I wonder if you can help me: Q&A on Q&A

Natural scepticism might suggest that the question and answer (Q&A) sections in computer magazines are an artifice, compiled by a journalist with a good imagination. Even if you believe that they are real, most who send in questions think that they will only be answered weeks later, in print.

So here is my Q&A on my Q&A…

Q How many of the questions are real?

A All of them. Almost all are sent in by readers, a very small number are drawn instead from my own – or my family and friends’ – experience. There is seldom any shortage of questions from readers, although they are not all ideal for publication. (I should point out that these questions are of course all made up.)

Q So why do people bother if they have to wait weeks before the answer appears in print?

A Although there can be some time before a question and its answer are actually published, I aim to answer every question within 24 hours of receiving the email. Yes, every single question which is submitted is answered by email, even if it is ultimately not used for publication.

Q You seriously provide all that free advice?

A Although it is free to the person asking the question, I am paid to write the Q&A articles. Much as I might write them for love alone, please don’t tell any editors that, as those earnings are an important support for my Mac habit. So ultimately it is the publishers who foot the bill for the advice and support which I provide, and all the readers contribute to that by subscribing to or buying the magazine. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Q So why do magazines carry Q&A sections?

A They are consistently popular not just with the readers who ask questions, but much more broadly. They are the most personal, practical, and often technical sections in magazines, as their content is determined by the questioners, not by the editorial team. As I do not write a particular Q&A item up until the problem has been solved, I also know that my advice worked.

Q So how reliable are the answers?

A By the time that you read them in print, the answers have been tested by those who asked the questions, checked again by me when I write them up, and are scrutinised meticulously in production by specialist staff who know a great deal about Macs and computing. The occasional mistake may still slip past, and we do sometimes miss simpler, cheaper or more elegant solutions. However, I am always delighted to publish corrections where readers discover that they can improve on my answer. I love learning too.

Q Where do you get your answers?

A Many I already know, or work out when trying to reproduce and diagnose the problem. Most have an underlying logical basis, which suggests the first solutions to try. I usually run some searches using Google too. Sometimes I discover that the reader who submitted the question has already asked it elsewhere, commonly on the Apple support forums, and has drawn a blank there.

Sometimes solutions prove very difficult, requiring many days of email exchanges, and I have to try all sorts of tricks and research to arrive at the answer. The most frustrating problems are those in which all I can say is that it is a bug in OS X or an app: although there might be a workaround, it always feels like a dead end.

Q What information do you need in the question?

A Basic information which is important to almost all questions includes:

  • model and hardware detail (CPU, memory, storage, display(s)) for the Mac, together with the version of OS X in question,
  • manufacturer and model of any third party or peripheral hardware involved,
  • name and version of all apps and other software involved,
  • what you were trying to do,
  • what happened, with screenshots if possible,
  • relevant log entries copied from Console, when available,
  • any other information about non-standard configurations which you think might be relevant.

But don’t worry if you forget much of that, as I will always ask for more details if I need them. One important point is to try to explain what you were trying to do. Sometimes this only becomes clear after several emails, several days later, and changes the nature of the problem completely.

Q How long have you been answering questions for Q&A sections?

A I started back in the early 1990s. The oldest article which I still have here is dated August 1998, and was the 76th which I had written for MacUser.

Q Who have you written for?

A My first published computer article was about implementing Mandelbrot graphics and math co-processors, and was published in Personal Computer World way back in the mid 1980s. I also wrote one of the first articles about windowing environments for a PC magazine, which compared IBM’s TopView, DR’s Gem, and Microsoft’s Windows, in 1985. After I moved to the Mac in the late 1980s, I wrote for MacUser (until it ceased publication early in 2015), Apple Europe, and a few other publications.

I am honoured and proud to have started writing for MacFormat as of the February 2016 issue.

Q So how can I ask you a question?

A If you don’t already subscribe, buy a copy of MacFormat, and turn to the Genius Tips section. That gives details of how to send your question in. It will be automatically forwarded straight to my mailbox.