wikipedia & bad writing

by Hugh

I love wikipedia, but there’s a glaring problem, something I’ve noticed more of late: the writing is often terrible. If you wanted to learn how to write good clear prose, Britannica is as good a model as any. Wikipedia is … not. Or, usually not. On the surface that doesn’t matter, since the primary objective of both Wikipedia and Britannica is to deliver information. As an information-delivery system, wikipedia wins out for me, because it is free and accessible. Britannica loses because it is not free, and therefore inaccessible. And for my purposes, Wikipedia is usually a good place to get what I want, or at least to find out where to get what I want.

But as a model for good clear writing it is a miss, with the occasional hit. To some degree this is true on the net in general. I am certainly more sloppy in a blog post, a forum post, an email than I would be with a document that will be printed. I let mistakes go that I would never consider letting go in physical writing.

I wonder if this matters? Does “writing well” matter? Yes, I think that it does. In my life experience, in engineering, in corporate policy, in finance, in fund-raising, in project management, and of course in writing, one skill I think I have is the ability to express ideas clearly and well. That still has great value, and that, I think, is why good writing is important, even if it is not really valued as such by our market society. Most writers, for instance, get paid pennies. But probably people who can express ideas clearly often move beyond “mere” writing, to use that skill for other things.

So this is one area where Wikipedia might cause harm: it is a bad model for how to write.

Still, the blogs I read – the very few professional ones, and the handful of blogs by friends of mine – tend to be well-written and clear. Mistakes are rare. Is that because their writers are products of a time when books were important? Or is the value of good writing inherent in the net where, despite the technology used, we’re still mostly writing words for people to read? Will the grown-up MySpace & Wikipedia generation pay as much attention to grammar and (yikes) spelling, as us older folk? (Even if we are often, like me, more careless on the net than we would be elsewhere? especially with spelling).

These thoughts were spurred on by some bad writing in wikipedia, not sure what, but there is much to choose froml; and by this curious video, which I loved, and which was in response to the now famous: the machine is us/ing us.