Re: Style/History of FAQs (was Re: The FAQ Manual of Style)


Joe Bernstein (
Mon, 5 May 1997 06:15:39 -0600

Steve Summit wrote...

>Though I was being diplomatic in that review, I will say here
>that the "traditional" approach, if not Right, is certainly
>better or at least more deserving of the name "FAQ list."
>(In particular, the questions in the "contrived" form of
>FAQ list are often lacking in verisimilitude or a convincing
>feel of Frequency.)

Sigh... After catching up on a month's back mail from this list, I
find I have something of a chip on my shoulder.

I'm sort of an illegitimate subscriber, I guess. The news.groups FAQ I
started is currently maintained by its other author (though, Ms.
McQuitty, I'd be perfectly willing to take the job back now), and I
haven't yet done the soc.history.ancient FAQs (which is why Mr. Schulz
"by accident" is filling the breach, for which my thanks). So maybe I
shouldn't kvetch.

But frankly, I'm a bit unclear on what the purpose of certain recent
remarks is. As it happens, I don't do FAQs out of altruism. I started
the news.groups one because I was really tired of answering questions
at length over and over; this I understood to be the point of FAQs. I
certainly stuck with it at least in part out of sheer pride - I mean,
as soon as it was clear that I, a relative newbie, would be *allowed*
to do the thing, I was on the phone to my brother "Golly, I'm writing
the news.groups FAQ! I'm so thrilled!" The soc.history.ancient FAQs
that I haven't done yet will probably call for enough research that I
could make a plausible case for selling a moderately expanded version
as a book, and I already list the news.groups one on my resume (which
needs all the help it can get). So I didn't really appreciate
nagasiva's comments some while back to the effect that altruism was The
Only Right Reason to write FAQs and other motivations were Bad Things.

I was also confused by certain comments that implied "commercial" FAQs
were Bad. At this bookstore, which is the only way I've had net access
for the past year and a half and therefore has subsidised (among other
things) the news.groups FAQ, we do have Frequently Asked Questions.
"What are your hours? When is the next Robert Jordan book coming out?
How can I get there? Do you have the latest Star Trek book yet? ..."
We actually had a sign on our wall for about a year saying "Frequently
Asked Questions"; all it ever wound up holding was the date of Jordan's
next book, so eventually it came down. But y'know, if Kodak can make
its customer service reps' lives more interesting by saving them some
of the "Oh, you have to keep the film from exposure to light?"
questions, more power to Kodak! Me, I'm just waiting for the first
"When do you open?" phone call of the day. And waiting for time to
work up a Web FAQ about this place, at the least.

(Granted, a commercial FAQ masquerading as traditional is no good, but
you know, Pillsbury sells cookbooks right now, and they don't get much
attention compared to normal cookbooks; I don't think this is something
anyone needs to worry very much about. Probably it would be nice if
the news.answers moderators were prepared to intervene in cases of
spectacularly awful commercial bias in FAQ posting - "The Up-to-Date
and Complete Software Guide" in some non-MS comp.* group turning out to
be a Microsoft front, say. Should this ever come to pass.)

Anyway, now I'm to understand that the traditional Q & A format is the
Better way to write FAQs. Maybe for some subjects, not for others. In
news.groups, we spend a whole lot of time on a reasonably arcane
process that a whole lot of newbies have to deal with. It would make
*no sense at all* to answer every question individually without trying
to give some sort of overview of how things work and why they work that
way. We're not satisfied with that overview, but it's still necessary.
And those of us who worked on the FAQ (over ten in all, not counting
contributors in initial on-Usenet discussion or after-posting comments)
had plenty of collective experience with which to figure out what
topics were most repetitiously asked about; it's not like we needed to
conduct a poll, and the fact that certain sections of the document have
titles without question marks at the end does *not* mean that their
contents are "contrived".

Meanwhile, when I initially started discussion of FAQs for
soc.history.ancient, three of the ideas I put forward - a guide to net
resources, a guide to books on various regions, and a guide to books on
various languages - won considerable support. The only one people
objected to was a set of answers to standard fringe concerns; in other
words, the only one people didn't like was the only one that
constitutes a "traditional" FAQ by these terms.

So I guess I'm coming off more than a bit irritable here. But I joined
this list to get useful tools to work with (such as the "save as text
from Netscape" dodge, thanks Mr. Roth). Even spam-killing tools are
useful, I suppose. But if you're going to tell this list that
different kinds of FAQs vary in legitimacy, would you please be so kind
as to give concrete examples and explanations so we can have a *proper*
flamewar? I've just offered you some to choose from...

More than usually irritated,

Joe Bernstein