Help Us Help You!

...or, How to get the best use out of the collective wisdom of ciwas, or anywhere else for that matter

Many are the posts to comp.infosystems.www.authoring.stylesheets (generally abbreviated "ciwas" for the sake of heading off a bout with carpal-tunnel syndrome) which beseech "the experts"1 for help. "My CSS isn't working! Help me, O assembled experts!" is how these posts usually turn out. Unfortunately, these posts are often far too vague for "the experts" to be able to help, and it is usually the case that requests for more information yield no followup from the original poster.

Why is this so? I have no idea. But I do know how you can get more mileage out of your requests for help, and I can illustrate it by employing metaphors based on a mileage-centric experience: owning a car.

Asking the Right Question

Assume that you own a car, and that you know a mechanic (let's call him Earl) who you really like. He does great work, and even better, he's online. You can send him e-mail about your car and get back answers. He'll even do free diagnoses of what's wrong with your car, that's how cool he is. Earl is great for giving you an idea of what to do when your car acts up. But you soon learn that there is a right way to ask for help, and a not-so-right way.

After all, consider things from his point of view: he needs to know the details in order to really help you. To illustrate this, let's run through some possible inquiries.

My car doesn't work! Help!
Okay, it doesn't work. What do you mean by that? The car won't start? The left turn-signal doesn't work? Your radio only gets the all-polka station? Without more information, Earl can't even begin to guess what's wrong.
My car won't start. Help!
This is a little better, but Earl is still at a serious disadvantage here. Your problem is obviously serious, but what are the symptoms? Does the car make any noise at all when you turn the key, or is it totally silent? After all, the problem here could be that the battery is dead, or the timing belt broke, or the alternator died, or the car needs gas-- or something else.
My car won't start! I checked the lights and they turn on, and the gas gauge reads full, but when I turn the key the car is totally silent. Help!
Better still. Assuming the gauges can be trusted, your problem isn't with the battery or being out of gas. Earl can guess that the lack of any noise indicates that it's probably a broken belt, but it could be that your alternator is shot, or even something else which is less obvious.
My car won't start! I checked the lights and they turn on, and the gas gauge reads full, but when I turn the key the car is totally silent. The car has been towed to your shop. Please look at it!
Perfect. Not only have you provided a description of what's wrong, thus allowing Earl to concentrate on the relevant types of problems and known solutions, but you've made the car directly available to Earl so that he can poke and prod it himself. Your chances of ending up with a working car are now very high.

This probably seems quite obvious to you; after all, how can someone fix a car without knowing something about what's wrong, and having access to the car itself? Yet there are many people who fail to consider that diagnosing a CSS problem is no different. Consider the following, which equates the car-related questions to a typical CSS-related questions.

My car doesn't work! Help! My CSS doesn't work! Help!
My car won't start. Help! My hyperlink styles don't work! Help!
My car won't start! I checked the lights and they turn on, and the gas gauge reads full, but when I turn the key the car is totally silent. Help! I've been trying and trying to get my anchors to be the colors I want, but it's not working. The A:link part is fine, but my A:hover and A:visited styles are all screwed up. Help!
My car won't start! I checked the lights and they turn on, and the gas gauge reads full, but when I turn the key the car is totally silent. The car has been towed to your shop. Please look at it! I've been trying and trying to get my anchors to be the colors I want, but it doesn't work. The A:link part is fine, but my A:hover and A:visited styles are all screwed up. Here's the URL of my page, which illustrates the problem. Please look at it!

Again, this probably seems very obvious... but you'd be surprised how many questions fall into the first two lines of the table, let alone the third. And of all four scenarios, only the fourth type of post (which is the rarest kind) is likely to get you results, because it lets Earl ("the experts") take a direct look at your problem and see what's going wrong.

Making a Proper Diagnosis

On Usenet, of course, the situation is a little more difficult. In the "Earl" scenario, one presumes that Earl knows what kind of car you drive, and how you tend to drive it. When you post a question to Usenet, though, we have no idea what browser you're using, and under which operating system, unless you tell us. And yes, these things do matter.

For example, assume you e-mail Earl just after buying a new car, and without telling Earl that you have a new car, you say, "My headlights are too bright." So then Earl, who thinks you're talking about your old vehicle, responds with, "No problem. On a mid-1970s Ford Econoline van, you just kick the little switch on the floor near the brake pedal to switch from high-beam to normal."2 Since your headlight problem is with a 1996 Saturn SL2, this isn't a whole lot of help to you. You can hardly blame Earl, though, since you didn't tell him what kind of car had the problem.

Similarly, when reporting a problem with CSS, you need to indicate which browsers have the problem, and which don't. If you're having the same problem in multiple browsers, that tends to indicate either an error in the authoring, or that perhaps you're trying to do something which nobody yet supports. On the other hand, mentioning that it's an operating system-specific or browser-specific problem helps narrow down which bug might be responsible.

As well, there is the extra problem that "the experts" can't be sure to know what effect you were seeking. That's why it's important to not only provide the URL of your problem page, but also a description of what's wrong, or what you were trying to accomplish-- or even better, both. By providing a starting point for the diagnosis, you've made it easier for "the experts" to arrive at a solution. Thus, to extend the best question from the last section, we might have the following:

I've been trying and trying to get my anchors to be the colors I want, but it's not working. I want unvisited links to be blue, visited links to be red, and hovered links to be white on blue. The A:link part is fine, but my A:hover and A:visited styles are all screwed up, because visited links never take on the hover style. Help!

Again, this probably seems very obvious. Unfortunately, it's also very obvious that many people don't realize how important such information can be in arriving at a useful answer.

Filling Up the Tank

In order to stretch this whole metaphor past the breaking point, I thought I'd point out that no car will work if you haven't filled its fuel tank. Having a full tank corresponds to authoring correct CSS, because you can't expect your CSS to work if you haven't written it correctly any more than you can expect a car to run without fuel. Thus, before you call for help, make sure the tank has fuel: validate your CSS and HTML. There are a few validators available, such as those hosted by the W3C, but I recommend those provided by the Web Design Group:

The friendliness of the WDG's error messages will help you figure out what's wrong, why it might be a problem, and often give advice on how to fix it. If you can run your CSS and HTML through these validators and not get any errors, then your tank is full. Make sure you mention that you've done this when posting your request for assistance, and it will be one less thing for Earl to worry about. It will also get you an extra point of respect for having taken the initiative to ensure that you weren't making a simple error which you could correct on your own.

(If you find you just don't understand a given validation error, asking about that is perfectly okay too. Just ask about the error and provide the URL of the page which keeps getting the error. Chances are good that someone will be able to explain it to you. A word of warning, though: asserting that the validator must be wrong because "the page looks okay in my browser" will automatically cause you to lose several respect points, so try to avoid making such statements.)

Go Forth and Inquire

So there you have it: everything you need to make a good post to ciwas. These principles transfer well to many situations, of course-- I don't for a moment think these rules are specific to ciwas-- so they're worth keeping mind whenever you need assistance. Just make sure you describe the problem in detail and provide direct access to the problem page, and you'll be well on your way to getting an answer!

1 I put "the experts" in quotes because there is no official body of expert panelists, but instead volunteers with a lot of experience and know-how. This is actually a good thing, but it's also a little nebulous.

2 True. This really is how you toggle the high-beams in 1970s-era Ford Econoline vans.

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