[Foundation-l] Communicating effectively: Wikimedia needs clear language now

Tom Morris tom at tommorris.org
Sat Feb 18 17:27:23 UTC 2012

Since Wikipedia started in 2001, great effort has been put into
ensuring that it is readable, clear and understandable by visitors.
Good Wikipedia writing is clear, concise, comprehensive and
consistent. Excellent Wikipedia writing is, according to English
Wikipedia's featured article criteria, "engaging, even brilliant, and
of a professional standard". Wikipedia editors work hard to remove
buzzwords, unnecessary jargon, peacock terms, marketing-speak, weasel
words and other similar clutter from their work.

And it's not just Wikipedia: all of the Wikimedia projects aspire to
write clearly, neutrally and factually. English Wikinews says simply:
"Write to be easily understood, to make reading easier."

Sadly, documents and communication from the Foundation, from chapters,
from board members and so on often fall far short of these sentiments.

There are certain places where it is to be expected that communication
won't necessarily be clear: I wouldn't expect a non-programmer to be
able to understand some of the discussions on Bugzilla or
mediawiki.org, but the Foundation's monthly report is something
editors should be able to understand.

>From January 2012, under Global development's list of department highlights...

"India program: Six outreach workshops in January in partnership with
the community as part of an effort to increase outreach and improve
conversion to editing"

An outreach workshop... to increase outreach. Is that a workshop to
train editors on how to do outreach? Or is it a workshop for newbies
teaching them how to edit? Enquiring minds want to know.

Later on in the same document: "We concluded an exercise on distilling
learnings from all Indic communities and started the process of
seeding ideas with communities."

I was bold and changed "learnings" to "lessons". What is a learning?
How does one distill a learning? And "seeding ideas with communities"?
The idea, presumably, is the soil, into which one puts each different
community. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.

This one is a howler from a subpage of the movement roles discussion:

"At the same time, for Wikimedia to adopt the best of the Olympic
movement would probably raise the bar on accountabilities for chapters
and other organizations"

Accountabilities, plural? I can understand accountability, the state
of being accountable to another. But I have no idea what
accountabilities are. Can you collect them like Pokémon cards? And how
would one raise the bar on accountabilities? Would that mean some
accountabilities can't quite reach the bar? (Also, the idea that we
could learn anything about accountability, singular or plural, from
the Olympics strikes me as hilarious given the extensive history of
corruption at the IOC.)

If you search on Meta, it is possible to find lots and lots of other
documents from the Foundation filled with corporate lingo. Projects
are 'scoped', and there is a list of 'deliverables' -- not just any
deliverables but 'specific deliverables' -- along with 'next steps' to
deliver, err, those deliverables while 'going forward'.

I can't be the only one who reads these things and whose brain stalls
or goes into reverse. There have been numerous things where I've had
to ask Foundation contacts to explain things in clear and simple
language to me. I don't think I'm particularly stupid or uninformed.
Nor do I think that the people who write in the manner I've described
do it consciously. But we do need to fix it. If well-educated,
informed native English speakers struggle with learnings and
accountabilities and so on, what about those who don't natively speak
English? When people see sloppy, buzzword-driven language, they wonder
if this reflects sloppy, buzzword-driven thinking, or perhaps
obfuscation. Clear writing signals the opposite: clear thinking and

I'm not suggesting we all need to write as if we're editing Simple
English Wikipedia. But just cut out the buzzwords and write plainly
and straightforwardly like the best writing on Wikipedia.

What can be done about this?

There seem to be two possible solutions to this problem: one involves
hiring a dominatrix with a linguistics degree to wander the San
Francisco office with handcuffs, a bullwhip, a number of live gerbils
and plentiful supplies of superglue, and given free reign to enforce
the rules in whatever way she deems fit. The other, which involves far
fewer embarrassing carpet stains, is to empower the community to fix
these problems. Have a nice little leaderboard on Meta, and encourage
community members to be bold, fix up bad writing, bad grammar and
buzzwords. Reward their efforts with barnstars and the occasional
thank you messages on talk pages.

Commit to clear writing by adopting a policy of "copyediting almost
always welcome" for chapter wikis, Foundation documents and as close
to everything as possible. There are volunteers in the movement who
happily spend hour after hour copyediting on Wikipedia and Wikinews
and Wikibooks and so on. Give them the opportunity to fix up the
language used by the Foundation and the chapters.

Remember: how can community members support and become more deeply
involved with the work of the chapters and the Foundation if they
can't understand what you are saying?

Tom Morris

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