FAQs: Three Rules

Caslon metal type question mark ?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Leo Reynolds

Can FAQs be better? Can we make them more helpful?

There are three rules (or guidelines) that I’ve found make the difference between a helpful FAQ and a frustrating one. Here they are.

Rule #1: Answer the question immediately (even if it’s bad news)

The first sentence of any answer in an FAQ should be very short.

If the question can be answered with a yes, no, or maybe, then the first word of the answer should be yes, no, or maybe. Additional material can follow.

Q: Will reading SAVE THE SEMICOLON make me smarter?

A: Yes. Although opinions differ, most scientists agree that reading this site increases brain function by 32%… etc.

If the news is bad, we sometimes feel an urge to bury it a bit. We may want to start with good news, then sort of casually mention the bad news. Resist that urge!

Readers will eventually get to the bad news. It just makes it worse when the experience of finding the bad news is also annoying.

How to do it wrong

Q: Will it cost more?

A: SAVE THE SEMICOLON offers so much goodness that we think it’s worth much more than we’d ever charge. We hope that you’ll consider the small increase in price in light of how much benefit you’ll gain by reading….

How to do it right

Q: Will it cost more?

A: Yes, by about 50 cents a month, but we hope you’ll think it’s worth it. SAVE THE SEMICOLON offers so much goodness….

Rule #2: Don’t ask what you don’t want to answer

It’s ok to leave questions out of an FAQ. And it’s ok to ask a question and answer it by saying that you don’t know.

But it’s not ok to ask a question and then answer a different question, or to pretend that your readers want something less than the answer.

How to do it wrong

This is from one of the many FAQs about Nissan’s soon-to-be-released electric car, the “LEAF”.

Q: What kind of acceleration does the Nissan LEAF have?

A: The Nissan LEAF’s acceleration is surprisingly quiet and effortless

No one asking about acceleration is interested in the opinion of the Nissan Marketing Department. We  want to hear the number of seconds it takes to reach a certain speed.

This question/answer pair is worse than useless. Rather than merely leaving readers uninformed, it leaves them annoyed and frustrated. You’ve wasted their time.

How to do it right

Guess what? Nissan gets it right in a different FAQ by asking and answering the real question:

Q: What is the 0 to 60?

A: No exact 0-60 at this point, but it has surprisingly quiet and effortless acceleration.

They still don’t give an answer, but they say that they don’t. That’s much more satisfying for the reader.

Rule #3: Keep marketing out of it (mostly)

Marketing wants in.

And let’s face it, if people don’t buy the product, then no one gets paid. So I won’t say that they shouldn’t get a single question in your list, but don’t let them have more than that.

What am I talking about? Something like this:

Q: Is SAVE THE SEMICOLON really the best place to find all sorts of great information about tech writing?

A: Yes it is! If you want to know all about tech writing, then you’ll love SAVE THE SEMICOLON.

This is not a frequently asked question. It isn’t helpful, and it’s probably annoying. So keep it to a minimum.

Bonus Rule!

Yes, I told you there were three rules, but you get a prize for reading this far:


We all know that most FAQs aren’t really the most frequently asked questions. Half the time, we’re writing an FAQ before the product has been launched, and we’re guessing what people will want to know.

That’s ok.

But guessing what people will want to know means asking and answering a handful of questions, not documenting the entire product. I won’t state a maximum number of questions, but my advice is to keep it short.

Have I missed some basic FAQ rules?  Are there other things that every FAQ should do, or not do? Let me know!


The LEAF electric car


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