Asking Pagan questions the smart way

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I spend a fair bit of time in new-folk friendly Pagan online spaces. People ask a lot of questions – but many of their questions are hard to answer because it’s not really clear what they’re asking.

Some questions are way too broad to answer in a single post (“Tell me everything you know about Wicca”). Some are vague (“I’ve read a bunch of books, and I don’t know what to do next.”) Some leave out important details (“I came across this word in a book, and can’t find it anywhere, and what does it mean?” is a lot easier to answer if someone tells you where they saw the word in the first place.)

So, this document is an attempt to provide information on asking better questions. It’s inspired by a fabulous document on how to ask technology questions, called How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. I’ve kept the basic structure – but adapted a number of aspects for both Pagan topics, and for the kinds of resources people often use for these questions. I’ve also used largely Wiccan (or eclectic) examples – both because those are the questions that I tend to answer the most, but also because they’re among the most common types of questions.

An introduction

If you make a post on a Pagan forum or email list, or any other resource, the people there are probably interested in helping you if they can. That’s why they’re in that place.

But these people probably have a lot of other things going on in their lives. Some of those are ordinary – jobs, friends, family, hobbies. Some are in the Pagan community – running a group, teaching, planning a festival. All of them take time and energy, which means that time to answer emails or post to a forum may be limited.

Asking questions the smart way improves your chances of a meaningful answer. And that’s what this document is for – to help you ask the questions you have in a way that improves your chances of a great answer. It’s also a way to show your thanks to the people who are helping you out, because you’re respecting their time and attention.

A few things to keep in mind:

There are many different kinds of Pagan practice.
There are also a lot of misconceptions out there – both from Hollywood and TV, and from people on other paths. It’s good to listen when you come across something new, before making decisions about it.

There may be more than one ‘right’ answer.
A few questions about Paganism have an absolute answer. But a lot of questions depend on the specific circumstances, people, and goals involved. You will often find people speaking about their own experiences and what worked or didn’t work for them. You need to evaluate which parts of what they say apply to you and your situation.

You’ll generally get better information by posting in public discussion.
Some people think emailing or sending a private message will work better, but often it isn’t. Many people are very busy: they probably won’t have a lot of time for an email from a stranger. By posting your question in public, you’re also more likely to get better information (because people may comment on other answers you’ve gotten or add more information.)

Preparation

Before you write your question, there are some things you should do first.

Choose your forum thoughtfully:

Not all forums are created equal. You want to pick a forum that is able to give you the information you’re hoping for and that is a good fit for your communication preferences. Each forum will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Examples include:

  • Some forums focus on information and discussion versus focusing on fellowship and emotional support.
  • Some discuss a specific path in depth. Others discuss many different paths.
  • Some forums encourage references, links, and other information sources. Others focus on individual experience – or forbid links.
  • Some forums have many experienced members. Others are mostly made up other people new to the path.

For the quickest and best quality response you want to look for a forum that is friendly to newbie questions (they may have a special section for them, too), but that has a number of active members from a variety of different paths or perspectives. A forum that gets less than 10-20 posts a day may not have enough activity to get you the best range of answers. If you’re interested in a specific path, you might also choose a forum that focuses just on that path. You can check out another post I’ve made about online resources for some more information and ideas.

What to do?
Investigate the forum you’re considering. Read some recent back posts in the area you’re interested in asking about. Read the forum rules and restrictions. Take a look at the kinds of questions getting asked – and the kinds of answers people get. Are the answers thoughtful and helpful? Or do they seem just as clueless as you feel about this topic?

As you check out the forum, see if someone’s recently asked the exact same question you have. Repeating the same information over again gets old for the people answering. Of course, if you have a question about part of the answer, or you want to ask more about a particular part in detail, that’s fine – just saying “I’ve read the recent posts about this, but I still have a question about this part here…” will help people focus in on what will help you.

If it seems like a useful forum for your questions or other interests, register.
Fill out at least some basics in your profile. Many people will check it out as part of their answers. You shouldn’t give identifying details (like your legal name, address, or phone number) but it’s useful to have some idea of your age (teenager? 20s? 60s?), general location (state, nearest big city), and what you’d like to be called (if it’s not obvious from your username.)

Get some background:

Before you think about posting, do some background learning.
Take a look at that forum, and see if they point to useful resources. Try a few websearches on your topic. You may find your answer (in which case, great!). More likely, you’ll find some things that help you get closer to asking a more detailed and thoughtful question.

Try doing a few searches on your topic.
Make a few notes on what you find – which sources make sense to you, which don’t make sense, or seem to leave things out? Try a few more searches, and narrow things down a bit. For example, if you want to find out more about Wicca, you might try the following searches:

  • Wicca
  • Wicca introduction
  • Wicca FAQ
  • Wicca beginning

What to do:
After trying all of those, you might decide you have the information you need for right now. On the other hand, you might feel that you’re getting confused with the different web pages.

Instead of asking “What is Wicca”, you might decide that you need to ask for a good explanation that goes into more depth (which might be a large website or a book), or ways to find someone in your area who could help you learn more (like introductory classes or other public resources about Wicca.) These are more specific questions, and they’ll get you closer to what you actually want to know than just saying “Tell me about Wicca”

Pull things together

By now, you should have a general idea how to focus your question. You might want to write down a few specific things you know you want to include. Some examples include:

  • Your specific questions or interests.
  • Where you’ve already looked.
  • Any relevant background you have.
  • What resources you have or don’t have (for example, if you live in a large city, your public libraries have a lot more resources than if you live in a very rural town. Someone who can buy several books has different resources than someone who can’t afford to do that right now.)
  • Any specific questions that have come up in your research during the previous step.

What to do:
Once you have your notes, you’re ready to start writing your question. Double check the forum you want to ask on again. Do they have any rules about where to post your kind of question? Have you registered on the forum? Do they want you to post an introduction before you post anything else?

Writing your question

Pick the right location.
Some forums want specific topics in specific folders. Make sure you pick the appropriate one, or your best guess. If you’re truly not sure, check with the forum host or moderator first. Email lists generally don’t have the same kind of issues – but some do use tags in the subject line for specific kinds of posts. Check the rules to make sure.

Use a meaningful subject line.
Some subject lines are more helpful to your reader than others. “Help!”, “i wnt 2 lrn”, “Newbie” or “Teach me” are not very informative (or are pretty pushy, like that last one.)

Better subject lines would be something like “Good starting resources for Wicca”, or “Confused about Sabbats?” or “How do I find Pagans in [my area]?” or “Help finding a teacher – and what to look for”

Make it easy to read and reply:

Use good standard English (or whatever the language of the forum is).
There are several reasons for this – but the most basic one is that it shows you respect the time and energy of the people reading and that you’ve taken time writing your questions.

Avoid abbreviations and netspeak, especially in your first few posts.
It’s hard for many older (and often more experienced) folks to read, as well as those for whom English is a second (or more) language. Check your post for typos and missed words – these can often change the meaning of what you’ve said, and will confuse people. You may want to include your name or forum name to make it easy (especially if your account name/email address doesn’t make what you want to be called obvious.)

Be precise with your question:

As we’ve already covered, you want to talk about what you’ve already looked at (so people don’t tell you to do it again), and about your specific resources. But you also want to write a clear question that can reasonably be answered in a few paragraphs (because strangers on the Internet probably won’t sit down and spend several hours answering every little detail.) There are some examples further down this page to help you see the difference.

If there are solutions or answers that just won’t work for you, make sure you’re clear. For example, if you’d love to meditate outside, but it’s Minnesota, and it’s the middle of winter (and 15 degrees below zero), you probably want to say that. It may not be obvious. People will then be able to suggest some other solutions until spring rolls around.

Describe your goal – not just where you’re currently stuck.
It may be that there are other ways to get to your goal than the one you’re focusing on. This is a lot easier for people answering you to address if you make your goal clear up front (otherwise, it may take some back and forth questions that take more time and can be a bit frustrating for both sides of the conversation.)

Don’t put yourself down.
We were all new at this once, and most reasonable people won’t blame you for being new yourself. Putting yourself down (“I’m so stupid, I can’t figure this out.” “I’m such a loser, I can’t do this.”) doesn’t get your question better stated – and it can be really irritating to read.

Many Pagan paths have a strong basis in self-responsibility, so it’s particularly good practice to get used to being responsible for what and how you’re asking to do. If the forum is newbie-friendly and open to questions, then they’re fine with your questions.

Being polite never hurts, and often helps.
We’re not talking about over-the-top stuff here, but just a simple “Please” and “Thanks for your help.” In general, a thoughtful and well-edited question goes a long way (because it indicates you’re doing your best to help people answer your question.)

Review what you’ve written.
It’s important to proofread what you’ve written, and to edit it a bit. Proofread to make sure that what you’ve said is clear and easy to understand. It can be a good idea to run spellcheck, or to read your comments out loud (a great way to catch missed words or other problems.)

Make it easy to read what you’ve written.
A good first post is usually 2-4 paragraphs. Much longer, and you may be including lots of detail that isn’t relevant, or that is too personal for a first introduction. Edit this out. If you really do think your question needs that background, put your basic question in your first paragraph. That way, people reading your post can figure out very quickly if they can help you out or if they may want to move onto other posts.

Make sure you include whitespace in your posting – that means leaving a blank line every 4-6 lines of text (this page is a reasonable example). Doing this makes text much easier to read on screen.

Now, you can go ahead and click Post.

Interpreting your answers

How long to wait?
Remember, people are busy. On your average Pagan forum or list, you will have some people who are online a lot of each day. You’ll have more people who check in once or twice a day. And you’ll have others who are very busy, dealing with a personal issue, or who only check in every few days or weeks.

Some posts also take longer to answer than others: a simple answer to “What are some good resources for X” can be a lot easier for someone with limited time on the computer one night to answer than something that’s a lot more focused and defined (how to handle a specific issue with a lot of specific limits and requirements.)

In general, expect to get a range of initial answers over the course of 6-12 hours for more general questions (introductory information, common concepts). You may want to wait to respond until several people have posted, so that you can see different responses and ideas.

If you’re asking a more specialised question that’s not part of everyone’s practice, or you ask something that is more involved to answer, it may be day or two before people respond. If no one answers after that time, you might ask about related topics, or if anyone knows other resources you could check out.

One thing to keep in mind: if I’m short on time, I often focus on the questions that few other people on the forum are less likely to address (things that relate to specific aspects of my religious life I know aren’t as common in that forum.) I’ll leave more general questions that more people can answer for later. I do keep an eye out, and if no one (or few people) answer those, I try to come back when I have more time. I know a lot of people who do the same.

“Go read the FAQ”:
There are many variations to this kind of answer, but they basically all suggest that you should go check out a basic overview before going much further. This can seem a bit off-putting, but the reason those Frequently Asked Questions files get written is because they’re frequently asked – and often somewhat boring for people to answer. By reading the file before going any further, you can do your own learning, and then come back and ask about specifics that the file doesn’t cover.

Have you been told to check the rules?
If someone who is a moderator or staff member tells you to check the rules, go do that. On a healthy forum, they’ll generally tell what specific issue you need to review. (If the forum’s rules don’t make sense to you, check the rules for how to ask questions about it, or go find a different forum that’s more to your taste.)

Staff members or moderators may also just reply without making it a formal issue, or give you suggestions for better ways to get your questions answered, or other things. Don’t assume a staff reply is a problem!

You don’t understand the answer:
There are two reasons you might not understand the answer. The first is that it’s a good answer, but it talks about things you don’t know much about (yet). If this is the case, see if you can do some research yourself first. You might look up words you don’t understand, or try another web search using terms in the response you got, and see what you find. If those don’t work, then you can ask for clarification. (Another benefit of doing some searching first is that someone else may ask for clarification as well.)

The second reason might be that the answer doesn’t actually make any sense. This sometimes happens in discussions of personal belief, religion, and spirituality. In this case, you might want to look more carefully at other responses (that make more sense) and see how other people respond to the suggestions in that response.

You get a rude response.
In general: wait to respond for a bit. Re-read to see if there’s a way that you’re misreading the tone. It can be tough to tell the difference between someone who’s naturally blunt and straightforward, and someone who is being actively rude. Taking a look at someone’s previous posts can often help give you an idea.

If someone’s really out of line, others on the forum may well say something. If you think someone is breaking the forum guidelines, check the rules for how to contact a moderator and ask about it. (Often, this is done privately, through a personal message on the site or email.)

Responding thoughtfully

Chances are, you may want to respond. Here’s some things to do – and not do.

Thank people.
A general thanks is often fine, but if someone’s been particularly helpful, let them know how. For example: “Jenett – thanks for your comment about focusing on the blue koala bear, rather than getting caught up with the pink rabbit right away. It really helped when I tried things last night.” lets me know what was most helpful – and that helps me answer questions better next time, as well as making me feel useful this time.

Let people know that you are listening and taking it in.
If you need more than a day or so to think, it’s nice to post a “Thanks for all your responses – I’m thinking them over.” rather than not saying anything at all. Online, we can’t see you reading and nodding – we only know what you post. It can be really frustrating to make a long thoughtful response – and never hear from the person again.

Ask follow-up questions that are related to your original post.
If someone suggests something and you need more information, that’s a good time to ask more. (Again, do a little searching yourself first.) It’s definitely fine to ask for suggested resources or places to start, if someone suggests something you’re not familiar with.

Think about the answers you’ve gotten for a bit.
Or rather, think about them before you make any significant decision based on them.How long depends on the kind of question, but generally, waiting at least 3-7 days after you first posted will give you time to reflect, and for different people to offer ideas. Waiting a little bit can save you a lot of time and energy.

Don’t do these things, though!

Don’t assume that everyone has the ‘right’ answer.
You need to evaluate the answers you’ve gotten carefully. How do they fit with what you know? Do they make sense? Do they seem reasonable solutions to you? Why or why not? Check out someone’s other posts and comments, and their background, especially if you’re looking at suggestions that might affect your health, relationships, or other major parts of your life.

Don’t get defensive.
You may find questions about your practices or preferences that may feel very personal to you. It’s easy to get spiky and defensive about these. Chances are, though, the person asking is just trying to figure out where you’re coming from. If they feel too pushy, tell them so – but being clear and polite is usually better all round than getting defensive.

Don’t respond immediately if you feel a strong emotion.
Again, someone might ask something that feels very personal or they may come across in a way that seems very pushy or upsetting. Don’t respond until you’ve calmed down. Go for a walk, have a good meal, sleep on it, before you respond. If you really need to get something out of your system, write it up away from that forum (like in your word processor) and sleep on it. You may find you are misreading something, or at least that there’s another way to read it.

Good luck with your asking!

[last edited December 23, 2016]

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