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Writing on a Wiki

A primer about contributing to a wiki for college writers. This article addresses using MediaWiki specifically.

Writing on a Wiki

A primer about contributing to a wiki for college writers. This article addresses using MediaWiki specifically.


Wikis have been around for a while, and they are extremely popular for groups sharing a knowledge base or creating one from scratch. They are the encyclopedias of the digital age, encompassing general knowledge like Wikipedia, or more specific knowledge like A Wiki of Fire and Ice devoted to the George R. R. Martin cycle of novels. Since they allow for easy and open editing, wikis might be one of the best experiments in the democratization of knowledge thus far seen in the digital age.

Consider a wiki as an open-source encyclopedia. Contributions should follow certain guidelines.

This means that unlike blogs that tend to be informal and subjective, wikis employ a more objective style, using a formal, impersonal, and dispassionate tone. The perfect article adds to the conversation, helps build community knowledge, is correctly formatted, doesn’t repeat information, and is well written for the screen.

What a Wiki Is

A wiki is a Web site developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing any user to add and edit content using a Web browser. MediaWiki, one of the most popular and well known wiki engines, supports hyperlinks and has a simple markup language for creating new pages and links between internal pages on the fly.

Like many simple concepts, “open editing” has some profound and subtle effects on Wiki usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a Web site is exciting in that it encourages democratic use of the Web and promotes content composition by nontechnical users.

A wiki, then, could be defined as an open-use encyclopedia, one that provides the information most relevant to a particular community. Wiki Design Principles suggests that wikis are by definition, open: because of the digital and communal nature of the wiki, entries are never complete or finished. If a page is incomplete or inaccurate it can always be amended by members of the writing community. A wiki is incremental in that pages are nodes in a bigger project. Links should be used organically and liberally between nodes, referencing those already written and anticipating those that will be needed. In this way, a wiki can grow as needed by the community. In The Wiki Way, Leuf and Cunningham characterize a wiki as “a learning place. For some it is a knowledge base. For others it is a forum for debate. All find something of value” (323).

As these definitions begin to make clear that wiki entries should be self-guided articles that are well researched collaborative presentations of facts. For example, entries can have a wide range of approaches, all centered around the delivery of factual, well supported information: a summary of Homer’s Odyssey; a how-to manual for getting out of debt; a guide to literary or new media vocabulary; a FAQ for English Composition; or study guides for literary works.

Posting to LitWiki

If you are taking a class from Dr. Lucas, you will be posting your articles to LitWiki — an installation of MediaWiki for this specific purpose. While this article addresses LitWiki specifically, much of what it covers will be applicable to other wikis as well, including Wikipedia.

Now it should be clear as to just what the wiki is appropriate for, so how do we post information to the wiki? LitWiki uses Mediawiki, the same engine that drives the mother of all wikis: Wikipedia. Mediawiki uses fairly straightforward conventions for editing. The links at the bottom of this entry will help you get started. I recommend looking at them in order to get the maximum benefit. Also, there is a help section that should answer most of your questions.

Before you create a new article, do your homework and learn how to edit. Then, be sure each page has the following layout.

Strong Title

Choose a title that succinctly and accurately explains the entry. It should also conform to the other titles on the wiki. Be sure that your title uses correct capitalization conventions. Your title should correspond to the link you use to create your article on the wiki, if it is not done already.

Correct Structure

Read some of the featured articles on Wikipedia — particularly those that feature content from the humanities, like literature and media — to get an idea of structure and formatting. Once you have a feel for the structure of a wiki page — i.e., what’s expected by the audience — look at the wiki layout page of the style manual for the specifics.

The Lead Section

This is an introductory section that appears before a table of contents and the first header. The lead section is a concise overview or summary of the article’s content and could stand on its own. It defines the topic, gives it a context, explains its import, and summarizes its key points. Think of the base of the inverted pyramid: the most important content should appear first.

Headings and Subheadings

Entries should be organized into logical sections introduced by headings. There are three levels of headings, so sections may be further divided if necessary. Avoid putting links, references, images, and questions in headings.

Paragraphs

Stick to running prose for the main writing in a wiki entry. Keep bullet points to a minimum, if they are used at all. Use a single blank line between paragraphs and do not try to indent. Paragraphs should be short enough to be interesting, but long enough to adequately develop an idea.

Links

Links to other articles on the wiki should be used in the body of the entry. Links to external sources should only be used in the notes, references, and/or external links sections. Do not link the same article more than once in an entry; link the first occurrence only. Piped links may be used to change what words link to what articles and what sections of articles.

Images

Images should add to the post’s content, not be superfluous or just ornamental. They should be high quality, informative, and appropriate to the wiki post. Be sure to explain images in captions and use thumbnails to minimize larger graphics. Size and location of the image may also be specified. If more than one image is used, space them logically throughout the entry. Wikimedia Commons has a huge selection of CC-licensed images for use on wikis, so copyright infringement may be easily avoided.

Footnotes and References

As any college student and professional writer is aware, information that you provide in writing — especially that which might be controversial — needs to be supported with evidence for the article to have credibility. Sources allow readers to verify information through one or more reliable sources. In addition to providing support, references also help avoid plagiarism. Remember:

No article is complete without references. Period.

Footers usually contain sections for “references,” “notes,” and “external links” — one of the former two being a necessary component of any wiki entry. Wiki entries use inline citations and footnotes to cite sources. Footnotes appear in the “Notes” section and may contain the full citation and link of the source being noted. Directions for creating a list of references for various sources should be followed according to Wikipedia’s Style Manual.

A section for external links that might be helpful but were not cited in the article might also appear at the bottom of an entry.

Categories & Templates

There are a couple of methods for grouping articles: a category listing groups similar pages or topic together. Any new entry should have at least one category. New categories may be added when necessary.

Navigation templates may also be used to organize and group pages together, particularly if you are working on a class wiki project. These templates provides boxes for a consistent look and feel throughout the collection of articles. However, most of the time a category will be sufficient for grouping a new wiki entry.

Final Considerations

Consider making your wiki entries support your blog entries. For example, if you’re writing a blog entry on a particular passage in Doestoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, consider a wiki entry that footnotes that passage by providing history, social contexts, intellectual trends, maps, etc. Make your work work together. Also, be sure to follow the standard conventions when writing about texts in the humanities.

Finally, keep one more thing in mind: any user can edit any page on a wiki. No work is sacred, so don’t be offended if someone adds to your work or changes it in some other way. All work on the wiki is saved, so your work on articles will still be attributable to you. Remember to be conscientious and mindful of the community. Only make changes when those changes are improvements.