How to Ask for Tech Help, 2011 Edition

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Given the steady stream of incomplete, incomprehensible, and/or inappropriate e-mail I've received lately, I thought it would be a good time to update this post, which I first ran just over a year ago. I said it then and I'll say it again: help me help you!

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.

Today, for example, a reader sent me this e-mail:

Subject: I tried your fix but the

Message: Default contains no info to delete. I [sic] says value not set.

That was it. That was the entire thing. Needless to say, there's absolutely nothing I can do to help this person because I have no idea what she's talking about. What fix of mine did she try? (I've literally posted hundreds of them.) What program is causing trouble? When did it start, and what circumstances trigger it?

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. "Slow Internet after installing IE9" will get my attention. "Windows 7" will not.

5. Learn to use Google. Glad as I am to help when I can, I should be your last resort. 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, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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