Wikipedia:How to contribute to Wikipedia guidance

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How to contribute to Wikipedia guidance lists recommendations regarding the creation and updating of policy and guideline pages.

See WP:PROPOSAL for a step-by-step guide.

Scope[edit]

In the context of the present page "guidance" is understood in a broad meaning: it applies to most "Wikipedia:" (project) namespace pages (except WikiProjects and discussion pages like the [[Wikipedia:Village pump|Villa--78.182.61.77 (talk) 15:05, 10 February 2014 (UTC)ge pump]] pages), and equally to almost any Help namespace page.

The recommendations on this page apply both to the creation of new guidance and to the improvement or updating of existing guidance.

Guidance isn't created from scratch[edit]

There are two main approaches for the creation of additional guidance in Wikipedia (note: NOT listed in order of importance):

  1. Solving a problem: Something is experienced as problematic, for which an appropriate solution is sought;
  2. Writing down existing state of the art practice: Some issues are tackled in a way that has become more or less standardized, or in a way that follows from the features of the MediaWiki software: in order to help editors not yet acquainted with these systems the preferred modus operandi is noted down on a guidance page.

An example of the first approach is the creation of Wikipedia:Biographies of living people following on the problems experienced in the Seigenthaler controversy.

The creation process of guidance like Wikipedia:Naming conventions (dates and numbers) rather reflects the second approach.

Only in the case when somebody has a brilliant and original idea to solve an existing problem (first approach), and furthermore that solution is instantly adopted by the community at large, could it be said that guidance is created "from scratch". Usually, however, the creation of guidance involves many intermediate steps before the community agrees on the new standards. Specifically at "policy" level there is broad agreement that the essential features are already contained in the current ruleset, not calling for sweeping changes. Nonetheless, Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales or the Board of Trustees can initiate the creation process of a policy "from scratch" (example: Wikipedia:Office actions, initiated by Jimbo [1], or a later example [2]).

Most guidance is created as a combination of the first and the second approach, for example Wikipedia:Footnotes results from technical novelties requested by the community (first approach), then written down in guidance on how to use the updated technical features (second approach).

Guidance level and the creation process[edit]

It is usually not such a good idea to insert novel ideas on guidance in the top level guidance pages (top level guidance pages: policies and important guidelines). In that case, rather attempt an essay or a new guideline proposal. If help is desired in forming an acceptable proposal, one may wish to invite others to brainstorm ideas.

If an essay contradicts existing policies and adopted guidelines, the essay would better be removed in order not to create confusion. In other words: essays should not be used to create an alternative rule set: such alternative ideas can better be presented via discussion on the talk page of a related guideline or via a project namespace discussion platform like Wikipedia:Village pump (policy). Also guideline proposals should best not be used to attempt to create a contradictory rule set: use relevant discussion pages instead if you think your alternative ideas have merit.

New or alternative guidance proposals that would affect the nature of Wikipedia (key policies and essential guidelines more or less define the nature of Wikipedia) should be discussed on the mailing list (compare User:Jimbo Wales/Statement of principles, point 6).

Pruning[edit]

Consider that the most important job on guidance pages is rather the pruning than the expansion of the rule set: constant expansion of the body of policies and guidelines can make it into a swamp, not near to the handy tool set editors may expect to find.

Also maintaining a clear and organic structure of the rule set can be seen as part of the much appreciated pruning efforts, for instance updating Naming conventions guideline pages to a common and recognizable structure can be seen as a contribution to such pruning effort.

General recommendations[edit]

The following general principles were gathered together following the implementation of several policies across the encyclopedia. As you will see from these recommendations themselves, these points are guidelines, not rules. You know best what will work in your case.

  1. Choose policies that have sprung up organically, not imposed from the top down. Contributors "in the trenches" can tell when recurring themes and ideas appear across several articles. Look for conventions that are introduced by one user, but are then copied and adopted by other users. These "de facto" policies often prove very workable. Indeed they are already in practice, so making them "official" is more of a formality than a new policy.
  2. Leave room for flexibility (or: Avoid instruction creep). Although a uniformity of style is itself a good thing, it sometimes forces contributors into a straitjacket that they won't like. For example the very flexibility of our policy on allowing all styles of English spelling rather than just the dominant one, has caused it to be a very stable, implementable policy. Although new users often ask if and what the policy is, they tend to accept it pretty quickly once they've been shown the relevant policy page. The same is not true of inflexible policies, which generate the same arguments over and over again.
  3. Don't be prescriptive. Devolve responsibility. Although it is tempting to try to cover every possible angle that might arise, it is not always possible. Doing so can lead to long complex policies, with loopholes. Very precise rules are things that ill-intentioned users sometimes love. A policy that says "Doing X n times in a day is grounds for a banning" is often unhelpful – trollish users can and will then deliberately do X (n-1) times in a day. Better to write "Doing X is considered bad. If a user continues to do X after being warned that it is inappropriate, users may decide to {report to arb. committee/implement a temp ban/protect page/revert}". The number of "good" users overwhelms the bad – trust the users to sort things in specific cases, the policy just provides the framework. People are smarter than the words on the page will ever be. This is similar to having a judge to implement and interpret laws.
  4. Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Suppose one user does something annoying once. It is then often common practice to add to the boilerplate at the top of the relevant policy page, prohibiting what that user did. This in the past has led to ever-lengthening boilerplates that often consider minutiae irrelevant to the broad thrust of the policy. Consider whether it was a one-off, and thus whether it is better to keep that detail on relevant talk pages.
  5. Flexibility again. Most articles are only monitored by a few people. Debates are generally manageable, and consensus (often unanimous) can be reached. On very popular policy pages, this is not the case. Lots of people monitor these pages. If you cast a change in "either/or" terms you will often get opinion divided down the middle. Thus, if your policy change has to come to some sort of vote (ample discussion always comes first, because polls are evil), use a form of approval voting rather than first past the post voting. Layout all the options, and for each option allow the user to say if the proposed solution is acceptable or unacceptable. If you only have two options to list, examine whether all the middle ground possibilities have been included.
  6. Check existing policies. Consult Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines. Keep in mind Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not. Also check meta, wardwiki, and meatball for inspiration; these wikis are still being maintained.
  7. Consult widely – make a special effort to engage potential critics of the new guideline, engage them and get them to help find the middle ground early. (If all else fails, you can use the Bold revert discuss cycle to find these critics)
  8. Do not rush – you will get there faster if you give the process the time it needs. People may oppose an idea simply because they feel it has not had adequate discussion, and especially if they feel a policy is being pushed through to circumvent discussion. On the other hand, some amount of friction can always be expected these days. Don't slow down TOO much!
  9. Do not call a vote. Votes are rarely appropriate for policy debates, and almost never for guidelines. A vote can never create consensus, instead it may or may not indicate existing consensus.

Role of examples[edit]

Policies as well as guidelines can benefit from examples:

Guidelines usually contain more examples than Policies 
Most Guidelines document the implementation of the general principles of Policies in concrete circumstances: for that reason Guidelines quite naturally contain more examples than Policy pages. Examples can change (for instance, an article that used to be a good illustration to some guidance, can be turned into a disambiguation page, or the particular example might be moved to a subpage, etc.): while Policies require more consensus to change (they generally have more resistance to swift change), it should especially be taken care of that the examples on Policy pages require stability over a long period of time. For example, the WP:V policy page used to contain names of publications as examples of unreliable sources. These examples were however moved to a guideline: branding publications as "unreliable" as a policy-level appreciation is far too absolute to be workable.
Role of examples during the creation process of policies and guidelines 
During the creation process of policies and guidelines examples play an important role: these examples can as well be positive (the policy/guideline attempting to describe how in the past particular issues were successfully handled), as negative (the policy/guideline attempting to describe how a particular problem can be resolved in the future). As an example of the latter, the Seigenthaler controversy was instrumental for the development of Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons. Another example of how examples keep the development of a guideline checked: Wikipedia:Notability (books)#Examples and precedents: new guideline descriptions are cross-referenced to prior AfD cases to check whether the new guideline doesn't deviate from Wikipedians' prior assessments, and/or whether the new guidance would in the future be able to resolve problematic situations without recourse to voting.
Choose clear-cut examples 
A well-chosen example can often make things clear and understandable far better than long-winded detailed descriptions can. For that reason the selection of the most appropriate examples for guideline and policy pages should not be trivialized: for instance, don't choose examples for which Wikipedians are strongly divided what is the best solution for that example (unless, as a "clear example" illustrating why a guideline chooses a "we agree to disagree" approach). Note, for example, the examples used in Wikipedia:Words to avoid#Terrorist, terrorism: although the area discussed in that guideline section is highly contentious, the examples are always clear: this helps Wikipedians when writing articles about these delicate topics to assess what phrasing would be acceptable, and how to avoid to go over the top.
Also, use examples relevant to the namespace you're writing the guidance for. If you're creating guidance specifically for article namespace, it wouldn't be a good idea to use examples from how issues were tackled in user talk namespace, etc.
Sometimes images can help to create a clear example, see Wikipedia:Naming conventions (books)#Subtitles.

Policy discussions[edit]

The central place to discuss policies is Village pump (policy). Policy issues also may be formulated and debated on talk pages, at Meta, on IRC, and on our mailing lists. The Community Portal offers a Community bulletin board to post Wikipedia related news and announcements, including the locations of policy proposals and discussions. Remember, participants may be unregistered, or may take part using an account; encourage wide participation.

A thought[edit]

[...] οἱ αὐτοὶ ἤτοι κρίνομέν γε ἢ ἐνθυμούμεθα ὀρθῶς τὰ πράγματα, οὐ τοὺς λόγους τοῖς ἔργοις βλάβην ἡγούμενοι, ἀλλὰ μὴ προδιδαχθῆναι μᾶλλον λόγῳ πρότερον ἢ ἐπὶ ἃ δεῖ ἔργῳ ἐλθεῖν

  [...] although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, from Pericles' funeral oration (II.40.2)
translation Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies, Ch 10.IV) and Perseus website