This month, given that it is the beginning of the year, we looked at how Wikipedia articles begin: the lead section, or introduction (a re-cap of the basics is at the bottom of this sum-up).
What is a Wikipedia lead?
Once an article has four or more sections, a table of contents is automatically generated. The lead is everything that appears above this. It can include optional elements such as an infobox, an image, or a disambiguation link (This article is about the fruit and tree. For the American technology company, see Apple Inc. For other uses, see Apple (disambiguation).) For the purposes of this month’s session, we are looking solely at the introductory text, that is, the first few sentences and paragraphs that appear at the beginning of every article.
Why is it important?
The lead is crucial, because many readers never get beyond it. On mobile devices, all sections are shown as titles only (collapsed), and the median number of sections clicked to open (expand) is zero. (Source: Meta-Wiki Research:Which parts of an article do readers read?) Voice-activated virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri will typically read out the beginning of a Wikipedia article when asked a factual or informational question such as “What is yeast?” Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, points out that the big beasts of the commercial internet – Google, Facebook, etc – draw endlessly on the open source material provided by Wikipedia. Clear concise prose at the start of an article makes all the difference.
Another importance of the lead section is that it can be repurposed from a child article to a parent one. As we saw in a previous month, Bread in culture is in principle a child of Bread; when the section within the original article grew too long, in absolute or relative terms, it was split, that is, hived off to stand alone. The slightly adapted lead of “Bread in culture” could in principle (and arguably should in practice) form the bulk of the remaining section about culture within “Bread”. This is covered under the editing guideline known as summary style.
How should it be written?
There is plenty of guidance on how to write a lead. If you lose this document and can’t remember these abbreviations and shortcuts, ask your favourite search engine “how to write a Wikipedia lead”. It is not a journalistic lede or tantalising clickbait; it is an encyclopedic summary.
The lead section should briefly summarize the most important points covered in an article in such a way that it can stand on its own as a concise version of the article. The reason for a topic’s noteworthiness should be established, or at least introduced, in the lead (but not by using subjective “peacock terms” such as “acclaimed” or “award-winning” or “hit”). It is even more important here than in the rest of the article that the text be accessible. Editors should avoid lengthy paragraphs and overly specific descriptions – greater detail is saved for the body of the article. Consideration should be given to creating interest in the article, but do not hint at startling facts without describing them.
What are the rules?
Wikipedia has lots of rules – far too many to remember – but you are encouraged to break them when necessary.
There are top-level rules: The five pillars of Wikipedia (WP:5P) These are fundamental principles. The fifth and final one states “Wikipedia has no firm rules.”
There are policies developed over the years by editors working towards consensus. Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Lead section (WP:MOSLEAD) is a guideline, “a generally accepted standard that editors should attempt to follow, though it is best treated with common sense, and occasional exceptions may apply.”
There are more discursive, less official sources of helpful advice and tips. How to create and manage a good lead section (WP:CREATELEAD) is an explanatory supplement, “intended to provide additional information about concepts in the page(s) it supplements. This page is not one of Wikipedia’s policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community.”
As a counter-balance to the above lengthy essay, there is a simplified list of bullet points. Lead dos and don’ts (WP:LEADDD) is an information page.
It’s all too much!
If all this is too much guidance for you, just dive in and BE BOLD! Wikipedia is volunteer-driven and has an underlying ethos of assuming good faith. If you try your best to improve an article, more experienced editors are supposed to work alongside you towards the same goal, a readable encylopedia of use to the world.
Things to do
The place to go for 24/7 help is Wikipedia:Teahouse – as in, a calm environment to relax and learn. “A friendly place where you can ask questions, to get help with using and editing Wikipedia.”
If you can’t remember the link you need, use a search engine. Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes pages are often difficult to find. Its internal terminology can be obscure.
What next for Wiki Club?
The dates are fixed and ongoing; the subjects are fixed only for the next two months ahead. .
What would you like to see for future months?
And a re-cap of the basics:
If you are a complete newbie, start with the hour-long video I made for the 2020 Symposium. Some people then like to dive straight in; others prefer to learn more first. Here is a list of short how-to videos; most are 3-5 minutes long.
Beginner Training (from Art + Feminism, a group created to combat systemic inequalities )
Wikipedia Training Video Part 1 – followed by parts 2 & 3
Produced by the Wikimedia Foundation
The Wikipedia Adventure – long but light-hearted
Editing Basics (Visual Editor) – this is the option that looks like a regular word processor
These are all videos. If you prefer your training in writing, use the titles above to search for an equivalent written how-to.