How to ask a good question?

This thread has advice on the following aspects of writing a good question on this site. Each item in this list links to an answer below about that specific aspect of question writing.

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Further, there is this old thread filled with good snippets. –  Lord_Farin Jun 18 '13 at 9:01
    
@Lord_Farin: wow, that thread predated my participation on MSE. Thanks for digging that up! –  Willie Wong Jun 18 '13 at 9:05

5 Answers 5

Provide Context

Context matters. A question can sometimes be answered in one sentence when the discussion is between two experts familiar with each other's background, while the same question may take many paragraphs of detailed computation when being shown to an undergraduate student. By providing a context you help the potential responders to your question give you the best help you need.

Some different ways you can add context to your question

  • Include your work

    You have a question, and if you post it here, you've probably attempted, and failed, to solve it yourself. It is much easier for others to judge the most appropriate "level" for an answer to your question if you provide these attempts. So you'll receive answers better suited to your specific needs.

    Including your work also shows to the community that you're not using this website as an answer machine -- as such, your question will be received more positively.

    A further benefit of writing down precisely what you've tried is that, in the process of doing so, you're not unlikely to spot that crucial error and solving your problem yourself. Bonus!

  • You can provide some motivation to your question.

    Instead of just asking us to find the roots of an equation, tell us where the equation comes from. This is especially the case when your equation comes from models of the physical worlds: those kinds of intuition are great guiding principles for formulating an answer.

  • You can tell us where the question comes from.

    If your question comes from studying a textbook, let us know which book. This way the answers can be phrased in a manner and in a notation more familiar to you. Exposition varies from one book to another, affecting which theorems are appropriate to cite in answers, and which definitions you are starting from (see below).

  • Indicate your own background

    In order to address your question in a useful manner, we need to be able to estimate your background to some degree. (Briefly) Indicate your familiarity with the subject matter so that the answerers have an easier job assessing the audience, and can adjust the level of their answer accordingly.

  • Give full references.

    If you run across a question when reading a scientific paper, be sure to link to that paper using its doi link, or provide a proper bibliographic information. A question that reads "A theorem of Smith says that Widget X is a type of Gadget Y, but I don't see why Property Z must hold" is likely not going to be very comprehensible to other users without telling us which Smith said what when and where.

  • Give definitions.

    Something that you are familiar with may not be so to another user. One should of course use one's best judgment in deciding what objects are sufficiently well-known to not need defining. But when in doubt, either provide the definition or provide a link to a resource that gives the definitions.

    Another case where this can be useful is when the same mathematical object can be defined in many ways, and the answer to your question may depend on the precise definitions used. For example, Widget X may be defined by Author A to satisfy property T. Practically everyone else may prefer to define it as satisfying property S. Showing the equivalence between property T and property S may happen to be one of the harder but lesser known theorems in the past fifty years. If you ask the question, after reading a treatise by Author A, that "Why is property S true for Widget X?"; the common answer "duh, that's by definition" will probably not be very useful to you.

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I think an answer should demand as little knowledge as possible to understand it regardless the OP's knowledge. This is because each question is not the OP's property but the site's which should serve for the benefits of as many users as possible. Therefore I think giving motivation or context for a question is not necessary as long as it is mathematically clear. –  user157678 Aug 13 at 0:26
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@Deep: People capable of writing "mathematically clear" questions are of course free to disregard the suggestions on this page. The fact remains that many questions asked on this site will benefit from (some of) the advice given in this Q+A item. –  Willie Wong Aug 19 at 7:55

A good title

The title of a question is the first thing people see. Like headings in newspapers, book, song and album titles, their importance is not to be underestimated -- the presence of a good, descriptive title for your question often greatly improves the exposure (and hence the amount and quality of answers) it gets. To ensure maximal descriptiveness of your question's title, review it before posting and ensure that it (still) adequately describes your question's content.

How to choose a good title

  • 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.

  • MathJax works in titles

    Titles have MathJax support. This means you can e.g. include the integral your question is about in the title, and do not have to resort to vague descriptions like "difficult integral". In your use of MathJax, please adhere to the community guidelines for MathJax in titles. Most importantly, keep the vertical space your title uses to a minimum, and be sure to include at least some plain words.

  • Don't be afraid to make the 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.

  • Make your title interesting for others

    Mathematics.SE is designed to be a repository of good mathematical questions and answers. Thus, there is no need to refer to your personal situation in the title. Make your title a question of universal value. For example, the title Help me solve $a^2+b^2=c^2$ for my exam preparation is very specific to your personal situation. Deriving the formula for Pythagorean triples would be a more universal, better title for the same question.

  • Your question should be clear without the title

    After the title has drawn someone's attention to the question by giving a good description, its purpose is done. The title is not the first sentence of your question, so make sure that the question body does not rely on specific information in the title.

Other Tips

When you are posting a question, write your title first. The system will then suggest possible duplicates: take a look at them, opening links in another tab. If none of those are actual duplicates, write out the body of your question. Then go back and put in a better title for the body that you wrote. (From Robert Harvey)

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Tagging

Tags are a way to help us organize posts on this website. People also use them to locate the questions they will find the most interesting. Thus, good tagging helps to attract the best potential answerers to your question.

How do you select the best tags for your question

  • Tags are about content. Tags (except "meta" tags, see below) are supposed to refer to the content of your question, and not so much to the context in which you encountered them (but please, do add context). For example, if you have trouble solving a polynomial equation, use , even if you encountered it while solving an problem.

  • Use many tags. You can add up to five tags to your question. A combination of tags gives more information about the question, and so increases the usefulness of the tagging process.

  • Tag Wikis. Not sure if a tag fits? Move your mouse over the tag name to see its tag wiki excerpt. Read through it to see if the tag actually fits your question. Quite often the excerpts will also contain suggestions to other, more suitable tags.

  • Be wary of the meta tags. Meta tags like and do not give information about the mathematics in the question. They should be used as assistance to the tags describing content, not be the main, or only, tag to your question.

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Mathematical typesetting using MathJax

Mathematics.SE uses the emulation engine MathJax for providing $\TeX$-like mathematical typesetting. This means that you can use mathematical notation in your questions in a visually appealing way.

How can I use MathJax?

  • Basic information: This gives a quick start for people familiar with the $\TeX$-family of markup languages.
  • Specific information: Not every $\LaTeX$ command is supported in MathJax. For extensive documentation of commonly used constructs, see here. That thread is also good for quickly getting to grips with MathJax if you're new to $\TeX$-like typesetting.
  • Mathematical expressions in titles: The title of your question supports MathJax as well, so use it as deemed fit! However, please adhere to the specific community guidelines for their use in titles.
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Formatting and writing

This is not some random internet forum. We strive for well-composed questions and answers of lasting value -- so keep in mind that your question can be of interest to others as well.

Posing a well-formatted question

  • Use proper English to the best of your ability

    The use of proper spelling, grammar and punctuation makes your question easier to understand, more appealing, and more likely to attract knowledgeable experts to answer your question. If English is not your first language and you are concerned that you will be unable to express your question clearly in English, it might be better to post your question in your native language; it is likely that another user will be able to translate it for you.

  • Make your actual question stand out

    If your question contains a lot of context, your work, or background information, others may find it difficult to figure out what exactly your question is. You can use bold text: **bold text**, a "quote":

    My question

    by > My question (on a new line), or a horizontal line: --- (preceded by an empty line) to make your question easily identifiable. See also "MarkDown formatting" below.

  • Use paragraphs

    Nobody likes to read a densely packed monolith of text. You can enter a blank line in the editor to start a new paragraph at natural places. Add them in a natural frequency that makes for a pleasant read.

  • MarkDown formatting

    Markdown is the markup language used to format posts on this site.
    Most frequently used things are italics and bold, which you can achieve using *italics* and **bold**. To include links you can use this syntax: [Markdown](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markdown), which gives you Markdown.
    For more details and other stuff you can do using Markdown see help.

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