Asking better questions. August 15, 2009 4:05 PM   Subscribe

How can I ask better questions? This is my first MetaTalk post, so just let me know if this is the wrong place or if it's somehow out of line.

I love Ask MetaFilter because the quality of answers is so high. I used to use things like Yahoo Answers, but the answers were just about completely useless, as a rule.

However, I still have a recurring problem on MetaFilter where I ask a question, and get tons of answers answering a different question than what I asked. Then I try to clarify, but I feel bad like I'm insulting the very helpful and nice people who answered so far. Which usually isn't much use anyway since people read the original question and either don't read my clarifications or they already have the answer set in their minds.

So for the example: my recent tea question . I mostly wanted to know about water to tea ratio. I know a lot about tea and I didn't want to get tons of answers saying "make sure you steep 3-5 minutes!" etc... so I tried to overview with some specifics of what I already know.

So I got many wonderful answers, but most of the answers still focused on tea making tips that had nothing to do with my original question of water / tea ratio.
posted by brenton to Etiquette/Policy at 4:05 PM (39 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Your tea post has literally ten wishy-washy questions. Maybe you should have just asked "What is the correct water to tea ratio?"?
posted by floam at 4:09 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think the key is to balance the amount of background information and questions, and to make sure your main question appears in the part of the post that will appear on the main page of AskMe. There are a total of ten questions in your post, and not one of them clearly articulates exactly what information you are looking for. You say "I mostly wanted to know about water to tea ratio," but your post doesn't really make that clear.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:09 PM on August 15, 2009


Part of using AskMe is to understand that while the quality of answer is much higher than other sites, they are still provided with human beings. Adding more details can give you narrower range of answer, but it can also cause readers to skim or even skip the [more inside]. The perfect askme question, like the perfect cup of tea, is unattainable.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Building off what floam said, your post could have read:

"What is the correct water to tea ratio when making a cup of tea?"

Then, in the "more inside" part of the post, you could say:

"I am using X kind of tea, and I have both teacups and coffee mugs and so can use either. How much water should I use for one bag of X kind of tea?"

That way, you ask the question concisely in the main part of the post, and provide a little more relevant detail to guide the question inside.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:12 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, you guys are right. I can't believe I asked ten questions. I wonder if that is because I didn't have the primary question clearly defined until I posted this MeTalk post. Maybe I should post at Yahoo first, then use that to condense my question into one clear and concise question.

Then again, maybe I'm just thinking too hard about all this!
posted by brenton at 4:28 PM on August 15, 2009


...so I tried to overview with some specifics of what I already know.

Oh man, tell me about it. I spend 80% of my time and question telling all the stuff I already know to prevent just this situation. It's like I'm only going to get 10 responses and if I don't eliminate the useless answers in the question, none of them are going to help me.
posted by DU at 4:28 PM on August 15, 2009

Maybe I should post at Yahoo first ...
Please don't do that - it makes it harder for us to google the question and post the answer in a blaze of glory, best answers, and favourites, while chastising you for not just googling it in the first place ;-)

But, looking back over your AskMe history & the comment in your Q's, I'm not seeing the "recurring problem on MetaFilter where I ask a question, and get tons of answers answering a different question" that you speak of. Your tea one, yeah, but yup, you weren't really clear and concise.
posted by Pinback at 4:43 PM on August 15, 2009


This doesn't seem like something someone who didn't want to know about how long to steep tea would say:

one package I have advises me to "wait about 30 seconds before you remove the tea bag from your cup." How can this be? Could it be because it's using fine fanning/dust in the teabag? (Which I would think would affect the tea/water ratio, not steeping time.) Furthermore, I have a White Tea box that suggests full boiling water for 3-5 minutes, as if it were black tea. What's going on?

Once you start asking questions about how long to steep tea, you're going to get answers about how long to steep tea. If you already know a lot about how to long to steep tea, you'll likely have people telling you some stuff you already know.

You asked so many different questions about tea (ratios, water temperature, steeping time, different kinds of teas) that you sent a general message of: "Please explain everything you know about how to make tea."
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:48 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"How can I ask better questions?"

Beyond what you've already been advised, note that AskMe is pretty good at supplying facts, or links to resources that can provide facts; if your question asks for facts, you generally get a goodly number of directly responsive answers, pronto.

Where AskMe responses begin to gum up, is when a question asks for opinions. Your question nearly starts with the subjective word "perfect," and so, it initially drew some opinionated answers, but little information about your over-riding concerns, which seemed to be, subsequently, the tea/water ratio.

Then, you followed up, to try to zero in the answer stream. Good tactic, but your followup was 3 paragraphs long, and hit several points addressed in previous answers, besides tea/water ratio. A good rule to keep in followups is to keep them short, and very pointed to particulars, especially if your original post was long, and contained many sub-questions.

You got some more answers, and then followed up again, in which second follow up, you again used a subjective, which you even "air quoted" (implying that you recognized it was a subjective): '... There has to be an exact ratio that is "correct." '

The next two answers picked up on that tone, and if the thread goes on, so will others. Guiding tone in followups generally doesn't get you far, in AskMe, as it tends to come off heavy handed, too often. Let the thread run, and ignore/discard non-helpful answers, if they are not introducing tangential topics, steering the thread away from your interests.

So, to sum up:
  • Try to ask for facts, not opinions. Avoid subjective words like "perfect," and "correct."
  • Keep any follow ups short, and focused on the one key question.
  • Don't try to guide tone. That's generally mod work.
posted by paulsc at 4:57 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


The impression I got from your original question was "Hello, I am new to taking tea seriously as a beverage instead of something to swill when I have a cold. I like to know specific facts and am distraught that there appears to be a world of conflicting information. I do not have a baseline of information from which to deviate and thus would benefit from some grounding in simple truths, such as 'everyone has different tastes' and 'tea bags are often subpar' so as to not further waste my money on things that would be better spent on high quality teas, now that I am really getting into it."

Your further responses within your question pointed me to the unfortunate truth that your question has no exact answer, unless you start listing specific brands and blends of teas and water temperatures, at which point you would be better off figuring it out for yourself.

So it goes.
posted by Mizu at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one who thinks that people generally expounding on a topic rather than answering the question directly, is a feature, and not a bug of Ask Metafilter? For example, on my last question, I wanted to know how to recover data from a USB stick. One responder suggested I use the service dropbox rather than USB sticks in the future. While that didn't answer a question I was asking directly, it was terrific and relevant advice and really, really, really helpful.

Honestly, I've had better luck when my questions were wide-open and when I was similarly open to all kinds of responses. Sure, not all of them will be perfect, but sometimes you'll be able to find answers this way that you didn't even know you were looking for.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:10 PM on August 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


I find I hit preview about nine times and still come off too verbose sometimes. I really have to boil questions down to their brass tacks: what is the most essential information an answerer needs to have? And how can I state the numerous things I don't know and would like to know without going on and on and leading everyone down the garden path?

In this paragraph,

Missing Details--How big of a cup? Are we talking tiny teacups? A literal 1-cup measurement? Is this different based on the company? I sometimes suspect that British teabags are designed for British teacups, while 1 American teabag is designed for the standard, larger American coffee mug. Or maybe teabags assume a big mug, while loose leaf instructions assume teacups?

what if you had written something like this:

I'm missing some details about how cup size and teabag size relate - are there universal rules?


And this, from this post:

I mostly wanted to know about water to tea ratio.


Unless I'd read your title, which was confusingly long, I wouldn't have realized this as a non-tea expert. Seeing as the title doesn't appear on the front AskMe page, it's probably better to put your main question in the, uh, main question section.

Perhaps, if you'll permit me:
Title: How much water for a perfect cup of tea?

Question: I'm curious about the water-to-tea ratio needed for obtaining perfect cups of Teas X, Y, and Z.

More inside: [a list!]

Hi AskMe, I'm totally into tea but have a question about how much water I need for different kinds of tea.

I already know/am happy with/have found frustrating:

• Tea factoid 1
• Tea factoid 2
• etc

I'm wondering about/haven't found a satisfying answer to:

1. how teacup/teaspoon/teabag size impact flavor and steeping
- detail
2. etc

Thanks!
You need not give up your multi-question approach, but clearer layout can help focus answerers on what really matters, what they're best at answering, or anything else that you want them to focus on. I think a recent good example of a rather long question with a bunch of sub-questions and with super-clear layout this is the sock puppet/grilled cheese party thread here - 70 answers!

Happy asking!
posted by mdonley at 5:21 PM on August 15, 2009


Part of using AskMe is to understand that while the quality of answer is much higher than other sites, they are still provided with human beings.

The answers are people! People!!!
posted by odinsdream at 5:35 PM on August 15, 2009


I don't know how much this helps anyone else, but I do tend to pop in to my questions and provide follow-up to any suggestions that I've already tried or answer questions. Sometimes this means I comment like, five times in my own thread (I don't know whether or not this irritates people, sorry if I'm like, chaffing your hide here), but it also means that the subsequent answers are more helpful.

My advice would be to provide the basics and keep the question fairly open-ended and then clarify later if need be.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:09 PM on August 15, 2009


I've found that the shorter the question, the better the answers.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:44 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


why?
posted by gman at 7:01 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's a good idea to check on your own threads, grapefruitmoon. People are often confused about why you want to move to New Zealand and so forth.
posted by Mister_A at 7:02 PM on August 15, 2009


Are you asking me, gman?
posted by Mister_A at 7:02 PM on August 15, 2009


If that's the case Mister_A then he is quite prescient.
posted by Askiba at 7:26 PM on August 15, 2009


MisterA, gman, tea leaves?
posted by effluvia at 7:59 PM on August 15, 2009


The teabag is when one dunk ones scrotum into the open mouth of another person.

Oh wait...
posted by C17H19NO3 at 8:08 PM on August 15, 2009


What's the term given to a person who is able to put their scrotum in their own mouth?
posted by gman at 8:13 PM on August 15, 2009


Contortionist?

That or raving madman.
posted by Askiba at 8:19 PM on August 15, 2009


What's the term given to a person who is able to put their scrotum in their own mouth?

Talented?
posted by C17H19NO3 at 8:20 PM on August 15, 2009


Before or after you've sliced it off?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:20 PM on August 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Hannibal in the latter case.
posted by Askiba at 8:27 PM on August 15, 2009


The answers are people! People!!!

People who are steeped in opinions!
posted by rtha at 9:13 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Keeping the question brief helps, in most cases. Often, when I read long multi-paragraph AskMe posts, I get to the end and want to comment "So... what is your actual question?"

I don't, of course, because it's a snarky non-helpful comment. But maybe asking yourself that, "what is my actual question?", and prominently featuring it, would help. As with a lot of written communication, a good approach could be to look at your first draft and see what can be removed without losing the meaning entirely.

People tend to include all relevant details to head off misunderstandings and pre-emptively answer questions that might come up. It came as a great surprise to me that this doesn't actually work, because the main point of the communication gets lost in the clutter, and you get the misunderstandings and questions anyway. Keep it short and direct.
posted by FishBike at 9:25 PM on August 15, 2009


I used to work tech support for people who were in a pretty tech-savvy division of a company. One time I was at someone's desk troubleshooting why they couldn't navigate the web, and he helpfully suggested "just so you know, but I use the mouse with my left hand."

All of my knowledge and experience would've told me that that didn't matter, but that didn't stop me from making sure that the mouse wasn't getting unplugged based on its unusual position on the desk, or that the guy was making sure to left-click instead of right-click. Of course, the explanation turned out to be a software problem so this was all a waste of my time.

Two morals to this story:

First, you will always assume that more background information is relevant to your question than is actually relevant, because if you knew exactly what was needed to answer it then you'd have answered it yourself. It's easy to just throw a million details into an AskMe just in case they're important, but most of them won't be.

Second, people responding your question will usually assume you thought through each of those details and wouldn't have included them unless they were relevant. Inevitably, that leads people down a false pathway and leads to worse answers.

The lesson here is, keep the detail to a minimum. Include things that are obviously relevant to the question. Make a good-faith effort to ensure that it is answerable given what the reader knows. But don't go beyond that. Trust the community. If you skipped something crucial then people will probably ask you for it, or give you "if ____ then ____, otherwise ____" hedged answers.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:32 PM on August 15, 2009


Another lesson is this: value other people's time more than your own. Don't be cutesy, don't ramble, don't tell us how urgent the question is. Take the time to proofread your question and cut out unnecessary turns of phrase whenever you can.

Don't be mad at people who give you answers you think are irrelevant. Even the worst answers are almost always in good faith, from some stranger who doesn't know you or anything about you except what you shared in the text of your question. Help them help you instead of telling them how wrong they were.

Remember, you don't have to take any advice just because someone on the internet said it. If you don't like a response then no harm, just don't do it. But also keep in mind that while you have the most information about your particular problem, you are the least likely person to have any objectivity. Be open to solutions even if they seem abhorrent to you.
posted by Riki tiki at 9:42 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just to reassure you: even if you ask the question perfectly, people are still going to answer the question they thought you were asking, not the question you actually asked.

It is often the fault of the questioner that the answers are not what they wanted, but even when asked correctly, the answers are still not the ones you wanted.

Which is to say: the result is actually the same, it's just sometimes it's the fault of the asker and sometimes it's the fault of the answerer.

I mean, even when someone asks a factual question that has only one legal answer, a dozen people may show up to offer their observations or best guesses even if they don't know the answer and/or it has already been posted.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:25 PM on August 15, 2009


Then again, maybe I'm just thinking too hard about all this!

Maybe.
posted by fixedgear at 6:07 AM on August 16, 2009


In the end, I think you were given the same answer you would have gotten, though perhaps earlier, if you've phrased the question better: it's specific to the tea, and so there's no way to give a general rule; and if you're buying loose-leaf tea, there are probably guidelines on the package.
posted by palliser at 6:18 AM on August 16, 2009


brenton: However, I still have a recurring problem on MetaFilter where I ask a question, and get tons of answers answering a different question than what I asked. Then I try to clarify, but I feel bad like I'm insulting the very helpful and nice people who answered so far.

Oh god, no. Please, please, please don't feel that way. As is obvious from what you say next, the fault usually isn't yours; it's ours. Or rather, it's mine. Heh. (At least in the example you gave.)

I don't ask much, but I can say that the worst thing about answering is coming to a question where you could answer if you just had that one piece of information that was left out - so you ask for it in, like, the first comment, and you never get a response. Garrrh, but that aggravates me! Are people just posting questions willy-nilly all over the internet, not caring if they get answers?

No, you people who actually follow up aren't insulting - you're actually being awesome. Thank you!

So for the example: my recent tea question . I mostly wanted to know about water to tea ratio. I know a lot about tea and I didn't want to get tons of answers saying "make sure you steep 3-5 minutes!" etc... so I tried to overview with some specifics of what I already know.

Seems like what would help there is just simplification. The nice thing about being responsive is, if you need to clarify later, you can; but you can focus the question a lot more without, say, telling us what you already know. Like if that question (which frankly was already asked very well - it's more our reading skills than your writing skills at issue) had just been:

Dear AskMe: I want to make good tea. What's a good water/tea ratio?

and nothing else - well, there's enough info to answer the question right there. If people have weird questions about sizes of mugs, they can ask them, but really that kind of directness is a real asset. I think people are afraid to take that leap and ask a one-line question, but really, if your question is as specific and direct as that one, I don't see why you should need more.
posted by koeselitz at 7:28 AM on August 16, 2009


brenton: Wow, you guys are right. I can't believe I asked ten questions. I wonder if that is because I didn't have the primary question clearly defined until I posted this MeTalk post. Maybe I should post at Yahoo first, then use that to condense my question into one clear and concise question.

Then again, maybe I'm just thinking too hard about all this!


Well, er, I didn't want to put it as bluntly as Mizu, but...

...well, let me put it this way:

There is a man who knows the correct water to tea ratio for every single rea, bagged or loose, on the face of the earth; he furthermore can compute instantly, merely by glancing at the kettle and the cup, how long to steep the tea and how much water there ought to be per unit of tea. With deftness and skill, he can pour the water over the aged leaves at precisely the correct angle, distance, and velocity every single time. As he does this, his mind is running over all the various calculations, all the various algorithms which God in his infinite wisdom built into nature herself when he created this world, that immanent geometry which determines the correct ratio of water to tea in a correct cup of tea.

He really must exist; there are people making tea all over the world, and one person must be the best. You could spend your life trying to find this man in some sort of Borgesian quest. But if you really found this fellow, and if you approached him, became his friend, and then, quietly and respectfully, with all the deference that his position implies - if you finally actually asked him to tell you what that divine ratio might be...

I'm dead certain that he'd smile at you and say: "what do I know? You figure it out."
posted by koeselitz at 7:39 AM on August 16, 2009


'rea' heh heh

there's a splinter in yer eye and it reads

rea-

act

posted by koeselitz at 7:43 AM on August 16, 2009


How can I ask better questions?

Be clear and concise.
posted by carsonb at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2009


People have mostly already answered this, but my general approach is: check the number of sentences you have ending in a question mark in your question. To have a "good question" generally...

- there should be three or fewer
- one should be near the beginning and one should be near the end of your larger question
- if you have more than one question, they should be in some way linked

Other useful tips

- saying "any and all responses helpful" usually means you get a lot of off-topic stuff. No big deal unless this is not what you wanted
- talking smack about anyone in the question is a good way to pre-derail your question
- asking if you are crazy will get a lot of people telling you that you are crazy, possibly in a non-charitable fashion
- almost any time there is a "me vs them" question, people will side with both sides. Unless they all side against you. Be prepared for people to have read your entire side of the story and still disagree with you
- "seeing a doctor/therapist/lawyer NOT an option" questions are, generally speaking, terrible; try not to do that.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:51 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I found the tea-thread quite fascinating; there are some wonderful pieces of information in there. I know this is a non-answer to your question of "how to improve ask-me questions", but thought I would throw it out there. And 16 others agree.....
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 1:24 PM on August 16, 2009


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