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.

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

Things to consider[edit]

  • 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 directions, 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.
  • Wikipedia is now 17 years, 10 months old, and its policies are pretty mature, the product of thousands of consensus discussions, balancing the input of thousands of editors. It is actually unlikely that you are bringing a concern that has not been previously discussed, especially if you are new to Wikipedia or even just to the policy sphere in question.
    • Please review the archives of the talk page of the policy, guideline, or process you think you want to change, and ensure that you are not about to post perennial rehash. Repetitively discussing proposals which consensus has already rejected and will likely continue to reject is a significant drain on editorial productivity. Trying to get proposals already rejected at one page accepted at another is likely to be interpreted as forum-shopping.
  • 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.
    • Now that Wikipedia has 5,764,185 articles, even a seemingly trivial change could ultimately affect many thousands of articles, usually in ways that require actual human work. Is it worth redirecting volunteers from content creation and sourcing to implementing the change you have in mind?
  • Provide all of the necessary information, and then stop. 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 judgment that is usually appropriate. This can be done partly by using words like should, usually,optionally, and (rarely) 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, "but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course".
  • Consider how your wording might be misunderstood – 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.
  • 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 pages, procedure pages, {{supplement}} pages, and {{information}} pages appropriately.

Attitudes that help[edit]

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. For example, they have little inherent interest in having identical citation styles in all articles.

Good policy writers tend to listen purposefully. This helps 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.

Good policy writers are skilled at separating their own views from the views of other people. Good policy writers know how to lose and when to give up on a hopeless cause. Listening and obeying are separate issues: they listen to others, but they don't necessarily adopt the other editors' views.

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 English Wikipedia operates in the same model as the British constitution, rather 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. They 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.

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 experienced 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, describing what happened, and asking 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.

See also[edit]