|This unofficial guidance essay contains comments and advice of one or more Wikipedia contributors. It is not a Wikipedia policy or guideline, although it may be consulted for assistance. It may contain opinions that are shared by few or no other editors; potential measure of how the community views this essay may be gained by consulting the history and talk pages, and checking what links here.|
|Remember the audience is wide and the audience is international – merely thinking about this will help.|
|Try to avoid jargon – but where it is particularly relevant or where it is necessary, explain all jargon clearly on the article page – a link to another article is not enough.|
|If someone says they find something difficult to understand, believe them.|
|Use common words, phrases and styles rather than less common words, phrase and styles.|
|Where completely different words are used for the same thing in different types of English, refer to all of them in the lead.|
|Remember web search engines often are biased towards American usage. Results are often not a reliable barometer of international usage. (See e.g. Wikipedia:Google test.)|
|If you find yourself defending something as it is the "academic standard" or because it is what you as an editor want, you know you're going wrong! Write for our readers, not for academics and not for yourself.|
|Something obvious to you, may not be to someone else. Or to look at it another way, a low-value question in the American Who Wants to be a Millionaire? may be a high-value question in the British version, or vice versa!|
Remember that the main purpose of Wikipedia is to provide useful articles for readers. For an encyclopaedia, like Wikipedia, this clearly means providing reliable and accurate information. But it goes beyond this. It means providing that reliable and accurate information in a way that the reader will understand and find interesting. This encourages readers to stay, to follow links to more information, maybe even to contribute to Wikipedia themselves. If information is reliable and accurate, but presented in a way that is difficult for the reader to understand, or in a style the reader does not like, then the reader will go to one of the many other online encyclopaedias or other sources of information.
You may have been directed to this page because an article you're working on has been identified as being difficult for a layman to understand. If so, please do not think it means your contributions are not appreciated – they are! Instead it means that a reader is suggesting that the wording or style be changed or modified to make it easier for a layman to read – and hopefully increase the readership of your efforts to boot. The rest of this page outlines further the importance of putting readers first, together with offering some guidelines of how to make an article reach a larger audience.
You should decide yourself whether it is more important to write articles or to promote Wikipedia, whether it is more useful to write new articles, improve existing ones, organize indexes, etc.
All good communicators have a clear message they want to convey, but to convey that message, they do not always use their favourite language and style. They do not use jargon their audience will be unfamiliar with (at least without explaining it clearly first). In short, when deciding the style of language to use, they put their readers first.
We do this naturally in our everyday lives. How you talk to a young child will be different to how you speak to your partner, your boss, your colleagues, your mates and your clients. If you're a mathematician, say, trying to explain the concepts behind a mathematical theory, you would do so in a very different way depending on whether you're explaining it to a fellow mathematician or a young child.
In the same way it is important to choose the style of Wikipedia articles, and to do that we first need to consider who the reader of a Wikipedia article is.
A corollary: When you do write articles, consider the audience in your writing. Our potential audience is anyone who may search on the internet for English language information on that subject. At the wider scale, this could be almost anyone with a computer – and any general interest article should be worded so that any English-reader, wherever they live in the world and whatever their background, can understand it. This will generally be true for articles on countries, regions, towns, schools, history or an article about a particular sport.
At the other end, sometimes articles, by their very nature, do not appear to have everyone worldwide as their potential audience. Maybe an article on a mathematical theorem is likely to be read only by mathematicians. Perhaps an article about a minor character from Star Trek is only really likely to be read by a Star Trek fan. But maybe not. And maybe both audiences can be catered for. A mathematical theorem is trying to prove certain concepts which, if you think about it, ought to be possible to be explained to someone who only knows pre-university level mathematics. Maybe the article will go on to have a section on "Technical details" that only a mathematician will understand, but an easily intelligible start to the article should be possible. And the article on the Star Trek character can clearly tell the reader that the character is from Star Trek, who played the character, and why the character is significant to certain storylines. Indeed, wouldn't it be a better article for Star Trek fans if it set this out clearly, without any assumed knowledge? In short, our audience, even for technical articles or little-visited articles, is wider than we think.
Similarly, an article entitled "Use of chromatic scales in early Baroque music" is likely to be read mainly by musicians, and so technical details and jargon are entirely appropriate. But an article entitled "Rap music" is likely to be read by laymen who want a brief and plainly written overview, with links to more detailed information if available.
So the audience is very wide, what do we do about it?
Having established that potentially every English-reader may also be a reader of Wikipedia, albeit that certain elements of a very small number of articles may include some technical details not everyone will understand, how should we cater for this audience?
This can be difficult. Wikipedia is fortunate in having many editors who are full-time academics and who know a lot about their subjects. Their edits are very welcome, but often they are too complicated for the average reader. This is not surprising, when you are accustomed to writing for one audience throughout your professional life, it is difficult to write for a completely different one. Perhaps some good advice would be to imagine you are writing for people who read serious (i.e. non-tabloid) newspapers. Don't worry, that doesn't mean write in a newspaper style, it means imagine the selection of words and how much knowledge it is fair to assume that audience will have (bearing in mind they could be anywhere in the world). Another group which might make a good theoretical audience are high school and college students. Many of them do use Wikipedia to read about certain topics on a reasonably advanced level for the first time.