 8:57
    
ShreevatsaR, "my" thread is about questions to ask and questions not to ask.. it is in order to improve the FAQ. If you look at the actual thread you will see (not) in parenthesis because it is covering both cases. It is also a community wiki thread and covering the same issue... :/ –  anon Aug 13 '10 at 15:59
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8 Answers

Pete L. Clark posted as an answer to a different question:


Here are some tips for improving your posts:

1) Make your title as descriptive as possible. In many cases one can actually phrase the title as the question, at least in such a way so as to be comprehensible to an expert reader. For instance, a recent question on the site is titled Why is the Hilbert cube homogeneous? This is an ideal title: if you know what the terms mean, you probably understand the question already. Among Chandru1's previous titles, Dimension of Vector Space is quite vague (although it is admittedly not so easy to come up with a good title for this question), whereas Cancellation of Direct Products is pretty good, but could be even better: what's the question?

Since you can, and should, put a lot of content into the title, what goes in the body of the question itself?

2) First, in many cases it is appropriate to restate the question in less succinct language, defining or linking to terms as you feel appropriate. (On MO, we like this but realize that it is not required and not even always helpful: if you are asking a sufficiently technical question, it may be best simply to write for an audience which has a certain technical background, which is part of what the tagging system is for.)

3) If the question is homework, you should absolutely say so up front. If the question is not homework, you should take steps to convince us of that. A good way of doing this is by providing context: e.g., I was thinking about Theorem A, and I wondered what happens when you change/weaken the hypothesis / I have done work on Topic B, and this raises the question / I was reading Document C [tell us which one, specifically! link to it, if possible] and I started to wonder...

Especially, if you did not come up with your question yourself but it is taken from some particular source, I would feel most comfortable if you cited the source. One feature of mathematics is that a good question can be a contribution just as valuable, or even more so, as an answer or a proof. You should not try to pass off others' questions as your own.

4) After you give background and state the question clearly, it's best if you say a little bit about what you've done to try to answer the question. If the question is asking for a reference to something, tell us where you've already looked. (I hope you have already tried wikipedia and google). If the question is asking whether something is true, what do you think and why? If the question is asking for a proof of something, what you have tried so far?

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This is good advice, but probably too long to usefully vote/edit/comment on. How about splitting it into multiple sections in multiple answers? –  ShreevatsaR Aug 12 '10 at 3:59
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I intended this as more of another reference, not a proposed complete answer. Feel free to change as you please. Everything here is community wiki. Splitting the "guide" up into sections is probably a good idea. –  Larry Wang Aug 12 '10 at 4:02
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Please use proper English to the best of your ability. This includes appropriate capitalization and punctuation. Keep in mind that many people do not understand acronyms in place of phrases, and often it is off-putting since it shows a basic lack of commitment on the author's end.

Professional mathematics is communicated in complete sentences rather than in strings of calculations, and it is safe to assume that your question will be looked at by professional mathematicians.
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You may be inspired to type out some important information or statement from a source you are working with. It is very important to this community that you cite this source to the best of your ability. If you are somehow uncertain of the source or how to cite it, try to describe it as best you can - it is very likely that a member of this community will be able to help you fill in the gaps. (This goes for answers, too.)
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Instead of personal value judgements on what is "important to this community" it would be much better to provide convincing (and relatively user-independent) reasons for why it is important to include sources. Example: math.stackexchange.com/questions/2632/… –  T.. Aug 17 '10 at 6:48
    
@T: Thank you for the suggestion regarding the justification of this policy proposal. I also thank you for the thoughtful reply in the link you provided. Please edit the block of text above if you are so inspired - that goes for anyone else, too. I will think this over and edit it myself if nobody comes along in the next day or two. –  Tom Stephens Aug 17 '10 at 14:46
    
I'll be away for a few days, after that I can re-work earlier posting into an answer for this thread. –  T.. Aug 17 '10 at 18:16
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Consider how you will word your question.

This site is populated by human beings, hopefully with similar interests as yours. Keep this in mind as you formulate your question. Think: "How would I ask this to my coworker or fellow classmate?" and "How would I ask this to my professor during office hours?"

It is important to avoid sounding as though you are asking someone to do your problem for you, from start to finish. If you are using this site properly, you don't even want someone to do your problem for you from start to finish.

There are other important things to consider here, but maybe they can be posted as individual items...

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Visit your question and keep it fresh. There are many users of this site in every time zone so your question is sure to be looked at very soon after you've posted it. Often a person would like to answer your question but they need just a little more information. It is in your best interest to continue to edit your question in response to comments left by those who wish to help you.

I am pretty sure this comes from somewhere in the MO Tips and Tricks section.

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I think more should be said about incorporating feedback. I will try to add something here later. –  Larry Wang Aug 19 '10 at 22:13
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Make your title your question

Use your title to convey as much information about your question as possible. Since the tags already convey the general subject area of your question, the title should communicate the question itself as faithfully as possible. If necessary, leave out hypotheses in the title, and in the body of the question, explain why the question requires those hypotheses.

Don't be afraid to make your question title long. Titles are allowed to be anywhere from 15 to 150 characters long. 140 characters (the length of a tweet) of plain text take up about two full lines on the home page, so try to keep it less than that. But 140 characters is a lot longer than you might think. Too many people restrict themselves to 20 character titles. They're trying not to waste your time by making you read a long title, but they end up wasting more of your time because you have to actually open the question to see if it's interesting to you.

Shamelessly taken verbatim from the MO FAQ: How to write a good MathOverflow question and adapted to match the MSE situation. (There are many excellent guidelines here, this is just an atom from that complex structure.)

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Math.StackExchange isn't just a place to ask and answer questions. It's also a place to read questions and answers, which is a great way to see what people with different experiences than yours actually think about the topics of your questions. So when you ask for the help of those who may know more than you, please also extend a hand to those who may know less than you by explaining why you are asking the question and the ways in which you understand (or the ways in which you don't understand) the question. You'll get more votes, generate more interest, and are more likely to get your question answered thoughfully.

Also, this site is very effective at developing your ability to communicate mathematics, and explaining the motivation for a question frequently helps you gain a fresh outlook on the topic you're asking about.

Shamelessly taken adapted from the MO FAQ.

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Please look around to see if your question has already been asked (and maybe even answered!). When you have decided that you need to ask your question, notice that when typing a new question title in the 'Ask Question', similar titles will appear beneath it, and some questions may be very similar or even identical to yours. If you do post a question that was asked here before, don't worry; somebody will give you a link and close your question as duplicate. Doing your own research beforehand and explaining in your question why you found previous answers unhelpful or how your situation differs will help prevent this from happening. It will also allow people to give you better answers!

If your question is closed, please don't take this to mean that you are not welcome on the site, or think that this will be held against you in the future. A lot of active users have had questions closed at one point or another.

This is a shameless mashup taken from the MO FAQ and the StackOverflow Style Guide (much thanks to the original authors.)

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