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wikipedia & bad writing

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.


  1. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-02-13

    Your post refers to two separate issues: grammatical errors, and writing that, although ‘correct’, is unclear in meaning.
    On the internet I am very tolerant of grammatical errors (in anyone except myself, for some reason) just as I am with speech. But I am not with printed media. I have a small theory about this.
    Once, when I was studying Homer, I was told by my tutor how hard it was to imagine a truly ‘oral’ culture, which Homer must have occupied, where speech was the only form of transferring information. At the time, it struck me that this was wrong. What is television, radio or cinema, but oral? It is certainly not written. And these, at the time (5 years ago?), were the most popular means of transferring information.
    Since then, the internet has overtaken these older forms of media for many people. Maybe, at last, we are leaving oral culture behind. During my childhood having anything published was a very big deal. Any errors would be reproduced vastly, and there was no way to correct them in ‘the wild’. The internet brings many of the benefits of publishing without the debilitating permanence, and expense.
    So, perhaps our writing has become more ‘verbal’, full of hesitation and repetition.
    Imagine the care employed by a scribe, where every pen stroke was a disaster waiting to happen. Word processors took us a long way from that. And maybe the web has set us free at last.
    Sory for long posst.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-02-14

    yeah, I think blogging & much web text (say, forums) are culturally closer to oral communication than to writing in many ways. certainly in comment threads.

    but maybe that’s my concern. Is there a problem if we get sloppier in our writing? Is it true that writing in general is getting “better” or “worse”? I wonder: the net has turned millions and millions into public writers.

    But I suppose thats the point, that previously the majority of writing we were exposed to was professional, and edited. Now anything goes. Which has some good results, and possibly some bad.

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