FAQ on FAQs [Part 1 of 2 parts]

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From: russ@silicom.co.il (Russ Hersch)
Newsgroups: news.announce.newusers,news.newusers.questions,news.answers
Subject: FAQs about FAQs
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Date: 7 Sep 1995 13:27:44 GMT
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Summary: This article is a description and primer on Frequently Asked
         Questions (FAQs).
X-Last-Updated: 1995/08/08
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Archive-name: faqs/about-faqs
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Last-modified: Aug. 8, 1995

This article is a description and primer on Frequently Asked Questions
(FAQs) articles and lists.

The following topics are addressed:

      1)  WHAT ARE FAQs?
    1.1)  What does FAQ stand for?
    1.2)  How is FAQ pronounced?
    1.3)  What do FAQs contain?
    1.4)  What are FAQs used for?
    1.5)  Where are FAQs found/kept/hidden?
    1.6)  What was the first FAQ?

      2)  WRITING A FAQ
    2.1)  Who may write/compile a FAQ?
    2.2)  Why write a FAQ?
    2.3)  What subjects are appropriate?
    2.4)  How important is accuracy?
    2.5)  What is the format for a FAQ?
    2.6)  What is the maximum size of a FAQ?
    2.7)  What is a header and do I need one?
    2.8)  Additional information

      3)  POSTING A FAQ
    3.1)  How do I post/distribute my FAQ?
    3.2)  Where do I post/distribute my FAQ?
    3.3)  How often should my FAQ be posted?

      4)  LEGAL STUFF
    4.1)  Do I need to copyright my FAQ?
    4.2)  Do I need a disclaimer?

    5.1)  Why bother getting a FAQ approved for *.answers?
    5.2)  How do I get my FAQ approved?
    5.3)  FAQ maintainers
    5.4)  FAQ maintainers mailing list



1.1)  What does FAQ stand for?

    FAQ is an acronym for Frequently Asked Questions.  It is also
    sometimes used as the singular Frequently Asked Question (Although
    when was the last time you heard only one question?).

    Some have called it Frequently Answered Questions as well.  This
    isn't necessarily correct, but it isn't necessarily wrong either.  It
    effectively has the same meaning.

    A compilation of Frequently Asked Questions (and their answers) is
    referred to as a FAQ list or FAQ article.  Sometimes the term FAQ
    itself is used to refer to the article - as an example, I refer to
    this article as a FAQ about FAQs.

    The term FAQ has a meaning of its own that could almost qualify it as
    a word of its own.  Sometimes, FAQs are full of answers.  Other times
    they are policy statements for USENET groups, without the Question
    and Answer format that is popular.

    FAQs fall into the realm of articles called "Periodic Postings".  In
    addition to FAQs, other articles or compilations of information are
    posted and/or archived.

1.2)  How is FAQ pronounced?

    FAQ is pronounced three ways:
          1. By pronouncing the letters individually:  F - A - Q
          2. As a word:  fack
          3. Obscenely:  
The first two pronunciations are the most common, and are used about equally. Some will say F - A - Q if they are speaking with someone that really doesn't know the Internet. Those who are lazy (me for example) will use "fack", since it is easier to say. Often when initiating a conversation it is useful to say F - A - Q, and then once the subject has been established, "fack" should be sufficient. You will notice that in this document I use the phrase "a FAQ" rather than "an FAQ". This is because most of the time I say "a fack" instead of "an F-A-Q". Feel free to use whichever pronunciation you prefer and don't let anyone bully you. Both ways are acceptable. If you use the third way... well, you're on your own. 1.3) What do FAQs contain? FAQs are compilations of information which are [usually] the result of certain questions constantly being asked (posted) in a newsgroup - hence the name FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). It seems that those who frequent USENET are a polite bunch. In my house, the "frequently asked questions" that my three rug rats come up with are usually referred to as stupid questions or pestering. There is a lesson to be learned from this... before asking a question in a newsgroup or mailing list, make sure that you've checked out the appropriate FAQs. A frequently asked question can be a stupid question if the answer is posted right in front of your face in one or more FAQs. Sometimes a FAQ or periodic posting is compiled as a result of extensive research on a specific subject. A convenient way to share the information with others is by posting the article. In this case, the article might not really be a FAQ - that is, it isn't necessarily based on frequently asked questions. However, the term FAQ is sometimes used as a catch all term for articles, periodic postings, compilations, etc. It is becoming common practice to refer to some "off-line documentation" as FAQs. Yes, it's true, off-line documentation still exists, I actually saw some a little while back ;-). All sorts of stuff now comes with support-staff-written FAQs, whereas they would have been called Q&A sections before. Many of the FAQs found on USENET or the Internet today (including mine :-) could actually be considered NSFAQBTIWTS - Not So Frequently Asked Questions, But Things I Wanted To Share (thanks to Robin Getz for this gem). I've also seen them referred to as LFAQ (Less Frequently Asked Questions). Is there no end?! Where is Chicken Man, now that we need him? 1.4) What are FAQs used for? Before asking a question in a USENET newsgroup, check out the appropriate FAQs. If you can't find the answer to your question there, then you can post your question to the newsgroup. Frequently asked questions in a newsgroup tend to make the news hard to read. With more news traffic, there is more to sift through. Do everyone a favor, first try to find the applicable FAQs. Then read them. If you can't find them, look for them. If you still can't find them, ask where they are. Then read them. If after reading the appropriate FAQs, you still can't find the answer to your question, then you can post your question to the appropriate newsgroup. It is recommended that after you receive your answer(s), you post a summary to the newsgroup. It might also be nice to notify the maintainer of the appropriate FAQ(s) of the answers so that they can update their articles accordingly (keep in mind that they don't always have the time to scan the newsgroups for new information). Don't assume that the FAQ maintainer is willing or able to answer every question he or she receives. Some make every attempt possible to answer as best as they can. Others either just get too many questions to deal with, or they're busy with other things. Please keep this in mind - it might be better to ask your question in a newsgroup. 1.5) Where are FAQs found/kept/hidden? Please do not ask the FAQ maintainer to mail you a copy of their FAQ. They just don't have the time - believe me, I know. Instead, make every possible effort to obtain the FAQ from the standard locations described in this section (USENET newsgroups, archives, etc). 1.5.1) USENET FAQs can be found all over the Internet. The most common place to find FAQs are in USENET newsgroups. USENET is a distributed discussion system that exists on the Internet and some other networks. Many newsgroups have a FAQ specific to the subject of the newsgroup. It is also common, in some newsgroups (that by nature cover more ground), to have a number of FAQs on different, pertinent subjects. Some FAQs that have been approved by the *.answers moderators team (more on this in section 3) appear in the various *.answers newsgroups (news.answers, comp.answers, sci.answers, etc). A quick browse through these newsgroups will turn up many interesting articles - do yourself a favor and check from time to time. 1.5.2) Mailing lists Many mailing lists also have their own FAQs. Some mailing lists automatically mail the FAQ to the list of subscribers. Other lists send a notice advising subscribers how to get a copy. The second option seems to be the most prevalent. An important reason for this is that most FAQs are fairly large (some are even multi-part), and it wouldn't make sense to periodically mail it out to an entire mailing list. Some mailing lists automatically mail the FAQ(s) out to new subscribers (probably with the hope that this will avoid stupid questions), and then letting the subscriber retrieve updated versions of the FAQ(s) by ftp. 1.5.3) Archives Many FAQs are also archived. One important repository of FAQs and other articles is the news.answers archive maintained by the moderators of the news.answers newsgroup. All FAQs that have been approved for posting to the news.answers newsgroup are archived at the rtfm.mit.edu ftp site (and all of the mirror sites) in the following directories: By subject line - /pub/usenet/news.group.name /pub/usenet-by-group/news.group.name By subject category - /pub/usenet/news.answers /pub/usenet-by-group/news.answers and for the other *.answers newsgroups /pub/usenet/*.answers (eg. comp.answers, sci.answers, rec.answers) /pub/usenet-by-group/*.answers By newsgroup hierarchy - /pub/usenet-by-hierarchy/news/group/name To find a FAQ by the newsgroup it belongs to, look in the directory /pub/usenet (which is the same as /pub/usenet-by-group). There you will find that each newsgroup has its own subdirectory (if applicable). As an example, if you are looking for one of my FAQs on microcontrollers, look in /pub/usenet-by-group/comp.answers/microcontroller-faq. There you will find three entries: 8051, 68ch11, and primer. You can also search for FAQs by working your way through the newsgroup hierarchy. Look in the directory /pub/usenet-by-hierarchy and you will find a subdirectory for each newsgroup category (news, comp, rec, alt, ...). Then just keep working your way down the hierarchy by entering the appropriate subdirectory to find the FAQs that you are looking for. For example, to find my FAQs on microcontrollers, look in /pub/usenet-by-hierarchy. Go into the comp subdirectory, and then go into the answers subdirectory. All of the FAQs posted to comp.answers will be listed under this directory. Instead of searching through the archive, many of the periodical postings on USENET are listed in the news.lists newsgroup under the heading: "List of Periodic Informational Postings, Part * *" These lists are archived at /pub/usenet/news.lists with the archive names: "List_of_Periodic_Informational_Postings,_Part_*_*" If you do not have access to anonymous ftp, you can also send e-mail to mail-server@rtfm.mit.edu to get FAQs by e-mail. Initially, try a message with no Subject: and just the following lines in the body: help end One useful command is the index command. This returns a list of the contents of a particular directory. Some examples of how to use this command are: index index usenet-by-group index usenet-by-group/news.announce.newusers index usenet-by-group/news.answers Be warned that news.answers has a LOT of information in it. The directory listing that will be sent to you by Email will be LARGE. 1.5.4) World Wide Web If your system has a browser for the World Wide Web, then you can access all of the USENET FAQs found in news.answers (and lots of other good stuff!) at these addresses: http://www.faqs.org/faqs/FAQ-List.html http://www.cs.ruu.nl/cgi-bin/faqwais http://www.lib.ox.ac.uk/internet/news/faq/by_group.index.html [non-functional now] The World Wide Web uses hypertext links, contained in HTML (HyperText Markup Language) documents, to join pieces of information located either at the same or different sites. The links are in the form of URLs (uniform resource locators), a standard way of coding the location of hypertext information. Check with your system administrator or on-line service for more information on how to access the World Wide Web. 1.5.5) Collections and Compilations on CD-ROM This is a controversial subject among FAQ maintainers. Even my mentioning this subject puts me in danger ;-). Many FAQ maintainers (such as myself) object to the practice of some firms grabbing everything available from the USENET archives (including many copyrighted FAQs), putting it on a CD-ROM, and then selling it. In some ways, the idea of a FAQ being distributed in a CD-ROM collection isn't necessarily evil. After all, the main idea behind writing the FAQ in the first place is to share information with others. The CD-ROM is another way to share this information. It even gives access to those who don't have access to the Internet. On the other side of the coin, you'll find many FAQ maintainers who think that the whole idea of restricting the distribution of FAQs (theirs in particular) is misguided. That's fine - the owner of a FAQ can set whatever conditions for distribution that they want. The basic objection to the use of FAQs without the permission of the author, is one of control over copyrighted material. The FAQ maintainer works hard at compiling and maintaining the FAQ. The issue is not one of greed, since it is clear that the FAQ maintainer wants to share with others. It just isn't fair for someone else to make a buck at it. Some FAQ maintainers are fussy about the most recent information being available. A FAQ on a CD-ROM is out of date - PERIOD. The only place to get a FAQ, and be sure that it is up-to-date, is from the appropriate USENET group (or archive). It should be the right of the FAQ maintainer to decide what to do with the FAQ. Finally, the practice of using copyrighted works without permission is illegal. Most FAQ maintainers have a copyright statement, along with the phrase "all rights reserved", appended to their FAQ. Therefore, the FAQ maintainer, and no one else, has the right to do whatever (s)he wishes to do with the FAQ. If you come across such a FAQ (with the appropriate copyright statements) in a commercial collection, please notify the company you purchased it from that what they are doing is illegal. It would also be appropriate and appreciated if you would notify the author of the FAQ that his/her FAQ is illegally being sold. Many popular magazines have advertisements for collections on CD-ROM of Internet/USENET archives. I cannot verify whether they adhere to the proper legal practices in the compilation and distribution of the contents of their collections. I'm not even sure if I (personally) agree or disagree with the practice. Please keep the FAQ maintainers' interests (and feelings) in mind. 1.6) What was the first FAQ? Eugene Miya is usually credited with being the author of the first FAQ. Although, in his words, "I didn't do the very first FAQ, but I probably did the first one of an informational nature." His article might possibly be the first one that was called a FAQ. Eugene points out that Mark Horton kept an "18 question" periodic post. This was posted to "general", which was later called news.announce.*. It had answers to questions such as "What does 'foobar' mean?" and "What does 'unix' stand for?" In 1982, while acting as an official NASA presence on the gatewayed ARPAnet mailing list SPACE[-Digest]/net.space news groups, he tired of seeing "dumb answers" to recurring questions. The situation as Eugene saw it was that the answers to these questions were are often poorly thought out, inconsistent, and uninformed. Furthermore, the posters of the questions often weren't trying to find the answers from books, magazines, or other references. They also weren't paying attention to previous answers to these same questions. Rather, they were just taking the easy way out - email the question and wait for the answer. Eugene therefore decided to start a series of monthly posts in 1983 to rectify this sorry state of affairs. The mechanism of periodic postings was also a way to provide information to those who didn't have access to the archives. The first posts included the addresses of NASA Centers, some basic references, etc. He also had a yearly posting trying to attract summer hires for the various NASA centers. All of these are still being posted, albeit by someone else now. 2) WRITING A FAQ 2.1) Who may write/compile a FAQ? Anyone - no rule exists about who may or may not compile/write a FAQ. If there is a need for the information contained, your FAQ will be appreciated. 2.2) Why write a FAQ? The Internet (and USENET) is frequently referred to as the Information SuperHighway. You can argue the merits of this analogy, but you can't deny that there's lots of stuff out there. The big problem is finding it - and I mean BIG PROBLEM. It might be more accurate to refer to the Internet as "the large, multi-storied, over-crowded, Information Parking Lot." And the attendant is away! One thing that I've discovered in the short time that I've been on the Internet, is the willingness of those who frequent USENET to help others find their way around this great big wonderful mess. A FAQ is a good way to help lots of good folks at the same time. The first FAQ that I wrote was as a result of my search for information on Intel 8051 microcontrollers. I couldn't find anything for a long time. I used Archie, Gopher, and lots of other methods that I either read about or that friends recommended. In addition, I scanned the appropriate newsgroups. However, all that I could find were the same questions that I was asking. I nearly came to the conclusion that the Internet was a waste of time. After compiling a few facts, I put them together in a small article (under 5K) and posted it to a few USENET newsgroups that seemed to have a reasonable connection to the subject matter. In a short time I was inundated with Email. Readers of my FAQ from all over the world sent additions and corrections for the FAQ, requests to post to other newsgroups, kind words of appreciation, offers of free software and literature, and even a job offer. Today the FAQ is over 100K in size and two other FAQs were born from the leftovers from this first FAQ. As a result of this modest effort, I have learned a lot. I have more than enough information about the 8051 microcontroller, I learned my way around the Internet, and I have made connections with a number of really nice people. Even more, my FAQ had a snowballing affect. Several other people are now either maintaining or starting FAQs on other microcontrollers. In a short time, if a newcomer to the Internet is looking for information on microcontrollers, a pile of information will be immediately available, without the need for months of searching. Hopefully, the same will be true about the subject(s) that you are interested in. 2.3) What subjects are appropriate? Just about anything. If you see the same questions always popping up in your favorite newsgroups, a FAQ might be needed. Check first if a FAQ exists, by looking in the USENET archives and by asking in the newsgroup is such a FAQ exists. If there is no FAQ, and you know the answers (or at least a good number of them), do yourself and everyone else a favor. Compile the questions and answers together in an article, and post it regularly to the newsgroup. Just as important, make sure that your FAQ is made available to the right audience. This means carefully choosing which newsgroups to post it to. Often, requests from other newsgroups will inform you that others are also interested in your FAQ. 2.4) How important is accuracy? If you are maintaining a listing of all of the Gilligan's Island episodes (yeah, there is such a FAQ, and it's great!), the chances of causing serious damage to someone are pretty slim. However, as a purely hypothetical example: - if you are maintaining a FAQ on the Pentium processor - you claim that the Pentium is 100% accurate and bug-free - someone reads your FAQ, bases a project on this information, and encounters a bug that has terrible consequences - at the least, you will be considered vermin by your dear reader - at the worst, you might find yourself being sued by same Some FAQs are in the business of sharing information about different products. This can be a bit touchy when trying to convey quality or usability. Care should be taken when relying on opinions (even, or especially, your own) or hearsay. Try to check out the details the best that you can. You might consider stating if an item is opinion or fact (whatever that is). Be open for suggestions. The inclusion of a disclaimer might be called for, although it really shouldn't be necessary (see section 4.2). 2.5) What is the required format and style for a FAQ? No format is required. You are free to be as creative as you wish. Keep in mind however, that the FAQ should be readable. Don't just cobble together a document that has no organization or flow. One common practice is to organize the FAQ as questions and answers, much like this article itself. This fits in well with the name Frequently Asked/Answered Questions. In other cases, it may make more sense to organize your FAQ as a reference. That is, lots of answers without the questions being stated (asked) specifically. Some FAQs can use both of these techniques in the same document. One part of the article can be in question/answer format, while the rest can be a reference. It is highly recommended that you establish a consistent and easy to read format. For this document I chose to use a hierarchical numbering system, but you may prefer another method (e.g. Roman numeral, Capital letter, number, small letter). Indenting the text also makes it easier to read the document (Ask just about any graphics artist, and they will tell you that white space is important). If you prefer a particular formatting technique, by all means use it. Just please keep in mind that everyone will get more out of your efforts if the result can be easily read. In addition, a FAQ can be in straight ASCII, or in several other special formats. I prefer using straight ASCII since it is more easily accessible to a larger number of users. One proposed format is "FAQs: A Suggested Minimal Digest Format". This article is posted periodically to: news.admin.misc, news.software.readers, news.answers The author is: clewis@ferret.ocunix.on.ca (Chris Lewis) This article is also archived as: faqs/minimal-digest-format Another format is the html document standard for use on the World Wide Web (WWW). This is becoming a popular way to "publish" information, however there are some disadvantages: - HTML is NOT an easy-to-understand language - not everyone has access to the Web It is becoming common practice to maintain two versions of a FAQ. One is in straight ASCII and is posted to the appropriate USENET newsgroups. The other version is in html and is made available on a web site, giving the reader easy and instant access to the various site links contained in the FAQ. Grammar and spelling are also important. Poor grammar can cause ambiguities and make it difficult for the reader to understand what you're trying to say. Spelling mistakes are distracting, and can also create confusion. Although it isn't necessary to work towards a doctorate in English literature, take a few moments to review your work and clean it up. 2.6) What is the maximum size of a FAQ? FAQs have no size limit, although sometimes a system may impose certain restrictions - 64K is always a magic number. I've also seen 100K used as a limit. In addition to system limits, FAQs that are very large (over 64K) might be difficult to handle. You might consider splitting your FAQ up into pieces, with each piece having its own theme. Many old USENET sites will not accept articles over 64k. Some on-line services have smaller limits (32k for America Online). FAQ maintainers have to make a trade-off between the universality that they wish their FAQ to achieve, and the convenience of one large article as opposed to several smaller articles. The trend seems to be towards keeping FAQs in one piece, no matter how large they get. I recently asked the readers of my microcontroller FAQs if they wanted the FAQs split into multiple parts or kept in one piece. Even though two of the FAQs are over 100K, and the third is approaching 100K, the results were unanimously for keeping each of the FAQs intact and in one piece. The convenience of not having to juggle different pieces of the document (both for the author/maintainer and for the reader) outweighs the inconvenience of an occasional newsreader program that can't handle large articles. Also, most on-line services are in the process of removing size restrictions, making the size of the FAQ more dependent on personal taste, and less on "technology" (or the lack thereof). 2.7) What is a header and do I need one? A header contains descriptive information about your posting. If you post your FAQ by means of a newsreader, a [minimal] header will be supplied automatically. This header is required by the posting mechanism. Providing additional header information isn't really crucial unless there is a specific need (such as providing a version number). If you are considering submitting your FAQ for *.answers approval, certain header information is required. See section 5 for more details about this. If you aren't worried about approval for now, then you don't need to worry about the header either. 2.8) Additional information There are several additional sources of information on FAQs and FAQ writing. David Alex Lamb's "FAQ maintenance aids": http://www.qucis.queensu.ca/FAQs/FAQaid/ Infinite Ink's (Nancy McGough) "Finding and Writing FAQs and Periodic Postings": Finding FAQs: primary - www.ii.com/internet/faqs/ mirror - http://ii.best.vwh.net/internet/faqs.html Writing FAQs: primary - www.ii.com/internet/faqs/writing/ mirror - www.best.com/~ii/internet/faqs/writing/ The bible for getting your FAQ approved by the news.answers team is the *.answers guideline. This document has been recently revised by Pamela Greene (one of the news.answers moderators) and is posted monthly to news.answers. See section 5.2 for more information on getting this document and having your FAQ approved. Eugene Miya has an article "FAQ on FAQs n.g.FAQ" posted to: news.groups (hint: the n.g. is short for news.groups). 3) POSTING/DISTRIBUTING A FAQ ......./ continued in Part 2

Go to Part 2