How to ask for tech help, 2013 edition
I first tackled this subject a few years ago, then updated it back in 2011. Given the recent batch of incomplete, incomprehensible, and/or inappropriate e-mail I've received, this seems like a good time for another update.
See, every month I get loads of letters from users seeking help with a computer problem. Time doesn't permit me to answer them all (and I'll admit I don't always have an answer), but I do my best.
Consequently, I need you to do your best as well. That means asking the right questions, supplying the right information, and, most of all, being courteous.
A couple days ago, for example, a reader sent me an email so long and rambling that I simply couldn't take the time to read the whole thing. I skimmed it to see if I could ferret out a question, but the closest I came was this:
"All I need is a user-friendly keyboard—without a useless numbers pad, but with different alphabet keys and diacritical marks for various languages—that stores and indexes text files plus a few illustrations and retrieves them instantly for print-out or clip-and-paste e-mail. NO 'standardized' font in attachments! NO mystery icons. And NO 'Unsupported Format' messages!"
This was, to be clear, near the middle of about a dozen similarly long-winded paragraphs.
See what I'm up against? Needless to say, there's nothing I can do to help this person because I have no idea what he's talking about—and not nearly enough time to try to figure it out.
If you want help, you need to go about it the right way. Here's how to get the best possible results when you're contacting me, an online forum, or a company's tech-support department.
1. Learn the lingo. A while back, a reader asked for help "deleting the bootlog," which makes no sense. What he really wanted was help with the boot menu. If I have to spend extra time figuring out what you mean, I won't have time to respond.
2. Share important details... What version of Windows are you running? What steps have you already tried to resolve your problem? What triggers the problem? Also, if you're referring to something I've written before, tell me what that is. Someone once wrote that he'd "followed my recommended procedure," but didn't say for what. I can't help if I don't know what you're talking about.
3. ...but don't go overboard. If your e-mail is the length of a small novel, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to read it. I just don't have the bandwidth. Keep it short and to the point.
4. Include a useful subject line. You'd be surprised how many people don't. "Can't figure out Windows 8 live tiles" will get my attention. "Windows 8" will not.
5. Learn to use Google. Glad as I am to help when I can, I should be one of your last resorts. If you're getting a funky error code from, say, Windows Update, type that code into Google and search, search, search. I'd wager that any problem you're having, others have had as well—and probably solved.
So many of the e-mails I receive are either overlong, incomplete, or just plain confusing. I want to help, but, please, help me help you!
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PCWorld Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.