Wikipedia:Policy writing is hard

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Policy writing is hard. When you are writing "rules", regardless of whether those rules appear on a page that is officially tagged as a policy, guideline, procedure, or something else, then you're engaged in policy writing.

Things to consider[edit]

It is in vain to say, that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

— from James Madison, The Federalist Papers

  • Do you really need to do this? It's rarely necessary or helpful to change a policy or guideline if there has been only one known dispute (or even none). Because nobody reads the instructions, policy writing is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. It can take a couple of years for changes in the wording of written policies and guidelines to have a significant effect on editors' behavior.
  • Has this already been tried? Wikipedia's core policies are the product of hundreds of discussions among editors. Many proposals have been previously discussed, and, while consensus can change and the best ideas may be still in our future, it may help you to review the archives of the talk page of the policy, guideline, or process you think you want to change, to ensure that you are not about to post an often-rejected proposal.
  • Describe; don't prescribe. Try to document what most experienced editors are actually doing. If a choice is popular, but there's no compelling reason to do the same thing everywhere, then say it's a "popular" or "common" solution, rather than that it's "recommended" or "required".
  • Consider how your proposed change will work for a wide variety of situations. Many editors make their first attempts at policy writing because of a specific dispute, and their proposals tend to be designed to solve only that specific dispute. Look beyond a single example. For example, if you're trying to improve our guidance on reliable sources, then consider how it will affect a wide variety of articles, e.g., an article about a disease, a living person, an organization, and a song.
  • Provide all of the necessary information, and then stop. Keep procedures and rules as simple as you can. Don't overexplain or be too precise. When in doubt, make the smallest possible change, and then watch disputes for a while to see whether that small change has solved the problems. If not, then try again.
  • Try to signal the range of editorial judgment that is usually appropriate. This can be done partly by using words like should, usually, optionally, and must. RFC 2119 is one touchstone for some of these words; for example, when we say that editors "should" do something, then we are telling them that "there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore" the usual advice and choose to ignore all rules instead, "but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course". Use words like must, required, always, or never when there are no acceptable options: for example, "Never put a space before a comma", "The first and last words in an English-language title are always capitalized", and editors must never violate copyrights.
  • Consider how your wording might be misunderstood by a busy or distracted admin or editor – or even deliberately twisted or quoted out of context by a PoV pusher or wikilawyer. If it's easy to misquote or to misunderstand, then copyedit your proposal until that's harder.
  • Check the related pages, and build the web when you can. The ideas that you want to share might already exist on a different page. In that case, it's better to link to the existing advice, instead of spreading redundant advice across multiple pages. Be wary of spreading a concern to policies and guidelines that are not closely related. It's usually enough for a concern to be mentioned in one policy or guideline. For example, libel is not somehow "less" prohibited merely because that policy is only mentioned in a few other policies and guidelines, and it would not become "more" prohibited if that policy were mentioned in more pages.
  • Use the whole range of page types. The difference between policies, guidelines, and essays is thin and obscure, but some page types are more appropriate for some types of information or advice. Use help, procedure/process, supplement, and information pages appropriately.

Attitudes that help[edit]

The admonition 'but please be careful' is especially important in relation to policies and guidelines, where key parts may be phrased in a particular way to reflect a very hard-won, knife-edge consensus – which may not be obvious to those unfamiliar with the background.

— from Wikipedia:Be bold

Good policy writers tend to trust that other editors, overall, will get it right in the end. They leave room for editors to use good judgment and to consider all the facts and circumstances. Their goal is usually to help editors get it right sooner, more efficiently, and with fewer unnecessary disputes. Good policy writers can live with ambiguity, uncertainty, diversity, and experimentation.

Good policy writers tend to listen purposefully. They are also skilled at separating their own views from the views of other people. These traits help them hear the kernel of reality or experience in the middle of a pack of insults and half-truths, and to keep the main point in mind when editors are wandering off on tangents. Listening and conformity are separate matters: good policy writers listen to others, and try to see through their eyes, but don't necessarily adopt the other editors' views.

Good policy writers are concerned about scope. This helps with organization and clarity. Good policy writing draws consistent and sometimes fine distinctions between key concepts and always uses wikijargon (like reliable, notable, self-published, due, and primary) precisely. For example, Quackwatch is a notable (=qualifies for an article), self-published (=the main author is also the person who made it available to the public) source that is often reliable (=accepted by editors as a citation in articles) for statements about alternative medicine.

Good policy writers remember that the real policy is what good editors really do, and that the words on a page with a "policy" tag at the top are only pale shadows of the true policy – the operational, day-to-day consensus of how Wikipedia is managed. The English Wikipedia operates on model more similar to the British constitution than the American one: the true policies and principles have real substance, even when they aren't written down. Writing other things down and applying a tag at the top of the page doesn't make them real policies. Good policy writers remember that "the wiki way" is the fundamental principle for resolving all disputes. The wiki way is about what sticks on the page in the end, rather than what some advice page said ought to stick. As a result, good policy writers value the collective actions of experienced contributors over the words on a policy or guideline page.

Finally, good policy writers know how to lose and when to give up on a hopeless cause.

You might not be very good at this[edit]

Some editors are skilled at this kind of work. Others are not. Don't be embarrassed if you're not particularly skilled at this background activity. Nobody can be good at everything, and exercise of this particular skill may ultimately contribute less to the mission than many other activities.

If you're not good at writing policies, then consider not boldly making substantive changes to Wikipedia's advice pages. Instead, try taking your ideas to a talk page, describe the problems you're seeing, and ask for advice on improving Wikipedia's advice.

If you are active in policy and guideline pages, then take a look at how other editors usually react to you. If you find that most of your proposals are rejected, then – even if your ideas and goals are great – you're probably just not very good at this. It might be better for you personally, and for the project as a whole, if you found other ways to contribute. Alternatively, look around for an editor who contributes to related policies and guidelines, and ask for advice and help. Your great ideas and goals might just need a partner.

See also[edit]