Before you can start problem solving, you need to have all the information available to you at your fingertips. It's hard to know what went wrong without knowing what actually happened, after all! Raiding Hunters -- in fact, all raiders -- should have a means of going back and reviewing their combat logs. WoW Web Stats and WoW Meter Online are two great resources to help you parse your combat log and make sense of what happened during a fight. However, before you can make use of one or both of these services, you have to know how (and remember!) to record your combat log. To record your combat log, you can type /combatlog manually into chat, or you can automate the process through an addon called Loggerhead. When you install Loggerhead, you can configure it to automatically record your combat log any time you're in a particular zone, and it will save your logs to your hard drive automaticlly for you so you can refer to them later.
Now that you know how to collect the information you need, let's talk about all the pieces that make up the whole. There are three major aspects that make up your damage output: your character, your pet, and your hardware performance. For your Hunter alone there are many variables that contribute to your dps.
First, it's hard to overestimate the impact gear can have on your performance. Everyone knows that having the "best" gear is important, but not everyone knows what the best gear is or how to get it. There are tons of resources available to you to help you figure out what your next upgrade is and where it's coming from. Start with the Armory and use the "Find an Upgrade" feature to give you a point of reference to start from. Be Imba! is another great site to help you gauge your character's strength. By now, you should already know what stats to focus on: Hit, Agility, Attack Power, Intellect and Crit. Once you've got a list of possible upgrades, check out WoWHead's item comparison tool to get a side-by-side glance at your items to help you decide which might be the best for you. Alternatively, you can also use various dps spreadsheets, like Shandara's Spreadsheet from Elitist Jerks, to help you find potential upgrades. You can also use sites like CharDev or Warcrafter to preview items and gear sets before going to the effort of actually farming items to see if the items you've found will really be an upgrade as a whole.
Once you've got the best items you can, it's important to make sure you're getting the most out of them. Make sure your items are properly gemmed and enchanted! If you're not sure what gems or enchants to look for, there are guides for both. The key is to look for gems and enchants that have the same stats you look for on your gear: Hit (if you're still below the cap), Agility, Attack Power, and Crit. If you can, make use of socket bonuses to give yourself an extra boost. Likewise, it's important to make sure you're always making use of consumables, and that you're using the right ones! There's a guide for that, too.
If you're trying to min/max, having the optimum talent spec is important. Currently, a 51-point Survival build that makes use of Explosive Shot is considered the best raiding spec, but patches and class changes often change what we consider to be "the best" spec, so it's important to pay close attention to patch notes. At the moment, this 6/14/51 Survival build, or slight variations thereof, is considered the best for raiding. Make sure your talents closely resemble this build and you should be fine.
With your character taken care of, you can focus on the other pieces of the dps puzzle. For the best damage output, you should always bring a Ferocity pet to raids. Currently, cats or raptors are considered the best pets for overall damage output, and most theorycrafters recommend a Ferocity build similar to this one. With your choice of pet talents taken care of, it's important to note that pet management in a raid environment is equally important. After all, dead pets deal no damage! Make sure you're pulling your pet out of harmful AoE effects and healing them sufficiently when appropriate. If your pet dies, it's important to resurrect them so they can get back into the fight. The damage output lost during the few seconds it takes to resurrect your pet is worth the dps you'll get back once your pet is alive again, so keep an eye on your furry companion!
Next, it's important to pay close attention to your shot rotation as that's another major factor in determining your dps. While in some cases a shot rotation macro can be beneficial, it's usually recommended to use a manual rotation that will allow you more control so you can adapt easily to changes during a fight. For Survival Hunters, Explosive Shot should make up roughly 30-35% of your overall damage, giving it a prominent place in your rotation. Second, Auto Shot should make up roughly 22-26% of your overall damage, and Steady Shout should come in at about 12-15%. Remember to keep Serpent Sting active throughout the fight! You want to aim for at least 90% up-time to get the most mileage out of it. Beyond that, don't forget to utilize Kill Shot where appropriate, and use Aimed Shot to fill any gaps in your rotation if you're got it. Don't forget to use your trinkets and cooldowns (such as Rapid Fire) as well! Efficient aspect swapping also plays a part in the effectiveness of your rotation, so keep a close eye on your aspects and your mana bar.
Finally, your hardware and computer performance can also play a major role in your damage output. Don't underestimate the affect that high latency and/or low frame rates can have on your damage output! While there's little you can do to improve your latency, there's a lot you can do to help improve your frame rate. If you've got cash to spare, investing in better hardware is a wise choice if you're looking for optimal performance, no matter what game you may be playing. If you're on a tight budget, there are still some things you can do to help get that frame rate up. Typically, anything higher than 200-300ms latency will begin to affect your performance, and likewise anything lower than 20-30fps frame rate will cause your dps to suffer.
If you're suffering from low frame rates, make sure you're closing any unnecessary background programs before launching the game. Also, make sure you're not playing in Windowed mode! Playing in Full-screen mode will, surpringinly, up your frame rate considerably. Additionally, make sure you're keeping your addons folder cleaned out regularly and get rid of any addons you're not using, as they can hog a lot of system resources and thus bring down your frame rate. If you're still experiencing less than ideal frame rates, start paring down on the number of addons you've got installed, even if some of them are "necessary". For example, get rid of Recount and Auctioneer! These two addons are major resource hogs, and there are better alternatives. In Recount's case, the addon becomes unnecessary when you start using services like WWS and WMO to review your logs. In the cast of Auctioneer, think about switchign to AuctionLite, or at the very least disable Auctioneer on any of your raiding toons and restrict it to loading only on a banking alt, for example.
Once you understand all the pieces of the puzzle, it becomes much easier to make sense of what you're seeing when you parse your combat logs, and once you can identify the problem, finding the solution becomes just a matter of identifying which puzzle piece was missing. I've found that keeping a checklist handy helps me when I go back and review logs:
- Did I have my best items equipped?
- Did I bring the best ammo?
- Did I use consumables?
- Was my rotation what it should have been?
- Did my pet die a lot?
- What was my latency?
- What was my frame rate?
All of these things play a part, and it's important to take note of all of them each time you step into a raid zone. If you need to, keep a notebook handy each time you raid. Create and date an entry for each raid, note your frame rate and latency, make sure you've got the right ammo and trinkets equipped, and jot down any other details you think might be important to remember when you go back and review your logs. Fixing your dps when you think something's amiss is just a matter of having information available to you.