Wikipedia:Help desk/How to answer

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This page contains guidelines for users who respond to questions posed by other users on the Help desk.

The spirit of helpfulness

  • Be friendly, courteous, and helpful at all times.
    • Many users who ask questions on the Help desk are new to Wikipedia. We were all new at one time; try to remember what being new was like.
    • In the spirit of being helpful, if a user requests an answer on their talk page, please answer on the Help Desk page first and then copy the answer to their talk page. This benefits readers who browse the Help Desk, and lets our volunteers know the question was already answered.
  • Please be thorough, but concise.
    • Opinions differ as to the appropriate degree of conciseness, in particular on the issue of using shortcut abbreviations:
      • Con: Some editors feel that shortcut abbreviations are too difficult for new users to understand.
      • Pro: Other editors feel that users need to read the pages our answers link to anyway, and since Wikipedians use so many abbreviations in edit summaries (often without bothering to link them), we might as well condition new users to look up and read the pages behind the shortcuts. To get very far on Wikipedia, every new user probably must learn how to decode the shortcuts.
      • Neutral: Still other editors recognize that users are getting free help on the Help desk, and any (accurate) help is better than no help, so it is better to allow individual volunteers to answer in the style they deem appropriate, if that encourages them to keep helping.

How to handle questions belonging on the Reference desk

If you feel a question belongs on the Reference desk, try to answer it anyway, if you can. The Reference Desk is where our field experts and polymaths hang out, so they are much more likely to be able to answer knowledge queries. Therefore, whether you answer the question or not, provide the user with this useful tip by inserting this template: {{subst:Wikipedia:Help desk/RD tip 1 (plain)}} (or just {{subst:RD1}} for short). Here's what it says:

  • Symbol move vote.svg This page is for questions about editing Wikipedia. Please consider asking this question at the Reference desk. They specialize in knowledge questions and will try to answer any question in the universe (except how to use Wikipedia, since that is what this Help Desk is for). Just follow the link, select the relevant section, and ask away. You could always try searching Wikipedia for an article related to the topic you want to know more about. I hope this helps.
    • Two variants exist, {{RD2}} and {{RD3}}, which let you direct editors to a specific reference desk section or article respectively. For more information, see Wikipedia talk:Help desk/RD tip.
  • You could also use {{HD}}, which has a variant for each section.
    • The plain version {{HD/rd}} reads:
      • Symbol move vote.svg This page is for questions about editing Wikipedia. Please consider asking this question at the Reference desk. They specialize in knowledge questions and will try to answer any question in the universe (except how to use Wikipedia, since that is what this Help Desk is for). Just follow the link, select the relevant section, and ask away. You could always try searching Wikipedia for an article related to the topic you want to know more about. I hope this helps.

Provide links

When you answer a question, please link any Wikipedia-specific terms in your answer to pages which define them. New users who ask questions on the Help desk may be unfamiliar with Wikipedia jargon, so linking these terms is very helpful. For example: contributions, talk page, link, neutral point of view, etc.

Linking to Wikipedia's documentation is also important for maintaining accuracy. Sometimes our personal recollection of a policy or guideline may be slightly wrong, or we don't word it as clearly as the documentation pages do. The documentation pages represent the currently-best results of many Wikipedia editors who continuously refine Wikipedia's instructions to make them as clear as possible. Directing questioners to these pages ensures they get the most accurate instructions.

Even if the questioner you are responding to appears to be familiar with Wikipedia jargon, you should link your jargon anyway. Other users may read the Help desk now or in the future (for example, by searching the Help desk archives). The more we link the Wikipedia jargon we use, the more we build Wikipedia's internal web of links, over time creating a giant integrated structure of knowledge.

See #How to look up definitive answers for places to find these links.

Check the questioner's contributions

Some questions on the Help desk are unclear, or excessively general. Often you can gain more insight into what the questioner is trying to do by checking a questioner's contributions.

A user's contributions may also give a rough idea of the questioner's level of Wikipedia experience. If a user has few edits, or does not type edit summaries, that might suggest the user is new to Wikipedia and may not be able to understand a highly technical answer.

Consider pinging

New contributors might not put pages on their watchlist, or might not know how to check their watchlist to see if their queries have been answered. Consider using a notification to notify them when you reply to their queries.

Beware of red herrings

Some users may ask how to do specific things, without explaining why they want to do them. Sometimes a better method may exist to reach the questioner's real (but unstated) goal. Try to be aware of when a question may contain a red herring, i.e., a request for help with something other than what the questioner might be better off trying. If the questioner's real motive is not clear, it never hurts to ask: "Why do you want to do X?"

Totally confused questions

Some questions on the Help desk make little or no sense. Often these questions come from users who read about something in a Wikipedia article, and assume they are looking at the official site for the article's subject. This is common because many search engines rank Wikipedia articles high in search results - people who search for company Z may come to the Wikipedia article on it, instead of company Z's official site. To answer these users, use the {{Astray}} standard response template.


Stock answers

Some questions, or types of question, are asked so often that there are now template answers available to save you having to type out the same answer time and time again. These templates, shown in the box to the right, should always be "subst"ed, and have a signature appended with ~~~~. If the answer in the template doesn't 100% match the question, consider substing the template and then editing the text to suit the circumstance.

The template: {{HD}} has a series of parameters and can be used for almost any help desk purpose. See its page for details.

How to look up definitive answers

Many Help desk questions are repetitive, and the answers are already written down somewhere. Showing questioners how you found answers, and linking to documents containing them, may help new users learn to look up their own answers. Knowing how to look things up is, of course, essential for contributing to an encyclopedia, and for mastering Wikipedia's complex rules and procedures. The following resources are helpful for finding answers:

It's good to search for an answer even if you already know the answer, just to make sure you haven't forgotten something important.

Help desk searches

The {{Help desk searches}} template displays links to several searches that are useful for answering questions on the Help desk. You may also wish to add it to your user page for quick reference from anywhere on Wikipedia:


The Help desk generally follows the same formatting rules as a talk page, although the Help desk itself is not technically a talk page - it is in the Wikipedia: Namespace, rather than in one of the talk namespaces.

Many questions on the Help desk are from new users who have not yet learned much about wikitext markup, let alone our Talk page guidelines. Thus you may find some questions to be very poorly formatted. While the talk page guidelines say we should not edit other people's talk page entries, sometimes a user's question is so poorly formatted that it can actually mess up the Help desk page, or be very difficult to read. In such cases, use your judgement, as the poor formatting is unlikely to have been the questioner's intent, and tidying up a question may help both the questioner and other Help desk volunteers. However, in general we do not correct mere typographical errors, misspellings, and so on.

We do edit questions that contain personal information such as e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. The Help desk is a highly visible page, and volunteers only respond by adding replies to the Help desk (or to the user's talk page if the user so requests). Thus there is no reason for a questioner to leave personal off-Wikipedia contact information. Since the Help desk page is highly visible on the Internet, personal contact information only invites abuse, so feel free to remove it from a question when you answer the question. You can add a {{subst:HD/cd}} to explain to the questioner why you removed the contact details.

Signature templates

Many Help desk questions are from users who are very new to Wikipedia, and often they do not sign their questions. You can improve these questions by appending the {{unsigned}} template to them. To identify the user who left a question, check the Help desk history. When you answer, you could also tell them that they should sign their contributions. Consider adding {{hd no sig}}.

How to avoid edit conflicts

  • To reduce the chance of an edit conflict, answer one question at a time by clicking on the edit link for that question's section.
  • Edit conflicts are especially likely when you answer the latest question (the question at the very bottom of the Help desk), because the next person who asks a question may append a new question to the question you are answering, while you are editing your answer. Also, if a question has not been on the Help desk for long, and the answer is fairly obvious, other volunteers may jump on it at the same time you do. Therefore, when you answer the latest question, you may wish to answer briefly, so you can quickly save your answer before someone else begins editing at the bottom of the page. You or someone else can add more detail later if necessary.
  • If you see two consecutive questions with no section heading to separate them, insert a heading for the second question, and quickly save your edit. Then each question will have its own section edit link which you and other volunteers may click to edit with less chance of an edit conflict.
  • If a question has aged a few hours on the Help desk without receiving a response, and several newer questions have appeared below it, your chances of getting an edit conflict when you answer the overlooked question are probably low, because most other volunteers who are currently viewing the Help desk have probably already seen that question and chosen not to respond.
  • When editing on the Help desk, or any other busy page, always click the "Show changes" button before "Save page", to see if anyone else has saved an edit since you began editing a page or section.

Why volunteer?

Anyone reading this page has probably already decided to answer questions on the Help desk, but it's still useful to list some reasons for doing so.

  • Positive environment. The Help desk (and the other pages for assisting users, such as the Reference desks) tend to have low levels of conflict, compared to other parts of Wikipedia. Users come to the Help desk with fairly well-defined needs, providing answers is mostly straightforward by linking to the relevant help pages, and many satisfied users express their thanks directly. Answering questions on the Help desk is a mostly rewarding experience; in contrast, editing articles can sometimes be a difficult experience.
  • Technology advantage. Wikipedia has a remarkable combination of excellent technology and an enthusiastic user community for providing technical support. In most information technology companies, tech support has a reputation as being undesirable work, with high burnout rates. On Wikipedia, in contrast, technical support works so well that it is actually fun. This is the way technical support ought to be. The importance of this is hard to overstate, as technical support is often the difference between a product that works and one that does not.
  • Learning Wikipedia in depth. Answering questions on the Help desk, and reading the answers from other volunteers, teaches an immense amount of practical knowledge about Wikipedia. The Help desk is where "the rubber hits the road" on Wikipedia, so to speak, where we see how to apply Wikipedia's policies and guidelines to a wide variety of real problems that come up in the course of editing real articles. Since the policies and guidelines would eliminate most content disputes, if all users knew them and followed them, Wikipedia would arguably be a better place if every editor spent enough time answering questions on the Help desk to develop a solid knowledge of Wikipedia. The same knowledge is available just by reading the manuals and editing articles, but it takes longer to learn everything only by experiencing one's own problems. On the Help desk, one learns faster by observing the problems of others, and the advice in the answers.
  • Demonstrating knowledge of Wikipedia. Building up a long list of contributions to the Help desk provides an easy-to-interpret record of one's knowledge of Wikipedia, and of one's willingness to help. This may be useful if one aspires to become an administrator, in conjunction with one's record of contributions to other parts of Wikipedia.
  • Helping the project with a "multiplier effect." Wikipedia is perhaps the world's largest do it yourself project, so most users have to learn mostly on their own, by reading our friendly manuals. However, the sheer complexity of Wikipedia's help pages creates a barrier for new users, overwhelming their short term memory with many unfamiliar terms and concepts all at once. Most new users have to get most of their information by reading the help pages, and by experimental editing, but sometimes it helps to communicate directly with knowledgeable humans. Getting answers to a few key questions can get new users past sticking points, and help them go on to learn more on their own. Simply knowing that help is available at any time gives new users confidence that reading the documentation won't be a waste of effort - they won't be left high and dry. The few moments it takes to help one new user on the Help desk may make the difference between a new user who gets frustrated and leaves, vs. a new user who sticks with Wikipedia and learns how to make many constructive contributions.


The Help desk must constantly recruit and train new volunteers to answer questions, to handle growth in question volume, and to replace other volunteers who move on to other areas of Wikipedia, or leave the project altogether. Some users will gravitate toward helping on the Help desk on their own, but we should also invite others. If the Help desk should ever run short of volunteers, the response time and quality could suffer, and helping wouldn't be as much fun for the few remaining volunteers. If the Help desk fails, the entire Wikipedia project could suffer. Therefore, we should recruit more volunteers than we need, to ensure that we never run short. Having a surplus of volunteers makes it possible to respond to user requests with more complete answers, or even to give some editing assistance. Given enough eyeballs, all questions are simple, since each additional volunteer will have seen a few things the other volunteers have not. We expect the power of the Help desk to increase with the number of volunteers, perhaps without limit.

Good candidates for the Help desk include users who have accumulated (or want to accumulate) some advanced knowledge about Wikipedia, but are currently mired in content disputes or other psychologically taxing conflicts in other parts of Wikipedia. The Help desk is a great place for such editors to forget about their own problems by absorbing themselves in the problems of others, and to gain better knowledge of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines that will help them avoid, or resolve, content disputes in the future.

If you're tired of fighting uphill battles, come to the Help desk and unwind.

See also

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