Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/Academy/Copy-editing essentials

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Wikipedia has a powerful and unique role to play in recording military history. As well as pursuing high standards of accuracy, verification and neutrality, the quality of prose and formatting of our military history articles should aim to be of a professional standard. Good prose is important to maintaining and increasing the authority and reputation of Wikipedia's military history articles and their contribution to our understanding of history in a broader sense.

On the personal level, many topics involve the ultimate sacrifice by people whose memory is still very much alive, and we need to do justice to this memory in the prose of the articles.

The writing in MilHist articles does not need to be beautiful: the challenge is rather that it be engaging as well as plain and easy to read. Here are general tips on what to aim for in copy-editing military history articles.

Organisational tips[edit]

The letter home: a British soldier writing in a loft over a cow-shed "somewhere near the front", 30 December 1914

Teamwork is usually essential to producing fine MilHist articles. Unless you have a lot of experience and the right range of skills, you'll need to be a team-player, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and matching them up with those of others.

Try to network with the membership of WikiProject MilHist. Their areas of expertise are included in the membership list. There are three important factors in how you prioritise your social/professional networking with other MilHist editors:

  1. What MilHist topics are they interested in?
  2. What skills do they have? (There are many possibilities, among them copy-editing, researching secondary sources and verification, broad historical contexts, military strategy, image management, and military engineering, geography, aviation, and technology.)
  3. How amenable are they to collaborating with you on your chosen topics?

Building fresh collaborations or finding your way into an existing network of editors is very much a social experience. The benefits need to be reciprocal, at least over time, and are partly based on whether people like interacting with you and partly on the fit of your skills and knowledge with theirs. It should be an enjoyable experience.

You may also have opportunities to attract into MilHist non-member Wikipedians (and even people who are not yet Wikipedians), either to work on a single project or on a longer-term basis. Naturally, this is strongly encouraged by the WikiProject.

Copy-editors are in short supply at Wikipedia, so if copy-editing is not your strength, you'll need to do two things:

  1. Locate those who are good at it; more information on how to do this can be found here.
  2. Be prepared to do the aspects of copy-editing that are easier to learn and perform beforehand.

Often, copy-editors and those with the substantive knowledge of the topic and its sources will need to interact to produce the professional product. This can occur both on the talk page and in invisible comments to other editors, which can be inserted into the body of the article text. Take care to use the latter method judiciously and without mistakenly changing the appearance of the text.

Ways to improve your copy-editing[edit]

Style guides[edit]

These documents contain much detailed information (English is that kind of language—big and baggy and needing lots of reining in). Don't be daunted by their size: they are there to assist you, and gradually you'll become familiar with the issues and know where to access them quickly and easily if you need to.

Observe the FAC, FLC and GA processes[edit]

It can be instructive to see what reviewers say about the prose of MilHist nominations, and to observe the diffs of nominations as they improve in this respect. At FAC, there has been a steady increase in the quality of MilHist prose over the past year or two.

Strategic distance[edit]

Strategic distance is an important tool for getting the most out of your writing and editing. Ironically, being too close to the text you're working on can be a disadvantage. There are several ways of temporarily distancing yourself from it, including the following:

  • Regularly press the "Show preview" button to peruse the text in a different visual display from that of the edit window.
  • Print out the text and mark it up with a pen, preferably in a different environment from where you normally edit (cafes are good for that).
  • Take time out from it: come back refreshed.
  • Get someone else to go through it.
  • Read it in reverse, section-by-section, or even sentence-by-sentence.
  • Read it aloud.

In terms of your workflow organisation, it is often helpful to copy-edit more than one article or section at a time, and to alternate between them regularly to freshen up your mind. One might require a more high-level copy-edit; the other a more clerical copy-edit.

Language tips[edit]

Generally write for non-experts[edit]

Aim to bring all readers into your topic. It's easy to assume expert or semi-expert knowledge when you're close to a topic; try to read it as though you're an interested, intelligent non-expert. There may be occasional exceptions; for example, where a topic or section is highly technical, such as on military equipment and technology, weapons, armour, and vehicles, it may be appropriate to pitch the material at readers with specialised knowledge. Even so, try to speak to as wide a readership as possible through the judicious use of focused wikilinking and brief definitions (often within parentheses, dashes or commas); however, you'll know you're trying too hard to explain things if the text becomes cluttered. Editorial judgement and feedback from your collaborators is important in this respect.

Plain English[edit]

Our language is one of the few in which elegance and plainness are intertwined.

Simple vocabulary. Choose basic rather than elaborate words (the battle started, not the battle commenced; the landing was completed in an hour, not within an hour, unless you want to imply that an hour was some kind of deadline). There are more suggestions for plain word-choice here.

Simple grammar. Like vocabulary, simple grammatical structures are preferred. Here's an example:

Long snakes. Avoid long, winding sentences; they're too taxing on your readers' working memory. They can typically be split in two using a semicolon or a period (full-stop):

Similarly, gigantic paragraphs are daunting for the readers. Identify where you might break them to allow readers to "start afresh" and download the previous information, as it were, into their long-term memory.


Redundancy, rather than poor grammar and spelling, is the biggest source of problems in prose. A smooth read requires no wasted words: simple as that. All good writing is lean; it's an acquired skill—an attitude that, with practice, you can switch on easily. Here's an example.

Consider trying out your skills on more "weeding" exercises, here.


Be precise where possible. The campaign involved the capture of Japanese bases in the Admiralty Islands. If it's not mentioned elsewhere in the article, ask the content-writers how many bases there were. Could be interesting: The campaign involved the capture of the three Japanese bases in the Admiralty Islands (a fourth had been abandoned by the Japanese in February 1943).

Unnecessary sequence words[edit]

A lot of MilHist involves telling a story. Stories are strings of actions and facts, and once the reader knows it's a narrative description of a battle or the development of a new military helicopter technology, you can usually strengthen the flow by removing such sequence items as "then", "in addition", "also", "next", and "after this" (ironic, isn't it).


English is more particular than most languages about the close repetition of words. By this, we don't mean common grammatical words—such as "the" and "to"—but lexical items. The less frequently used the word normally is, the more the reader will notice its close repetition.

However, repetition isn't quite as simple as this. There's bad repetition, such as we've just looked at, and there's good repetition. Explicitly "back-referring" to an important word by repeating it can make the text more cohesive and sometimes avoids ambiguity.


Inconsistency in naming and formatting throughout an article makes the text subtly more difficult to read. Sifting through an article, using your memory of what has come before to pick up glitches, is a good exercise for editors who are relatively inexperienced at copy-editing. Here are just a few examples of common inconsistencies in the same article:

  • A spaced en dash  like this  and then an unspaced em dashlike thisin an article.
  • 6 January and then February 14.
  • Major-General and later Major General.
  • 1st Infantry Division and then First Infantry Division.

The straight line[edit]

Make the flow of consciousness simple. Often, MilHist articles need to describe a long, complex series of events; it can be hard to present such a narrative logically to readers, especially when you know the story well yourself. Here's an example from the lead of the otherwise good article, Admiralty Islands campaign, summarising the dramatic events. Remember that the non-expert readers know nothing yet—this is their first taste of the dramatic scenario. Make a mental note of the queries many readers would have in the second paragraph. Don't expect them to divert to the links right now.

Other resources[edit]