Posts Tagged ‘writing’


Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

I will admit that one of the hugest wasters of my time is Wikipedia.

Where else can you go to find an updated, detailed explanation of just about any topic you can think of for absolutely nothing? (Well, okay, you do have to pay for Internet access)

It really is a dream for anyone with the slightest bit of curiosity about the world.

But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch that most of articles on Wikipedia are poorly written. I mean, really poorly written.

Here’s a good example. If you’re confused about the word “bus” when it refers to computers (I’m guessing the “Greyhound” type can be understood by pretty much everybody above the second grade), here’s what you get from Wikipedia:

In computer architecture, a bus is a subsystem that transfers data between computer components inside a computer or between computers.
Early computer buses were literally parallel electrical buses with multiple connections, but the term is now used for any physical arrangement that provides the same logical functionality as a parallel electrical bus. Modern computer buses can use both parallel and bit-serial connections, and can be wired in either a multidrop (electrical parallel) or daisy chain topology, or connected by switched hubs, as in the case of USB.

Got that? Now take a look at this entry on the same topic from Webopedia:

(1) A collection of wires through which data is transmitted from one part of a computer to another. You can think of a bus as a highway on which data travels within a computer. When used in reference to personal computers, the term bus usually refers to internal bus. This is a bus that connects all the internal computer components to the CPU and main memory. There’s also an expansion bus that enables expansion boards to access the CPU and memory.

Which of those definitions did you understand? Which one did you even want to read? I’m guessing the second one. I know I can’t get past “subsystem” in the Wikipedia entry without the fog rolling in. I believe Webopedia puts them to shame with their clear, simple writing.

Let’s go to another example, something more people know about–antioxidants. Here’s Wikipedia:

An antioxidant is a molecule capable of inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that transfers electrons from a substance to an oxidizing agent. Oxidation reactions can produce free radicals. In turn, these radicals can start chain reactions that damage cells. Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by removing free radical intermediates, and inhibit other oxidation reactions. They do this by being oxidized themselves, so antioxidants are often reducing agents such as thiols, ascorbic acid or polyphenols.

I don’t know about you, but just a line or two in and my eyes are glazing over. Dust Bunny Rodeo is suddenly more appealing than slogging through that writing. Can it be that antioxidants are a very complex topic that can’t be explained by simple prose? Well, look what I found here

We can think of oxidation in terms of oxidative hits, kind of like bullets being fired at our cells. If a bullet (free radical) strikes a cell wall, that is one kind of damage, if it strikes protoplasm that is another kind, and if reaches the DNA of our cells that is the kind of damage that really matters….

Stopping cellular damage means stopping damage caused by the bad guys that get inside our bodies. Now, if you were very rich and wanted protection from bad guys, you would hire body guards to stand around you always and protect you from bad guys…

That’s exactly what we need to do to stop the bad guys from damaging our cell’s DNA — we need to hire body guards, in this case cellular body guards…

Whoa! How about that? By using some very apt analogies, they’ve made an explanation of antioxidants easily understandable by just about anybody at any reading level. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

Now, of course, it’s well-known that Wikipedia is (in its own words) “written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles.1” So it’s pretty pointless to rail against this unknown and undefined group who actually does Wikipedia’s writing. But on the other hand, some of Wikipedia’s writers do an incredible job of creating very well-written and compelling articles. For instance, their entry on propaganda is one of my very favorites. You couldn’t find a better explanation of that topic if you ask me.

But there are standards in place on Wikipedia. Entries that have bearing on current events have messages at the top of their pages warning that information “may change rapidly as the event progresses.” Other articles are flagged for lack of citations, biased writing and other stylistic violations. Why not do the same for the dry, overly technical articles there? They should ask these writers for a do-over.

Good writing is all about knowing your audience. Most likely, given its prominence, popularity and accessibility, Wikipedia is reaching the broadest reader base (as well as the most ignorant) regarding a certain subject. If someone is coming to a topic with a fair amount of familiarity about a topic, it would make sense to think that they would go elsewhere to read about it. In other words, a physicist specializing in electromagnetic radiation, say, is not very likely to be heading to Wikipedia to brush up his or her knowledge on the subject. There are trade journals, academic papers and weighty books that would be consulted first. So why write the entry using terminology only physicists would understand? Dumb it down! Let the rest of us understand this concept.

Wikipedia really needs to hire a technical writer.