Wikipedia:Help desk/How to ask

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This page contains guidelines for users who ask question on the Help desk. These instructions expand on the brief instructions in the Help desk header. Following these instructions will maximize your chances of getting quick, useful answers to your question.

How the Help desk works[edit]

The Help desk is a page where Wikipedia users ask questions about using and editing Wikipedia.

Wikipedia does not have a true Internet forum feature with threaded discussion capability, such as you have probably seen on many popular sites such as Google Groups. Instead, the Help desk is an ordinary wiki page, and users type questions and answers with wikitext markup. This can be a problem for users who are very new to Wikipedia, because to use the Help desk, you must first know a few very basic wiki editing commands.

  • If you have never edited on Wikipedia before, please read the cheat sheet, and work through the WP:TUTORIAL. You can practice editing in the "sandbox" (a page specifically for users to practice with).

On Wikipedia, every page has an associated talk page, and so does the Help desk. However, unlike most pages on Wikipedia, the Help desk itself functions like a talk page. Therefore, we format our questions and replies according to the talk page guidelines.

Questions remain on the Help desk for several days, possibly accumulating answers from more than one volunteer. Each day, the oldest day's questions on the Help desk move to the Help desk archives. In general, users do not edit the archive pages, but the archive pages remain searchable.

What to ask[edit]

On the Help desk, you may ask questions about using and editing Wikipedia.

What not to ask[edit]

See Wikipedia:Questions for the other types of questions people ask on Wikipedia, and where to ask them.

Searching for answers yourself[edit]

Wikipedia is the world's largest collaborative editing project, and the vast majority of Wikipedia users only rarely have face-to-face contact with other Wikipedia users. Users expect other users to read the friendly manuals and be self-sufficient for the most part, in keeping with the do it yourself nature of the site. Because Wikipedia users lack the ability to speak and gesture to other users, we have to do everything in writing. And write we do - Wikipedia has some of the most extensive online documentation you will see on any Web site; for an overview, see the Editor's index. Wikipedia users have written instructions for almost every situation that comes up in the course of using or editing Wikipedia. On the plus side, having so many instructions means anyone can join the project and figure out what to do without needing to sidetrack other users to tutor him or her very much (and thus Wikipedia avoids falling victim to Brooks's law). On the minus side, the sheer size and complexity of the instructions can make Wikipedia rather intimidating to new users, who don't know where to begin.

You don't have to read and memorize every last instruction page before you can start contributing to Wikipedia, but you should try to get good at searching for instructions as soon as you can. Once you know how to look up answers to your questions, then you can pretty much do anything here.

Because searching for answers is so important, Wikipedia users have built tools to help. In addition to the Editor's index, here is a box of links to Google Search forms that search on specific sites, or parts of Wikipedia, that contain answers to many questions that users ask on the Help desk:

If you have created an account, you may wish to add the above box to your user page. You can do that by placing the following wikitext on your user page:

{{Help desk searches}}

Here are some details about the various searches:

  • Entire sites:
    • Wikipedia - this searches all namespaces of the English Wikipedia except for the Talk: namespace, which Google Search does not search. The search includes all the articles as well as all the internal documentation pages in the Help: and Wikipedia: namespaces, the Template: and User: namespaces, and so on, making it a very broad search.
    • Meta-Wiki - this searches Meta, or Wikimedia's Meta-Wiki, a site containing technical information about MediaWiki, the software that powers Wikipedia.
    • - this searches the official MediaWiki site, which also contains technical information about the MediaWiki software. In general, if you are searching Meta-Wiki about some technical question, you may also need to search the site, because both sites contain non-overlapping information about MediaWiki. Much of that content seems to be migrating from Meta-Wiki to, but that process takes a long time.
    • WikiIndex - WikiIndex is a wiki which tries to index all public wikis. This is handy if you are looking for a wiki which will accept an article that Wikipedia deleted. However, for some strange reason, the Google search on WikiIndex does not seem to work as well as the built-in search on WikiIndex, in contrast to Wikipedia, where the Google search is often better than the built-in search.
  • Wikipedia namespaces:
  • Wikipedia subpage trees:

Who answers questions[edit]

The people who answer questions on the Help desk are other Wikipedia users. Just like you, they are unpaid volunteers. Each has his or her own motivations for answering questions, but in general, the Help desk volunteers are a friendly bunch who enjoy helping others. They view Wikipedia as important collective endeavor, and the Help desk as an important part of the process by which we build Wikipedia. Some Help desk volunteers are interested in the technical and ergonomic aspects of technical support on Wikipedia, seeing what sort of questions other users have, and how we can answer them efficiently.

Help desk volunteers are under no obligation to answer any particular questions, and no single volunteer tries to answer every question. Instead, each volunteer will answer questions that he or she finds interesting and knows something about. Therefore, to get faster and better answers, you should try to make your question interesting. This page explains how to do that.

How to pose your question[edit]

This section explains how to word your question so the Help desk volunteers can quickly grasp what you are asking.

If you plan to be active in open source projects like Wikipedia, you will probably run into situations when you need to ask for help. Learning how to ask for help provides a skill that will serve you as long as you use computers. An excellent introduction is: How to Ask Questions the Smart Way,[1] by Eric S. Raymond and Rick Moen. They explain how to ask the kinds of questions that unpaid experts will gladly answer. Some general guidelines relevant to the Help desk:

  • Be polite. You may come to the Help desk in a state of frustration, anger, or stress over some thorny problem. When you are new to anything as complicated as Wikipedia, many things can be confusing and unpleasant until you learn the system. Taking out your frustration by berating the Help desk volunteers will not solve your problem any faster. More than likely, the people patrolling the Help desk are not the same people who created whatever feature is giving you problems. Just state your problem as factually as possible, and someone will try to figure it out.
  • Be specific. If you are having a problem with a specific article, state the exact title of the article. It's best to go back to the article, copy the title, and then paste it into your Help desk question. Any misspellings or variations of letter case or punctuation may make it difficult for volunteers to find the article you have in mind.
    • Some users deliberately avoid mentioning a specific article. In general that is the wrong approach, and frankly it tends to irritate Help desk volunteers. On Wikipedia, we have lots of policies and guidelines, but they are not 100% logically consistent. There are many edge cases where two or more guidelines can conflict, and we have to make judgement calls. (For example, a topic's notability is not always clear-cut.) Even if a general principle seems to govern a specific case, we still need to see the details. Remember, on Wikipedia almost anybody can edit almost anything, so the real test of what survives here is "whatever everybody else agrees to leave alone." Therefore, it is not enough to merely comply with all the relevant policies and guidelines; that something does comply must also be obvious to everyone who looks at it. Therefore, you should always help the Help desk volunteers to look directly at whatever you have in mind, so the volunteers can determine if it falls into some gray area.
  • State your goal, not just your step. If you got stuck on some specific operation, don't just describe the operation you chose. First, state why you are attempting that operation. What is your ultimate goal? There may be several ways to reach your goal, and the operation you chose might not be the best one.

What to omit[edit]

For your own security, please do not provide your email address or other contact details when asking your question. Answers will be provided on the help page itself, just below your question.

How to format your question[edit]

Following up[edit]

After you receive one or more replies to your question, you should respond as appropriate. To add a reply to your question, click the edit link to the right of the question heading; that way, you only edit your question's section, rather than the entire Help desk page. (Editing just one section at a time reduces your chances of getting an edit conflict.) Type your reply below all the other replies, and indent your paragraphs with one more colon (:) character than the last reply.

  • If your question was unclear, someone may have replied with one or more queries you will need to answer to clarify your question. You should answer these queries if you want to get a useful answer to your question.
  • If someone answered your question, and you are satisfied with the answer, it is helpful if you post a final reply saying the problem is solved. This will allow a volunteer to add the {{Resolved}} template to the top of your question's section. That helps the Help desk volunteers to focus on the unanswered questions.

It's polite to thank the volunteers for giving you free help. If you are especially impressed by a volunteer's answer, you might place a "barnstar" on his or her user talk page. This type of acknowledgement is an important motivator on Wikipedia, since users do not use money as a motivator. Thanking the users who go out of their way to help other users encourages the kind of behavior that Wikipedia needs if it is to thrive. Thus in a small way you help to strengthen the project.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Raymond, Eric S. (2008-03-19). "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way". Retrieved 2008-05-09.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)

External links[edit]