Wikis for writers

I’ve mentioned wikis in passing a few times, but it occurs that I’ve never really explained what they are or how they might be useful to a writer.

This post is a survey only. I will be diving into more detail on the specific topics in later posts.

What Is It?

A wiki is a searchable, editable web site with a few properties:

  1. links to pages are easy to make.
    Page names are usually space-deprived capitalised sentences, such as AllTheTeaInChina, MontyPython, or HardOfHerring, so making a link to a page is often as simple as typing in a page name when editing a page.
  2. new pages are easy to make.
    This is as simple as typing in a new page name in the link field of a browser, or following a page link whose target doesn’t exist yet.
  3. existing pages are easy to edit.
    Click the edit button, make changes in the text box, save.
  4. anyone can edit a page.
    The definition of “anyone” can vary a bit, of course. Typically it’s going to mean “any registered user”, or (for an internal site) “anyone in the team”.

Wikis were invented by Ward Cunningham, who is still refining the concept (amongst his many other projects) with the federated wiki.

What Use Is It?

Generally, the point of a wiki is to collect information and make it easy not only to add new details but to update what’s already been collected.

The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, which demonstrates both the power and the pitfalls of the concept:

  • anyone can contribute, which means you can tap into the wealth of knowledge carried by a large group of people: the wisdom of the crowd manifest.
  • anyone can contribute, which means there is no qualification or quality control, malicious editing can happen, and editing wars can break out.

Many of these pitfalls have been addressed, but at the cost of reducing the freedom of the medium.

Wikis are also commonly used in teams to capture information about projects while it is fresh. In talking about writing documentation, wikis are a powerful tool to help a dev team collect the documentation needed to support the product because making updates to wiki pages is much easier than editing huge specification or design documents.

As a writer, it makes sense to think of yourself as a team of one: you wear many different hats over the course of preparing a story, and wikis help to support a lot of the tasks:

  • worldbuilding – use a wiki to record the places, wildlife, and characters of your world as you invent them.
  • outlining – use a wiki to break down plot elements into smaller and smaller chunks, linking to relevant characters or locations in your world.
  • tracking things – process and submission tracking both fit into the easily-edited, freely-linked framework of a wiki.

What Doesn’t Work So Well

There’s a well-known problem in teams with large wikis of the wiki becoming unnavigable. This should be less of a problem for an individual user just because you can enforce standards more consistently on yourself than on a team, but still it is something to be aware of.

Another issue is renaming pages: a character name has changed, or worse – you’ve spelled the name in different ways in different places. Some platforms do a better job of this than others, but the ones that are simplest to setup tend to be most fragile.

There is commonly a problem with not being able to see what else is in the wiki while you are writing it. So, let’s say I have a father and daughter as characters. I wrote the father’s page yesterday, and now while I am writing the daughter’s character notes I want to link to the father – but I can’t remember his name, or I can only remember his first name. Wiki editors are often not very powerful, so finding the other page can be frustrating.

How Do I Get One?

You need to install a wiki platform on a computer that you have access to.

For most individuals this is going to be on a personal computer (eg on your laptop), but if you have a server system (either on your home network or on the Internet) then it may make sense to install it there. Note that a site on the public network is going to need some kind of security precautions to protect your content.

Wikia is a hosted web service which allows you to create wikis within a community, but the content is entirely open so I would recommend against using it for anything you want to keep private.

There are a lot of wiki choices. A couple of good options are:

  • TWiki – a very capable wiki with many great features, including full versioning of pages and the ability to create sub-wikis. With other wikis you may end up needing to create a new instance for each project, but TWiki will let you organise things better.
  • Kwiki – a very lightweight implementation installable using the Perl package manager, CPAN. I’ve had good results with this in the past, but have had problems with fragility – a point emphasised by the fact that as of this writing its home website is down.

Both of these are file-based, which makes it much easier to setup on a personal computer.

Do you use wikis to organise your notes?

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