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Beginner's Guide to Getting Free Help on the Web

Those wanting assistance from the newsgroups may want to read Chip Pearson's Hints And Tips For New Posters In The Excel Newsgroups. However, his article is directed specifically at the Excel newsgroups. If you don't know what the Microsoft Newsgroups are, you may want to click here to see their web-based interface or learn how to use Outlook Express to view the newsgroups. There are many other newsgroup reader softwares.


Getting free help on the web is fast and easy! You just need to know how to go about it the right way. I have been answering questions on free tech sites for 7 or 8 years now. I see what people say and do to "get the help" and what others do that fails them. My manner may not sound very polite in this article, but I am not trying to be polite; I'm trying to be brutally honest. Here they are:

Things to Think About

Behavior Toward Volunteers

People at free tech support sites help you for free. They are not reimbursed, nor do I know of any that give away incentives for answering questions. So keep in mind that the people helping you are doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.

Search First

Please do a web search on your issue before posting on a forum. More than likely, many people have had the same problem or want to perform the same task as you, so at least give it a shot. When I look at a question and do a search and find the answer right away, I get a bit resentful because I could have been helping someone who DID "do their homework".

Urgent Questions

Just because your question is urgent doesn't mean it will be urgent to us. We may answer your question before other questions if you put "Urgent" somewhere in the title, but don't EXPECT us to.


Don't ask homework questions. You will learn nothing if you ask us for the answers. Many forum members will jump all over you for asking homework questions. Don't think for a minute it won't be recognized as a homework question. However, it is perfectly fine to ask for guidance or resources. You might want to qualify your question with a statement like "This is for my homework. I don't want the answer, but I am looking for some hint toward ..."


Please don't ask us to do your project work. I recently offered to allow someone to send me their files. As it turns out, they were having difficulty running a macro. As it turns out, it's work-related. As it turns out, the person works for a huge bank. If you work for a big company that can well afford to pay for it, please don't ask us to work on your project for free.

If it is a project and you're a small company or non-profit who can ill-afford a programmer, or an individual trying to learn by doing a project, no problem. But don't lay out your whole project for us. No one wants to read that much information. Take a small piece of it at a time, and ask how to work that part out by asking specific questions and presenting specific information.

If you are not very literate in the area you're working in, then you should likely ask for a little guidance BEFORE you start your project, rather than coming to us after you've begun and hoping we'll "fix it". This ends up saving you a lot of time.


In most forums, the rule is that you're not allowed to hire someone or solicit work. If you find someone you just have to hire, send them a private message or an email. If you cannot do that, try posting that you'd like them to contact you, and how. Do NOT include your email address or other personal information on an open web page. If you are willing to pay for the work, most forums won't mind if you say so, but some do. Check their member agreement before you violate it by trying to hire someone "out in the open". There are plenty of freelance consulting sites that provide these services.


There's quite a few acronyms floating around on the internet today. Here's a few commonly used in the forums:

Writing the Question Title

For best results, be clear! If you're in a specific forum, there's no need to use the application name in your title, but if the forum covers many applications, then please do include it in your question title. If it involves multiple applications, state it.

Good examples (copied from actual forums!)

Bad examples (copied from actual forums!)

Background Information

So you're having a problem. Here's what we'll want to know:

Versions of Software

Many people put this in their signature. Not a bad idea. But what version were you using when this issue occurred or what version are you running to perform a task? If you don't know what version, hit Help®About... You will see both the version and the release number. The release number rarely matters.

Yes, sometimes the operating system IS important! It NEVER hurts to include it.


Getting an error? We need to know the EXACT error message. Before you post this as a question to a group, do a search on the web for it (as you should first do for all questions). Often, you'll find your answer right away.

Steps to Recreate Problem

If you know what occurred before the problem, let us know how to reproduce it. Tell us everything that's happened recently, too, such as any updates you've installed, or what virus scanner you just purchased.

The Problem or How To Question

In as much detail as possible, describe the problem you are having or what it is you want to accomplish. Tell us what you’ve done to fix the problem or describe your progress. It will save us suggesting that you try them when you already have.


It is incredibly important to provide feedback. If someone answers your question, and it's now resolved, please post back and say so. Nothing will get you help faster than to show how appreciative you are. Nothing makes my day more than to receive a reply such as "Wow! If you were here right now, I'd KISS you!!" Yes! I received this recently, and it put me on a cloud for the whole day! A comment like that will keep me answering questions for months.

Don't expect our answers to be perfect. Many of us are learning, too, and nobody knows everything! But do try everything suggested and provide feedback to everyone you can.

Do's and Don'ts

You should always:

Under no circumstances should you:

Other Experts

If you enjoy forums and online help sites, you'll inevitably begin helping out, too. When you do, please remember that not only the askers, but the other experts, have feelings, too. I am appalled at the treatment some MVPs (and other experts, too) give other experts in some of the newsgroups. I recently responded to a question to create a directory mail merge. Not realizing the easy way, I gave what might be called a workaround. I was told, I quote "That is NOT the easiest way!" and that was that. I think if I had done that, I would have said "Don't forget about this. It's the easiest way." There is absolutely NO reason for anyone to be cruel to anyone else, and it's much harder to take the tone correctly when it's written than in person. Everyone: Be nice!!


Feel free to join our forum!


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