Thursday, February 01, 2007
Writing articles, part IV
The short version is that the process consists of two parts:
- Do enough research; and
- Present the material in a readable fashion.
This short version is very similar to the old saw about how to make money -- by low, and sell high. The steps that are left out are the exact steps people are most interested in.
Researching any subject which is not in the immediate media spotlight is always difficult: one must identify sources, chase down information, and learn about new resources. Sometimes I wonder if I have an advantage over younger contributors to Wikipedia who too often demonstrate a tendency to limit their research to the first 50 hits from a Google search; I learned a little bit in school about how to use a library to research a subject, so I'm willing to cite books and periodicals in my articles. I also believe citing these physical sources is a good thing for two reasons: not only am I moving information from a format that is encumbered with legal limitations (such as restrictive copyrights), but I am also translating print into electronic format, which should be more durable than books made of paper and cloth. (That assumes, of course, future generations have access to our current technology, and have the knowledge to read ASCII computer files.)
However, any writer soon learns that both points above -- the research and the writing -- are hampered by other considerations. (I'm ignoring here the policies and guidelines unique to Wikipedia.) One is that the information available on any topic is incomplete: an author will always find something about a topic that she or he will never know. Sometimes this can be very crippling: I have often found my research into Ethiopian historical subjects results in barely more than a sentence or two about obviously important people. For example, until I obtained a copy of Haggai Erlich's Ras Alula, and the Scramble for Africa, I didn't even know the date this important Ethiopian died -- although I could safely assume that unless evidence points to the contrary, someone born before 1880 can be considered dead at this time. This is important to me because I believe it is not fair to write even a stub article on a person unless I know that person's approximate birth and death dates. Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, the research is not enough to permit the article to be written.
Which leads to the limitation on the writing: every subject has a story to it, a thread that not only connects all of the facts together but answers the question "Why should this article be included in Wikipedia?" Quite frankly, there are some subjects that do not deserve inclusion in Wikipedia; what those subjects are is an ongoing debate on Wikipedia. Sometimes I feel that the subject is self-evidently important enough that it's still worthwhile to make an article out of the scraps I have found, but I try not to do this too often. I find that writing too many of these is demoralizing because I am settling to less than I know I can do.
One problem unique to Wikipedia -- and as I write this, I haven't noticed it discussed on Wikipedia -- is that all articles are constantly in change. Not only does the story of the subject change (not always due to a difference of opinion), but the facts grow and shrink. When an editor ignores this quality, the article suffers: it becomes harder to update or add material to these articles. An article should be written with consideration that other authors -- or the same author at a later date -- will want to add more information.
All of this assumes, of course, that despite the fact I have not written one article currently considered a Featured Article, my thoughts about how to write Wikipedia articles are useful.