Wikipedia Editing Basics

By Justin Poirier


Wikipedia is a free web-based encyclopedia which allows virtually anyone to create articles, or to edit almost any existing article. Web-based collections of information that allow this degree of editing are more generally called wikis. The management of a wiki's information on the server, the interface for reading or editing it on the client computer, and the handling of this data at either end when it must be sent between the two, are implemented by wiki software. The wiki software used by Wikipedia is called MediaWiki. It was developed by the Wikimedia Foundation, which manages Wikipedia.

Your business might be mentioned on Wikipedia. Wikipedia aims to contain information on all notable things, so if your business is prominent it might be discussed in an article or have its own article. If you are a writer or publisher, one of your works might also be cited in an article, using a footnote in the "References" or "Notes"1 section at the bottom of the article. If your business involves a website a link to it may be included, either as part of a footnote if your published content is referenced, or in the "External Links" section at the bottom of most articles, if your business is discussed in the article and editors felt the reader might have reason to visit your site upon reading the article.

Since anyone can edit Wikipedia the content regarding your business will not necessarily be true in what it says or implies. For this reason you may want to have the ability to become involved in editing the content. Before doing this it is important to note that Wikipedia is not meant as a facility to advertise something through bias in the content written about it, or in the decision of whether it warrants an article in the first place. Advertising in this way will result in being banned from editing in the future. A good question to ask oneself before making edits regarding one's business, is whether similar edits would soon be made regardless of your involvement, by other editors through the usual process of gradually improving articles. With regards to new articles, business owners are asked to refrain from creating articles about their business, with the assumption that if the business is truly prominent, an article about it will soon be created by another user anyway.

The Wikipedia Environment

Figure 1 shows an example of a Wikipedia page displaying an article. On a MediaWiki-generated page like this, the content being viewed--in this case, the article--is confined to the area highlighted by the red rectangle. All of the content in this area has been created by the individuals who have edited the article. The content can include images and other multimedia elements, and is formatted with a special markup language that we will discuss called wiki markup. While some elements of the article might appear to have been placed there by some authority, for example the note regarding inline citations at the top of this article, such elements were almost always placed there by regular users and could be removed if another user saw fit. The reason for the standard or "official" look of such elements is that most of the time they were created using a template. Wiki markup features two techniques that we will discuss for using such templates.

Figure 1

Along the left edge of a MediaWiki-generated page are site-specific menu items. Along the top are tab buttons used to navigate through all operations that can be performed involving the content.

In Wikipedia's case the two tabs on the far left are labelled "Article" and "Discussion". MediaWiki sites have a feature whereby editors can discuss what edits should be made to a document. In lieu of common web technologies like forums, this is implemented by maintaining, for every main document, a second document which can also be edited by virtually anyone and which contains the transcript of the discussion. An editor adds a comment to the discussion by manually placing it at the appropriate place within the document, followed by their user name if they are a registered Wikipedia user or their computer's ip address if they are not. The "Article" and "Discussion" tabs toggle between viewing or editing the article itself and viewing or editing this discussion document or talk page.

The tabs on the far right toggle between reading the article or talk page, editing it, and viewing a listing of every version that has been made over time as a result of an edit. The "Edit" tab links to a page like that in Figure 2, with the article or talk page's wiki markup in a text area allowing arbitrary edits. We will discuss how to edit wiki markup in the next section. Below the text area is a text box labelled "Edit summary" in which to enter a single-line description of the edit that was made. Guidelines for writing edit summaries are available on Wikipedia's edit summary help page. Below the edit summary text box is a "Save page" button which saves the edits that have been made for the world to see. There are certain pages that cannot be edited, or can only be edited by signed-in registered users. For example, editing may be disallowed if a page has had a lot of past edits that were merely vandalism. If you are not allowed to edit a page, the "Edit" tab will be replaced by a "View source" tab which links to a page displaying the page's markup with no option to edit it.

Figure 2

The version listing linked to by the "View history" tab catalogues all edits ever made to the article, ordered by date. Each entry has the name of the editor if they are a registered user or their ip address if they are not. It is also here that the aforementioned edit summary appears, as entered at the time the edit was made. Any individual version can be viewed by clicking the date. Any two versions can be displayed side by side with visual cues indicating the differences between them, by clicking the radio buttons next to them and then clicking the "Compare selected revisions" button.

New articles can only be created by registered users. A link to the utility for creating articles is shown whenever a user searches for an article that does not yet exist. To create a new article a user can simply search for a topic that does not yet have an article and then follow this link, or alternately, use the Article Wizard. While anyone can become a member by clicking the "Log in / create account" link at the top right of the page, recall that business owners and individuals should not create articles about their business or themselves.

On most sites that use MediaWiki, it is used to generate nearly every page so that the entire site is experienced as pages with the format we've described. After leaving Wikipedia's initial welcome screen at, the user's whole browsing session will be spent on pages like this. Therefore Wikipedia's help system, which you will have to visit if you need further assistance on the topics we're discussing, consists of a large set of pages that have this format, each with coverage of a certain help topic in the space where article content would normally be. As always the wiki markup of these pages is viewable and for many, editable. The documents of a special type such as this are organized distinctly in MediaWiki's internal implementation and are separately searchable from other documents like articles, so they are said to belong to a namespace. A document's namespace can be seen in the address used to access it. Wikipedia's installation of MediaWiki is configured so that the address of a generated page always has, after the initial string ""2, the string "/wiki/" followed by the article name with spaces replaced by underscores. When a document belongs to a special namespace, the document name is preceded by the name of the namespace followed by a colon. Help pages are divided between the namespaces "Wikipedia" and "Help". An example of an address of a help document is As with articles, help documents are interconnected by links to one another within the paragraph text of each.

With the help system implemented as regular wiki documents in this way, there is no obvious point of entry to it and, once using it, it can be hard to know where the document being viewed lies in the greater network of help documents available. One might wonder in what order one "should" be reading the various topics while going about the endeavour to learn Wikipedia. This is compounded by the fact that since users can land at any given help document in any number of ways, many documents are necessarily written with an introductory tone as if each is the first document the user is expected to have landed at in the help system.

The help system does have a point of entry that could be argued to be a starting point, in the form of a series of links on the central page for contributors, the Community Portal. There is also a directory, linked to by the Community Portal, of help documents in order of the most introductory, called Help:Contents. However, all this might fail to stand out to the user since the Community Portal is one link among many on the left edge of the standard Wikipedia screen (see Figure 1).

In addition to the Community Portal, users can arrive at the help system via a link on the page used to edit an article described above, and by directly searching the Help and Wikipedia namespaces at the search home page. Figure 3 shows the structure of the help system. Around the perimetre are ways of entering the system, and within the cloud are key documents. An arrow indicates the user can get to the destination by following some link. It should be noted that, since help documents are regular wiki documents, some of those in Figure 3 are subject to change or even cease to exist due to users' edits.

Figure 3

Wiki markup

Wiki markup is used to format both articles and talk pages. Wiki markup should be learned by experimenting on the sandbox at, a special page that is not meant to contain any content in particular besides that chosen by its most recent editor.

The wiki markup of an article contains all the textual content seen when reading the article, with special code inserted throughout to give the article its visual formatting.

Writing wiki markup is unlike using a word processor. With a word processor the author uses the program's user interface to change the styling of portions of the content in real time, with the content appearing as it will to the reader. This is possible because the palette dimensions are set beforehand, and because the positions of elements of the document, being mainly English words, can be defined solely in terms of a continuous left-right flow. Wiki documents, on the other hand, are rendered at an unknown time after creation/editing, on a screen of unknown size, with the positions of elements defined by not only order of appearance in the wiki markup but also special wiki markup code insertions declaring, for example, that a certain image ought to float on the far right of the screen. Wiki markup has this in common with html, to which it is ultimately converted behind-the-scenes. Certain html elements can in fact be used in wiki markup, as detailed in the help system's article on the subject.

The most basic way in which wiki markup refuses to acknowledge the basic flow of text is its treatment of spaces. Any string of multiple spaces is converted to a single space so the string "before    after" becomes "before after". Also, starting a new line of text in wiki markup does not have the same effect when the document is actually viewed. A new paragraph is started by moving down two lines, ie. leaving a blank line between the text of one paragraph and the next. A single line break is ignored, while a series of more than 2 is grouped into pairs, each of which is treated as a would-be paragraph break, ie. each is converted to a single blank line. An example of how line breaks are treated is shown below.

When rendered to the user, this text...
will be followed by this text on the same line...

...and this text, four blank lines later, will render 2 blank lines later.

Text in italics, bold-face, or both can be created with the following syntax.

''This text will appear in italics''

'''This text will appear in bold-face'''

'''''This text will appear in both italics and bold-face'''''

A link to another article can be created with the syntax below. The article name is to be stated with spaces intact, ie. it should not be converted to the aforementioned format used in the internet addresses of articles, with spaces replaced by underscores.

[This text is the article name | This text, if present, will be what the user actually sees as opposed to the article name]

A link to a web page outside Wikipedia can be created with the following syntax. Such a link should only appear in the "External Links" section of an article, or in certain templates such as the information box often used at the top of articles about companies. We will discuss how to use templates below.

[URL of destination page | This text, if present, will be what the user actually sees as opposed to the URL]

It can often be seen that typing a certain search query results in being automatically taken to a page which has a different title than the search query, but which is clearly the appropriate destination. This is accomplished by creating a page with the intended search query as its title, with the following syntax as its only content. As with links, the title of the destination page is all that's needed to identify it.

#RIDIRECT [[This text is the name of the target article]]

Images can be added to articles using the syntax illustrated by the example below. This example adds an image with the filename example.jpg, which should be replaced with the filename, case-sensitive and not preceded by any directory path, of a desired .jpg, .png or .svg image that has previously been uploaded to Wikipedia. New images can only be uploaded by registered users with autoconfirmed accounts, at the page Special:Upload. To find previously uploaded images see the help system's treatment of the subject. The technique in this example places an image along the side of the article space (by default the right) with text flowing around it, and enclosed in a border with a box underneath it displaying the caption. For other ways of styling images, see the help system's Picture Tutorial.

[[File:example.jpg | thumb | alt="this text will appear in place of the image on systems that do not display images" | This text will appear as the image's caption]]

Articles are divided by headings into sections, which are subdivided into increasingly specific sections by subheadings. Headings and subheadings can be seen in articles as bold-faced text that gets smaller for increasing levels of specificity. They are considered to start at level 2, as the article title itself is considered the level 1 heading, and are created by placing the heading name on its own line with, on either side of it, as many equals signs as the level number. An example of the wiki markup for a heading is shown below.

=== This is a level 3 heading ===

The table of contents seen at the top of every article is generated automatically from headings, whenever four or more are present.

Articles are organized into categories. An article can be added to a category by placing the following syntax at the bottom of the wiki markup. A link will automatically be generated at the bottom of the article, to each category that it belongs to.

[[Category:This text is the category name]]

As mentioned, talk pages are just documents containing signed messages from users one by one, in wiki markup. Using a fully editable document in this way makes it possible to not only add messages, but edit the messages of other users. While there are cases where it is appropriate to do this, as listed in the help system's Talk page guidelines, abusing this functionality to pose as another user will result in being banned from editing. In general editing talk pages will involve adding messages of your own, to start new conversations or in response to messages from other users. When a message is a response, this should be indicated by indenting it so that its left margin is larger than that of the message to which it is responding, which might itself have a degree of left indent if it is a response to some other message. This indenting is generated automatically by preceding the message with as many colons as the depth of the response chain, as illustrated in the following example.

:::This text is a response to a response to a response.

All messages should be signed with the contributor's user name if they are a registered user, or their ip address if they are not. This is automatically generated by placing four tildes at the end of the message, as shown below. When the page is saved, wiki markup for the signature is inserted in the page's wiki markup, and will be seen in place of the tildes the next time it is viewed.


It was mentioned that elements of articles are often automatically generated using templates, which can save the editor typing; provide visual consistency across Wikipedia; and mark an article as belonging to a certain class or series. Figure 4 shows the same article as Figure 1, with elements created by templates circled.

Figure 4

An appropriate template can be found by searching the Template namespace or in the directory of the Template category. The simplest use of templates is called substitution, by which the wiki markup defining the page element being generated is inserted into the target page's wiki markup at the time of editing, when the "Save page" button is clicked. The inserted wiki markup will be present from that point on, as is the case when signing talk pages with four tildes. The syntax for performing substitution is shown below.

{{subst:This text is the template name}}

There is another way of using templates, called transclusion, which uses the syntax below. This code remains intact in the page's wiki markup, and the template is rendered by the wiki software seeing this code and then consulting the markup of the template it refers to, at the time the page is rendered on the user's computer. This makes possible templates that can be revised, with all articles that included such a template in the past displaying the updated content at each viewing.

{{This text is the template name}}
1Both names are commonly used.
2This applies to the English wikipedia. For other versions, the string "en" will be replaced by another code.