Friday, January 22, 2010

Writing for Wikipedia – Background on Biographies

If you’ve decided to write a Wikipedia biography, you’ve probably selected a subject that excites you – an author whose books you love (or love to hate), for example. There are some points to keep in mind for all wikipedia articles that have special importance when writing about people.

• Be factual – do your research, double check the facts, make sure the facts are independently verifiable
• Limit the article to relevant facts
• Keep your tone neutral, don’t state your opinions
• Take care to link your finished page to other pages, otherwise your hard work will be orphaned

Be Factual
Remember – Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, a collection of known, verifiable facts. You are also writing about a person and people tend to have families and friends who care about them. Your family probably would not be amused to read that you died three years ago in a drug induced frenzy during which you leapt from Grand Canyon rim while yelling “I believe I can fly!” Okay, maybe they would be amused, but all families are different. Would the mother who spent thirty-six hours in labor to bring you into this world and then suffered through your miserable teenage years like to read that you were adopted after being left in a restaurant trash can?

You may have heard from a friend of a friend that your selected author won the Pulitzer, beats his/her kids, kicks dogs, is the best loved children’s writer of all time, etc. Just because you heard a thing, or think you remember reading it in a headline while standing in line at the grocery store, does not make it true. Try to verify your facts with multiple sources. Aunt Mary’s blog is not an adequate source. A publisher’s web page might be considered a good source. An interview with your subject is a good initial source of information, but all information must be verifiable; an interview with your deceased subject’s ghost – probably not an acceptable source of information.

Cite your sources. Citing sources will help the article reviewers verify the information you provided and may prevent your article being tagged with the ‘no cited sources’ disclaimer. For an example of this disclaimer, check out the Sharyn McCrumb page. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.) Ms. McCrumb has published more than twenty novels (and counting) in at least four different series. (All entertaining reads, in IMHO.) However, her wiki article didn’t site sources, so her page contains the disclaimer. If you are a Sharyn McCrumb fan, you may want to take on her page as a project, find and site sources for the information provided and update the list of novels.

Limit Your Article to Relevant Facts
You’ve chosen to write a Wikipedia article about a person you believe is notable in some way. What makes them notable? Your stated facts should shine a light on the subject’s notability. Save all the other fascinating details about your subject’s life for the full-length biographical book you may one day write.

Authors, for example, often have day jobs. Are the day jobs relevant? Maybe. Nevada Barr works as a park ranger in U.S. National Parks and her Anna Pidgeon mystery series takes place in those parks. Relevant. If an author works in a child care facility by day and writes erotic romance by night, the day job is probably not relevant.

Sticking to the relevant facts will also help to keep your article to a reasonable size, which is important for Wikipedia accessibility. Many rural internet users still have dial-up access as their only option. The newer mobile browser technology is also size sensitive.

Keep the Tone Neutral
Keeping a neutral tone can be difficult when writing about a topic that excites you. In fact, you may not even notice when you’ve strayed. If you know in your heart of hearts that your selected author’s stories are the best treat since chocolate dipped Twinkies, you may not immediately realize this is not a statement of fact, but your opinion. Wikipedia helps by providing a list of phrases to watch for, named peacock and weasel terms. These terms are red flags because the usually don’t offer any real information. Examples:

• An important…
• One of the most…
• It is believed…
• Some people say…

Writers have a mantra that can help here. Show don’t tell.

Write your article first. Then review, looking for words or phrases from the peacock/weasel lists and think of ways to replace those statements with facts and let the facts speak for themselves. For example, instead of writing, “My favorite author boasts an impressive number of awards,” simply list the author’s awards and let the reader decide if the list is impressive. Instead of writing, “My favorite author is one of the best-loved of all time,” state how many of the author’s books have been sold, how many titles went to reprint, etc.

Link Your Finished Article
You did it! You researched, wrote, replaced opinion/peacock/weasel statements with facts, sited your sources, ruthlessly eliminated non-relevant facts, and polished the result to a concise article. Congratulations!

Now that you’re finished, would you like readers to be able to find your article? If the answer is yes, you must find ways to link your article to the rest of Wikipedia.

Let’s take another look at the Sharyn McCrumb page. The author of this page did a great job thinking up links for this article. Some of the links take you to other pages (e.g. Bimbos of the Death Sun) and others do not (Missing Susan). Some links take you to pages with reciprocal links (Anthony Awards) and others do not (Berea College). The ideal, of course, is to provide links that take the reader to more information and to provide return links on the linked pages – follow the Anthony Awards example whenever possible.

Wikipedia says, “Avoid making your articles orphans. When you write a new article, make sure that one or more other pages link to it, to lessen the chances that your article will be orphaned through someone else's refactoring. Otherwise, when it falls off the bottom of the Recent Changes page, it will disappear into the Mists of Avalon. There should always be an unbroken chain of links leading from the Main Page to every article in Wikipedia; following the path you would expect to use to find your article may give you some hints as to which articles should link to your article.”

Give some thought to how you might link your article to the rest of Wikipedia. Your article should contain at least three bi-directional links. The more valid links you create, the more likely it is that someone will read your work. An easy way to approach this is to think of all the different ways you can characterize a person – by year of birth, by college association, by profession, etc. Another way to think about it is to list the person’s accomplishments (i.e. books written, awards nominated/won) and see if pages exist for those accomplishments. Remember to keep the list relevant.

Check the pages for Linda Barnes, Janet Evanovich, and Tony Hillerman.

Other articles in this series include:

• January 15 – Wikipedia Registration
• January 29 – Writing the Lead
• February 5 – The Rest of the Story
• February 12 – Creating and Article in Draft • February 19 – Benefits
• February 26 – Odd and Ends

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:

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  1. It's not easy to get an article accepted in wikipedia. It takes a lot of research. I'm going to keep trying. I know a few people who deserve to be in there.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Thanks Charlotte for the great tips. Is it too simple/obvious to link to the United Kingdom if the author was born there (if one can't find other more interesting links)? And is it better to link to wikipedia or to external links?

    Really Angelic

  3. One cites sources--as in 'citation.' One does not 'site.'

  4. Thanks for the catch, Summer. I'll fix it on Charlotte's behalf.


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