How Wikipedia Taught Me How To Write

I used to write for Wikipedia. It was like my job for a year or two. Every day I would write, update, fact check, and clean up grammar. The site contains the largest collection of knowledge on the planet, but it taught me one thing that there are no articles about: How to write.

One of my best works, the article on PNC Park was featured on the front page of the site a few years ago. The cool part wasn’t that tens of thousands of people read it—it was that I had written the single most comprehensive article in existence about a place I always enjoy going to.

I did the same for a few other topics—Heinz Field, Forbes Field, The Terrible Towel… there’s a bit of a theme. What you find on Wikipedia are non-fiction encyclopedia entries, so some of what it taught me won’t help me much in this blog you’re reading now, but it did teach me some stuff:

The first one is good journalistic advice: If you can’t cite it, don’t write it. You’ll find my articles have more citations than most. PNC Park has 103 citations and it’s just a ballpark.

Branching from that, it taught me how to research a topic. Apparently college students struggle with this in a period of time that it’s easier to find stuff than ever before. I start an outline of every link with something about the topic—don’t be afraid to use multiple links that contain the same info, it will only strengthen what you’re writing. From the links, list the keywords contained in each one, then sentences, then paragraphs. Keep building, it’ll get there. Researching and writing articles also helps to analyze those you read—how strong is their support? Are they jumping to conclusions or is the info in the article really backed by their sources?

I always hated peer reviews in school; you feel bad for picking apart your partner’s article and only the teacher is going to read it, so who cares anyway?

Wikipedia is different because review is inevitable, but you know the person reviewing your article is on your side because he’s writing his own article that you could be reviewing next week. Everybody has the same goal and they gain something if you succeed. In school, what do you care if I fail?

Also, there’s also a good chance the person reviewing your work is a heck of a lot smarter than you. They will be very picky and you may feel like a doofus. The result is that your next article will be better.

Finally, learn the routine and if it worked out, do it again. The PNC Park article took weeks to put together, but I learned a ton. Heinz Field’s article was 2,000 words long, but only took one day to research and write.

One more lesson: Follow Wikipedia’s motto and be bold. If you screw up, it means you started and that is more than some do.


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