Wednesday, June 14, 2006

guide to writing forum topic titles

Why do many forum topic titles suck?

They're too vague or emotionally upset (like "This SUCKS!!!!" -- what sucks? calm down and communicate like a civilized robot, please).

Forum topic titles that are atrociously mysterious, about as clear as mud, serving as headings for forum questions -- these forum posts are going to be ignored.

Poorly written forum topic titles lack information that could help a reader identify the exact problem. Thus, many experts will pass by the titles, not pausing to read and post a reply to solve the problem.

Why are titles often poorly written? The reason? Narcissistic myopia. The author cannot see beyond his own understanding and needs. There is a massive failure to connect with other people and their feelings. The author of the title is too self-centered, and assumes too much, perhaps that others can Read His Freaking Mind?

Few of us are qualified mind-readers. Craft your title carefully, so it makes sense to someone else. Put yourself in another person's shoes, a complete stranger, for a minute.

Stop and think: "How can I best communicate exactly what I'm asking here, so someone who knows nothing about me or my situation can attempt to provide a specific answer for me?"

Sure, those who reply to your topic thread title may ask you more questions, to further refine your query or complaint. Always click on "Subscribe to Replies to my post" or "Notify me when someone answers my post" or however it's worded. Then, you'll get an email alerting you to the fact that someone just posted some reply to your question in the forum.

Topic Title Writing Guide

(1.) Write the topic any which way, in an outburst of prose, compose it as stupidly or clumsily as you wish.

You need something to look at, something tangible and legible, to start improving.

Thoughts are too mercurial and dis-memorable. Write anything, just to get the momentum going.

How would you express the problem to a random person on the street?

(2.) Ponder. Stare at that statement you wrote. Could any computer savvy stranger know instantly what you really mean?

What is unclear? What is assumed? What is missing? How could this title be misunderstood? What basic background info would an expert need, like version number or model or brand?

(3.) Keep topic title as short as possible, but still retain the core message and details.

NOTE: If your title is too long, it may be truncated, i.e., chopped off at the end, in the forum topic thread display panel, so make sure the heavy duty info is at the beginning of the title.

(4.) Compare your revised title with other forum titles. See how many are muddy, uncertain, vague, inexact, puzzling, completely idiotic, emotional outbursts, etc.

(5.) Make sure yours shouts out exactly what the hell is going on and what your specific problem seems to be.

A Real Life EXAMPLE:

I'm at the MozillaZine forum, at the "Firefox bugs" topic page.

My Firefox browser problem is: the "script permissions bar" has vanished, but all scripts are forbidden. I cannot Permit a script, for example, to Delete Post at my TechRepublic IT blog, nor can I upload music mp3 files to Filelodge, etc.

I scan the titles of forum topic threads in this subsection of the MozillaZine forum. The first one I see is "JAVA not working". That's close. I post a reply and send a private message to 360 Bikers, the person who posted this bug question.

But, to be aggressive, I start my own topic thread.

Here are some actual topic titles currently at this forum, under "Firefox bugs". Judging only from the title itself, how many of these could you provide the answer or solution to? Without even reading the post!!!???

A good forum topic title could be enough in itself for an expert or experienced user to reply to with a good answer, but that can't always be the case with complex issues.

Which of these titles enable you to know, at least basically, what's wrong?

Which of these titles could be about a million different things?

Actual Forum
Topic Titles
at MozillaZine:

[A] Read before reporting bugs!

[B] JavaScript permission bar disappears: scripts forbidden

[C] JAVA No Longer Works

[D] wide tables not display cells properly

[E] STILL can't download files when clicking a link!?

[F] Memory consumption...

[G] Unable to send talkback crash data

[H] is this a firefox bug or an html problem?

[I] proxy type

[J] Function for install handler correct? Mozilla can read this?

[K] No small update patches?

[L] Couple problems I've encountered with 1.0.3

[M] cursor blinks

N][ Tab Windows Disappears

[O] Overflow

[P] WMV plugin for Firefox breaks TMPG Enc. 3.0 XPress

[Q] MacBook: Dual Display: Address Bar Problem

[R] Linus select: focus css tag causes multiple clicks

[S] Crash causes Firefox to lose bookmarks and not save changes

[T] no response (hang)

[U] can't change the size...

[V] inconsistency in context menus

[W] strange behaviour with rss file?

[X] Firefox has created a blank area on the bottom of my browser

[Y] someone asserted me that this bug would be fixed in

[Z] same problem, again...

While most of these titles are fairly good, and some are superior, do you notice a few that say practically nothing?

Which ones would you click on right now?

Which ones are interesting, weird, funny, or may contain problems you also have, or know how to solve?

Think deeply and hard when you write your micro-content: forum topic thread titles, email subject lines, blog post headings.

And make the first sentence of the text ZOOM right in on the core issue, the root, the actual problem as it presents itself now.

If you don't know the correct term, make up something that communicates the idea.

Like "script permission bar". I think the actual Firefox Extension is called "No Script".

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