Like most professional Wikipedia editors, I also enjoy writing content for other platforms. I enjoy regular content writing because it gives me a chance to apply the skills, I gleaned from editing Wikipedia to a different medium. So, what are the similarities and differences between regular content writing and writing for Wikipedia? Looking at the research, writing style and purpose here is a summary of the differences between writing for Wikipedia and writing regular content.
Wikipedia writing is not copywriting
This first point should seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many seemingly intelligent people fail to distinguish between a billboard and an encyclopaedia. Copy is any form of writing intended for advertising or other forms of marketing. Encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia, exist to inform and educate their readers and serve as a running log of what we know.
Can a regular copywriter have a go at writing for Wikipedia?
Copywriting can be loosely described as persuasive writing, in that it is intended to provoke action in its audience, usually a purchasing decision. Therefore, copywriting is a very different form of writing, requiring a very different skillset. It is not uncommon for Wikipedia-naïve marketing people to ask me if I can upload something their in-house copywriter has written. My answer is always a resounding no. In my experience, writers who solely practice copywriting use too many adjectives, adopt slang or jargon and write almost exclusively in the passive voice. In short, getting a copywriter to write your Wikipedia page is like hiring a break dancer to perform in your ballet. I do, however, offer draft writing and training services for brands wishing to do their Wikipedia editing in-house.
Purpose is important
Copy and content are distinguishable by their end purpose. As I mentioned earlier, copy is written for advertising or marketing purposes; content is written to entertain, educate and/or inform. Content can be written for advertising or marketing purposes too, but this is usually expressed subtly, through viewpoint or call to action. However, Wikipedia’s manual of style does not permit the use of such devices, which brings me nicely onto my next heading.
Wikipedia content should comply with its Manual of Style
Many of my clients are surprised to learn that not only does Wikipedia have a Manual of Style, also known as a house style. But, its manual of style is extensive, covering everything from the correct use of abbreviations, the proper layout for quotations. The manual also contains plenty of wonderfully unambiguous sentences like the one below;
“Exclamation and question marks have almost no application in encyclopaedic writing.”
It is the combination of Wikipedia’s open-source framework, policies, guidelines and comprehensive Manual of Style that allows thousands of editors who have never met in person to compile a coherent encyclopaedia.
It is worth noting that the Manual of Style is extensive, and no single editor is expected to know every guideline and content policy. Instead, the Manual of Style is implemented collectively by the community. I routinely refer to the manual when writing or editing Wikipedia pages, often when I have a specific question like how to express a season or date.
To summarise, sticking to the Manual of Style is one of the key factors in differentiating Wikipedia content from regular content.
Wikipedia writers don’t need to worry about conducting original research or synthesising secondary research
As well as house style, the other feature that distinguishes Wikipedia content from other forms of online content is the method used to process and catalogue knowledge. As I have mentioned previously Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, also known as Wikipedians, don’t always apply these policies and guidelines fairly or proportionately and Wikipedia’s primitive methodology which relies predominantly on independently published sources results in a systemic bias towards subject areas with an existing publishing culture. The No Original Research policy can be interpreted literally, i.e. don’t make stuff up or more subtly, for example, synthesis.
Synthesis, in this context, means combining multiple sources to draw new conclusions. For example, if two sources contain opposing statements, a Wikipedia writer does not put forward his own ideas on why the sources conflict. Instead, they summarise what has been said in both sources, giving equal weight to both statements.
How can writing Wikipedia content improve your regular content writing skills?
When writing content for any medium, whether it be a blog, or a lead magnet or a piece of journalism, it is easy to fall into bad habits or convey information which isn’t factual or relevant which can lead to Google penalising your content in its search engine results. Writing rigidly with no room for original thoughts or research may seem restrictive and may not come naturally, especially if like me, you are from a creative writing background. As I mentioned, no single editor is expected to memorise the entire Manual of Style but being able to navigate it and getting into the habit of referring to and writing in a set style forces one to consider their own writing voice. Also, thinking about which method you are going to use to generate and present the information in your content opens the mind up to different ways of creating knowledge, for example, an academic journal that publishes original research is going to have a distinct framework to an encyclopaedia which summarises secondary research.
It is worth noting that Wikipedia content is just one form of content, and it is by no means perfect. As a British writer, I find Wikipedia’s Manual of Style contains too many Americanisms. As for Wikipedia’s system for generating knowledge, I would this to a Henry vacuum cleaner: beautifully simple but brutally effective in the right hands.