Is Wikipedia a suitable reference point for writers?

There’s a strong argument that Wikipedia is the single most useful site on the internet.

If one of the major search engines, social media sites or video-sharing platforms were to disappear overnight, we would soon find another one to use instead, but Wikipedia is a unique and unrivalled resource, free to use and more vast than those multivolume encyclopaedias you might remember on the shelves of your school or local library.

This doesn’t mean it’s always reliable though.

Wikipedia’s biggest selling point is that anyone can edit it, but this is also its weakness. Not all “Wikipedians” are well versed on matters like referencing their work and applying neutral point of view, and indeed there are some who just plain vandalise the site.

None of this is ideal if you’re a writer looking to read up on a subject, or conduct some research to bring realism to your novel or short story.

This means that generally speaking, Wikipedia should be used as an initial reference point and a sort of directory to other professional resources. Although you do come across some gaps here and there, all points made on Wikipedia should be backed up with a reference.

For example, if you wanted to find out the population of Hungary, you could go to the Hungary Wikipedia page and see in the info box that it is just a little shy of 10 million, but how can we be sure this is accurate? Just after it, you will see a number that, when clicked, displays the site where the fact came from.

By doing this, we can see that this stat came from Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, the country’s central statistics office, so it is a credible source.

Also, when it comes to writing style, you could do much worse than refer to Wikipedia’s Manual of Style and particularly its Words to Watch section, which addresses many of the pitfalls of academic writing such as editorialising, puffery and unsupported attributions.

Keep using Wikipedia as a gateway to your research, but for added authenticity, take the time to “fact check” it as well!

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