Editing Wikipedia: A Primer

Editing Wikipedia may seem intimidating at first, but it shouldn’t be! You don’t need to know anything about Wikipedia to edit an article. While Wikipedia has hundreds of policies and guidelines, don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time - nobody does! In this section, we’ll cover account creation, the content policies of Wikipedia, wiki markup, and finally, how to get started with editing.

Creating an Account

When it comes time to edit Wikipedia, you can do so without ever registering for an account/username. However, creating an account provides a number of benefits and requires no personal information except your email address, and even that information is optional.

Specific to the purposes of an edit-a-thon, benefits of registration include the ability to create new articles; increased privacy (if you don’t register, changes are logged by IP address, meaning in many cases “anonymous” editing is not truly anonymous); and the ability to monitor articles you’ve edited or are interested in.

Wikipedia has several rules around account creation, the most important being that there is a 1:1 ratio of people to usernames: you should only have one username, and the username should only have one user.

When creating a username, you’ll also want to consider whether you want to use your real name or an alias. Wikipedia does provide some guidance on using your real name, as doing so can lead to harassment, particularly if you edit in a controversial area.

For more information on the benefits of creating an account, please see this article from Wikipedia as well as Chapter 3: Setting up your account and personal workspace from Wikipedia: The Missing Manual.

Content Policies

Now that you have made an account (or not!), let’s go over some content policies.

Wikipedia has three core content policies:

  1. Neutral point of view
  2. Verifiability
  3. No original research

As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is a tertiary source of information. It strives to maintain an encyclopedic style and formal, neutral tone in its articles. It is not the place to make arguments or share original work. Wikipedia’s article on its core content policies provides more information on the history and motivations behind these core content policies.

Because Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, it has policies in place that restrict conflict of interest editing. However, there are exemptions for cultural institutions. Working (or editing during an edit-a-thon) for a cultural institution and writing about subjects documented within the institution does not violate these guidelines.

Learning the Wiki Markup Basics

Now that we have covered Wikipedia’s content policies, let’s look at how to make changes to articles.

There are two ways to edit Wikipedia:

  1. the traditional editor, which requires the use of a simple markup language
  2. the visual editor, which requires users to log in with their account

Wikipedia’s wiki markup is simple to learn, and is essentially plain-text input converted into HTML output. CodeResort, which also uses wiki markup, has created a simple 5-minute introduction, and Wikipedia also has a cheatsheet for the most commonly used markup as well as a printable PDF version.

Wikipedia now also offers a visual editor option that, as of April 2015, is available by default to English-language editors. This means that users are no longer required to learn the markup language, and can instead use a rich-text editor to make changes. Wikipedia has both a user guide for the visual editor as well as a list of keyboard shortcuts. Consult The Missing Manual for information on adding, previewing, and saving changes.

A note about editing: When a user is not logged in, there will only be one editing tab at the top right corner of the article. This will lead users to the traditional editor page, which will require the use of wiki markup. Once logged in, users will see that there are two editing tabs: edit source, which will take them to the traditional editor, and edit, which leads to the visual editor.

Another tool available to editors is the template, which is a Wikipedia page created to be included in other pages. They can be used to add messages or information automatically across many pages, and are added by placing the templates name in {{double braces}}. Commonly used templates for an edit-a-thon include info boxes, navigation, messages, categorization, and citation. More information on templates can be found on this page.

Editing Articles

The two easiest ways to get comfortable with editing Wikipedia are to copy edit articles and to add citations to articles.

Copy-editing is relatively straightforward—fixing typos and grammatical errors. Wikipedia has its own Manual of Style and a directory of community standards and advice that provide guidance when copy editing. There is a shorter Simplified Manual of Style for reference as well.

Adding citations to articles is only slightly more complicated. Because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, ideally all information found within it will be cited and verified by reliable sources. Wikipedia has a helpful page on referencing for beginners and a list of referencing dos and don’ts, as well as an introduction to referencing using both wiki markup and the visual editor (both of which are described below).

When citing online sources in an article, consider the ephemeral nature of the internet. If you’re not sure whether a URL is stable, cite the Internet Archive link instead. Please note that sourcing requirements for articles on living persons are different from other types of articles. For more information on citing sources, see chapter two of The Missing Manual, Documenting Your Sources.

If you are comfortable using the traditional and/or visual editor, and want to begin adding content to an article, go for it! As The Missing Manual points out:

You don't need to know everything about your subject to edit an article. If you add something that's constructive and 90-percent right, that's far better than not doing an edit at all. As in sports, you don't need to hit a home run or score a goal on every play to be a valuable contributor. If you don't get something exactly right, someone else is likely to come along and help by fixing or finishing it.

So, be bold (but not reckless)! Wikipedia relies on contributions from tens of thousands of volunteers. If you can make a contribution, do it! The worst thing that can happen is the change gets reverted. If this happens, you can reach out to the reverting editor and treat it as a learning experience.

If you’d like to take it a step further, you can try your hand at creating a new article. There are a number of policies and steps for creating an article, including notability and using reliable sources, so be sure to read through them to prevent your work from being marked for deletion.

There are several means of creating an article, including creating a page outright and using the Article Wizard (similar to a software setup wizard in that it walks you through the steps of creating an article), which creates a draft of the article and then submits it for review before possible “publication.”

Wikipedia has countless pages of documentation to help new and seasoned editors contribute to the project. From how to write better articles to accessibility dos and don’ts, there is documentation for nearly any question a new editor might have. Again, The Missing Manual is a great resource, but there is also a primer for newcomers, a plain and simple overview, and even a beginner’s guide for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM).

Happy editing!