How to use Stack Overflow

FEBRUARY 7, 2023 


Stack Overflow is an incredible collection of programming and software knowledge. Thousands of students and developers use it daily to lookup answers for questions they can’t solve easily themselves. Stack Overflow taught me so much over the years, I have used it since I began to learn to program. It’s built and grown by a community of developers, with new questions and answers being added all the time.

However, it might seem intimidating to beginners. Asking questions and answering them, is vastly different from just searching and reading information on the site. Stack Overflow has a very steep learning curve, for a long time, it wasn’t really welcoming toward beginners. If you are interested in using it to grow and further your skills or reputation as a developer, this article is for you. On a site like Stack Overflow, there is no right or wrong, all content will eventually be moderated by the community. Yet, you will want to avoid situations where despite good intentions, you get downvoted to oblivion.

When people start using Stack Overflow, they often don’t fully understand the purpose of the site. Stack Overflow is not a discussion site or a forum. It’s a knowledge base. That means for whatever questions are asked, any answer should be accurate, specific, and useful to the highest degree. It’s not a place to post partial answers or to ask questions on questions. Answers are upvoted and downvoted to determine the communities opinion on them.

How Stack Overflow works

1. Someone asks a question
2. Other people comment on and provide answers to the question
3. The person who asked the question replies to the comments, and can choose an answer to mark as “accepted”.
4. People with reputation scores higher than 15 can upvote or downvote questions and answers.
5. Reputation points are awarded for asking questions or giving answers that other people upvote, or for having an answer accepted. Points are taken away for downvotes or spam or offensive posts.

Benefits of using Stack Overflow

1. A knowledge base for all your questions: There’s no doubt that the platform is the de facto home of software development. If you have a (programming) question, there’s a very high possibility that it has already been answered on Stack Overflow. To give you an idea, Stack Overflow has hosted over 52 million questions. A new question is asked every 13 seconds on Stack Overflow.

So, there’s a really high chance that your question has already been asked before and has been answered and achieved properly.

2. High Quality answers: Speaking of archiving, it’s important to understand that Stack Overflow has a high standard of quality. Just like Reddit, you receive upvotes & downvotes on your answers. There’s one, critically, crucially important detail to understand about upvotes and downvotes: Roughly 80% of all votes on Stack Overflow are downvotes. This isn’t meant to scare you. Rather, this is to assure you that you will only find high quality answers.

3. Community: All the content that you find on Stack Overflow is user-generated. Every bit of useful information there is a result of somebody’s work. Somebody spent their private time investigating a problem and writing down findings so more people can benefit from it. There was a real person behind it, just like you and me. Stack Overflow hosts a active community of millions of users - developers, data scientists, engineers, support teams, and students.

4. Easy to use: Programmers find the platform’s user interface easy-to-use and visually appealing. Thanks to the Markdown markup language, no back-and-forth trips are required between writing markup and looking at the results to see if it looks the way you wanted. Moreover, the platform’s searchability factor makes it likeable. Not only can one search by full-text or tag or user, but there’s a whole API that allows users to data-mine the site in a bunch of ways.

How to ask a question on Stack Overflow

Okay, so you’re stuck. You’ve combed through the documentation, Google, and old Stack Overflow posts, but you haven’t found a solution. It’s time to consider writing a new question on Stack Overflow.

This can be frightening. A lot of the time, people answering questions on Stack Overflow can be really rude. You might choose to avoid posting to Stack Overflow, so as not to support a website that has harbored abuse. That’s completely fair.

If you do post to Stack Overflow, you are likely to get some very useful responses if you follow some guidelines.

There’s a strategy for getting good responses. You are more likely to get a good response if you follow these steps:

1. Understand what topics you can write about: In this article, Stack Overflow team explain what topics you can & should no write about. The best Stack Overflow questions generally have a bit of source code in them, but if your question generally covers:
- a specific programming problem, or
- a software algorithm, or
- software tools commonly used by programmers; and is
- a practical, answerable problem that is unique to software development

Then, you should ask that question!

Please look around to see if your question has been asked before. It’s also OK to ask and answer your own question. Questions which are too broad, unclear, incomplete or primarily opinion-based may be closed by the community until they are improved.

2. Do your research: The founder of Stack Overflow, Jeff Atwood, says there are 3 types of duplicate questions: 1) cut-and-paste duplicates, 2) accidental duplicates, and 3) borderline duplicates. While the last one is least likely to get your post flagged and deleted (i.e. it’s on the edge of being a duplicate based on slight variations), it’s always best to do thorough research to see if your question has already been answered.

Stack Overflow is very particular about having *one* beautiful, well-answered post for any specific question, bug, or install issue. If your question qualifies as answerable from another post then it probably won’t stay up long. That being said, if you do have a unique question, ask away!

3. Detail your efforts: To encourage people to want to help solve you problem, it’s crucial to provide a working code example in your posts. Additionally, depending on the issue you should also provide the current vs. expected output, error messages, summarize what you’ve tried already, etc.

Not all questions benefit from including code, but if your problem is with code you've written, you should include some. But don't just copy in your entire program! Not only is this likely to get you in trouble if you're posting your employer's code, it likely includes a lot of irrelevant details that readers will need to ignore when trying to reproduce the problem.

And, btw, when we say share details, we don’t mean uploading images of your code/data/errors! Avoid uploading images, and instead write minimal code to highlight the problem.

4. Stack Snippets: Adding to the previous point, if you want to share code while asking/answering on Stack Overflow, you can use Stack Snippets.

Stack Snippets are an on-site tool similar to or They're more limited than those tools, but they have the advantage of being on-site, so your code/markup is in your question (or answer), not just linked, and so it's accessible even if the off-site location isn't, and people don't have to go off-site to help you / get help from you.

In a snippet, you provide your HTML and/or CSS and/or JavaScript, and then it can be run with a click of a button, with the result shown in your post.


Stack Overflow is a useful tool in your software development journey. Whether you are using it to browse achieved questions, or posting novel questions - it will help you save a lot of time, and implement good coding & documentation practices.

Further reads:
- Stack Overflow help: What Topics can I ask about here?
- Stack Overflow help: How do I ask a good question?
- What is the proper way to approach Stack Overflow as someone totally new to programming?