Wikipedia Style

I have a problem with the prevailing style on Wikipedia. It is cumbersome and exclusionary.

We all recognize Wikipedia’s style.

The problems are:

  • The descriptions are unrecognizable even when the subject is familiar.
  • Statements contain many complex words or concepts which have to be unpacked and cross-referenced.
  • Advanced mathematics and graphs add confusion instead of clarity.

Example state diagram for a regular expression. From

These problems make it difficult to learn about the subject.

I would like to see editors make their writing more accessible rather than more academic.

For example, I admire Hemingway

[Hemingway] relied on the [The Kansas City] Star’s style guide as a foundation for his writing: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

and the advice Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson give in one of their conversations.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The point is if you put all that information up front, you’re losing the other points you’re trying to make. And you are allowed pedagogical approximations. Otherwise, you cannot communicate in any way with someone who doesn’t know anything.

Lawrence Krauss: People depend on … experts to lead them in the right direction: to give them the correct perspective–if not the details–[be]cause the details almost never matter.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Correct. People don’t know the details don’t matter in most cases.

In my own writing, I pull definitions into the text and build on simple concepts rather than force people to cross-reference.

I recently had this issue while looking up “ReDoS” (regular expression denial of service). The first article I read appeared on the OWASP website. But it was written in the style of (if not lifted from) Wikipedia.

There, the article used the words “exponential”, “naïve algorithm”, “nondeterministic finite automaton”, and a state diagram (shown above) as part of the introduction to the subject.

It might be appropriate to add these details later. But the average person won’t understand what these terms mean. And people who otherwise have an interest in the subject will give up.

Have you had trouble reading Wikipedia entries on unfamiliar subjects? What about familiar ones? Were the entries you’ve read as helpful as they could have been?

How about Simple English Wikipedia? There isn’t an article for reDos, but there is one for Denial of Service: Denial-of-Service attack - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

However, lack of detail can be an issue:
Wikipedia: Ship of Theseus - Wikipedia
Simple English Wikipedia: Ship of Theseus - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Another issue is that some Simple English Wikipedia articles are not very well-written.

A Denial-of-Service attack (DoS) is when someone arranges for multiple computers to open a website. This then stops the ability for everyone else to access the website as there is too much traffic flowing to it.

How I would write it:

A Denial-of-Service attack (DoS) is when someone arranges for a lot of computers to open a website. This stops everyone else from accessing the website as there is too much traffic flowing to it.

The language is imprecise and more convoluted than necessary. You don’t need jargon to be precise.

As an aside, it’s very cool how every part of Wikipedia is accessible without Javascript. You can even create an account without Javascript. I bring this up because I edited this page just now with my suggested changes.

Personally, the math pages do my head in (I am quite ignorant when it comes to math). I am a regular reader of Wikipedia, but run into this sort of issue with unfamiliar subjects sometimes. It’s a good place to start for some information.

I once looked up the article for Order of Operations on Wikipedia. Here is an excerpt from the definition:

The commutative and associative laws of addition and multiplication allow adding terms in any order, and multiplying factors in any order—but mixed operations must obey the standard order of operations.

In some contexts, it is helpful to replace a division with multiplication by the reciprocal (multiplicative inverse) and a subtraction by addition of the opposite (additive inverse). For example, in computer algebra, this allows one to handle fewer binary operations, and makes it easier to use commutativity and associativity when simplifying large expressions (for more, see Computer algebra § Simplification). Thus 3 ÷ 4 = 3 × 1/4; in other words, the quotient of 3 and 4 equals the product of 3 and 1/4. Also 3 − 4 = 3 + (−4); in other words the difference of 3 and 4 equals the sum of 3 and −4. Thus, 1 − 3 + 7 can be thought of as the sum of 1 + (−3) + 7, and the three summands may be added in any order, in all cases giving 5 as the result.

I don’t think this needs any further commentary.