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The Wikipedia style

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that compares the flat style of Wikipedia to that of other encyclopedias. It suffers from taking a single example — the entry on Moby-Dick — but it rings true. At least for some of Wikipedia.

Mark is undoubtedly right that Wikipedia’s stylistic flatness is due in part to the fact that professional writers often write better than amateurs and crowds do. But, it also seems likely to result from Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality. Perhaps in the process of constructing this article together, the color was driven out as non-neutral.

Of course, we can find out by checking the article’s history. But, there is a complicating factor: The section of the Wikipedia entry Mark cites is the first paragraph of the article. It attempts to characterize the novel as a whole, whereas the passages from the other encyclopedias seem to be introducing Ahab in particular. So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, here is the Ahab section in the current Wikipedia entry:

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).

Little information is provided about Ahab’s life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his “girl-wife” whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael’s first encounter with Ahab’s name, he responds “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).[10]

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excluding Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

. . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon’s rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Bard’s own pentameters.

It’s not clear to me that this writing is substantially worse than the positive examples Mark quotes. It could stand some line editing, but it’s not particularly bland.

Nevertheless, Mark may well be right that overall, Wikipedia is written more flatly than commercial encyclopedias. That would not be a surprising effect of the quest for neutrality. For example, the Moby-Dick article started in September, 2001, with just a few lines. On July 14, 2004, the plot and symbolism sections were still entirely blank. By October 5, 2007, the following passage is in the symbolism section:

The Pequod’s quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone’s goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man’s struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab’s vision is seen through the Pequod’s occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

This writing is indeed pedestrian. For example, the hedge phrases, “widely viewed as” and “can also be expanded” vitiate it. To which I have three replies:

1. These flatfooted reminders that interpretations are not universally shared are in fact salubrious for readers and other students. 2. The article was revised hundreds of times after this. 3. Yes, Wikipedia’s style often isn’t as muscular or punchy as that of commercial encyclopedias aimed at family usage. Sometimes — perhaps even often, although with 2 million articles, it’s hard to be certain — its style could be improved. And should be. But there is also a useful and scholarly humility in a reference work that is written plainly. [Tags: ]

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10 Responses to “The Wikipedia style”

  1. Perhaps for some ‘plainness’ is not valued for its contribution to increased productivity. There are those of us who shun the floral like trading calories. I save mine for real flowers.

  2. [...] Joho the Blog » The Wikipedia style Why is Wikipedia writing so boring? The combined influence of neutrality and {fact}, I think. (tags: wikipedia) [...]

  3. Expanding on my cryptic trackback:

    Having spent some time on Wikipedia as an editor, there are a few factors at play. First, there are three real modes of editing a Wikipedia article:

    1. Drive-by: if you’re nice, correcting a fact or adding a new development to an article about a current topic; if you’re not nice, blanking the page or saying something scatalogical about somebody.

    2. Authoring: Creating an article or a substantial subsection as a solo author.

    3. Redacting: Combining the contributions of dozens or hundreds of anonymous edits into a coherent whole.

    I would guess that about 90% of all Wikipedia edits are of type #1. Type 2 (authoring) changes are probably another 7%, and of those, quite a few are drivebys too, creating content-light “stubs” for other people to expand. So probably 95% of all Wikipedia activity is a drive-by.

    So that leaves 5% of the remaining Wikipedia edits for quality writing and redacting. And that’s where I think the long tail of Wikipedia works against it–fairly popular articles will get a disproportionately high share of attention, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that no Wikipedia editor will ever stumble across.

    The site tries to provide tools (random page, list of recent edits, the AutoWikiBrowser) to encourage editors to redact and expand less popular articles, but Wikipedia is an attention economy just like everywhere else. So there are a lot of relatively high quality articles on episodes of the TV show “Lost” and a bunch of relatively mediocre articles on 19th century American fiction.

    The other factor which traps a lot of beginning editors is the {fact} template, which expands to [citation needed]. If you’re writing such that absolutely every utterance can be supported by some reliable source, so that you avoid getting your writing tagged with {fact}, you’re not going to be going on too many flowery flights of fancy.

  4. the real reason…

    group mind is impersonal

  5. I’m posting this for Charlie Green because, for some reason, my site kept rejecting this comment. (Sorry

    Some of the “flatness” is due to Wki’s own policies:

    I haven’t tried to find the limits of “formal tone”. Yet.

    Charlie Green

  6. Thanks, Dave, for posting my comment.

  7. I think this is a wider problem. Neutrality, where it is obligatory, is now being policed more strictly than ever. The BBC, for instance, is required by a ROYAL CHARTER to be neutral and is policed by a semi-independent trust plus a Parliamentary select committee, the whole of the pop press and many other bodies, both hostile and friendly, appointed and unappointed. As a result of this over-policing of both tone and content I judge that there’s a marked flattening of tone in much of the corporation’s factual output, a reduced willingness to take risks. A second reason is in Wikipedia’s constitution, which explicitly excludes ‘original research’. I think that contributors consciously drain entries of colour because they’re being hyper-cautious about this clause. After all, colour and opinion are what sister site Wikia is for.

  8. [...] encyclopedias tend to be written in a punchier, more engaging style. The JOHO blog responds with a couple of interesting points. It suggests that Wikipedia’s policy of describing things from [...]

  9. [...] encyclopedias tend to be written in a punchier, more engaging style. The JOHO blog responds with a couple of interesting points. It suggests that Wikipedia’s policy of describing things from [...]

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