How To Edit Wikipedia Part I: Set up your account

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at first-time editors of Wikipedia, but also contains tips useful to anyone who spends time on that site. Come back the same time next week for the next article in this series.

In the three plus years that I’ve been recommending that skeptics make an effort to edit Wikipedia, I often hear objections from skeptics who have tried, failed and given up. Some have anecdotes of factual edits they attempted, only to be slapped down by more experienced editors. Others report they attempted to bring some sense to a controversial article about a particular pseudoscience, and ended up battling with believers.

The common element in many of these stories is that these editors assumed that it was sufficient to have science or fact on their side.  Surely the others editing Wikipedia will see the truth inherent in their additions?

Perhaps in an just, ideal world. But in our flawed, real world the other editors of Wikipedia are fallible humans who are constantly encountering troublesome edits that must be undone. In order to have your work accepted, you have to be aware of this. You have to earn their trust.

In this first of a series of posts, I’ll give you some tips on how to get started on this.

Create an Account

In order to earn someone’s trust, you have to have an identity. This means you need a Wikipedia account with a password. Set one up here. You don’t have to go public with your real name – use a handle if you desire (I do). In fact Wikipedia has specific rules about not violating the privacy of other editors that are taken very seriously. You don’t even have to give Wikipedia your email address, although it can be useful to do so and they keep it private too.

Wikipedia allows anonymous editing, but such edits are logged with your IP address. Because (in most situations) your IP address changes from day to day, others will not be able to get a sense of your long-term history. This hurts you when you are trying to earn trust.

In addition, experience has shown that a large proportion of edits logged only by IP address are done by novices without much thought or skill. Much better to have your account name logged, and avoid that first impression that an IP address makes. Make sure you log in to Wikipedia whenever you do any editing so that that happens. The login prompt is at the upper right of every page.

While you’re creating your account, be sure to put something (however small) on your user page. This is where other editors will come if they are curious about you. And if you don’t put something here, your name will show up in red. This is a literal red flag that you might not be too serious about Wikipedia. Again, you don’t have to reveal your real identity or anything else, but you can if you want to.  I have chosen to be completely transparent about my real identity on my user page.

Create A Watch List

In order to take your next steps, and to learn more about how Wikipedia works, you’ll need to monitor a set of articles over time. The easiest way to do this is through a feature of the MediaWiki software (on which Wikipedia runs) which is called a watch list.

You should choose articles on topics on which you have some knowledge. The idea is that you will immediately recognize whether new material being added makes sense, or is simply vandalism. You will also understand better why each edit is being made if you know the context or topic.

Once you have an account, creating a watch list is trivial. Just navigate to each article you want to add, and click the star near the top of the page. It will highlight and a short message will appear at the top of the page confirming that it has been added to your watch list.  Like this:

Be sure to mix it up a bit. Don’t just add articles from one topic area, such as everything related to homeopathy. Add articles about other things in your life too, such as your home town, your alma mater, your favorite book or TV show, and so on.  When you begin to make edits to these articles, the spread of topics will help demonstrate to other editors that you have broad interests and you are not someone merely trying to use Wikipedia to push a point of view.

Avoid Controversy and Hotspots

I caution you to avoid controversial articles at first. Even when just attempting to repair vandalism, jumping into the fray on a controversial article can get you into conflict with other editors much more quickly.
But how do you identify a controversial article?
See that tab to the left of the star in the screen shot above, the one that says View history? That shows you the complete edit history of the article. Pay close attention to the dates and times you see here. As you scroll back, do they quickly span months and years, without scrolling very far?  If so, then that’s probably not a very controversial article.
But if you see that several screens full of edit history of that article only goes back a few days or weeks, then that article has lots of activity.  That could mean that you happened come along when someone was doing major housecleaning to the article. But more often it means that a controversy is brewing over that article.
Another way to notice a controversial article is from the Talk page. That’s another tab at the top of any article, and is a place reserved for meta-discussion about the article among editors. For instance, if you are thinking about making an addition to an article but are not sure of how to proceed, you can ask that question on the talk page for that article.
Many talk pages only have a handful of comments, often very cordial. But if the talk page shows lots and lots of deeply heated discussions among multiple editors over a period of years, you may have found a hotspot.
I recommend avoiding these types of articles until you are much more experienced.

Enable These Two Gadgets

Before you start your Wikipedia work in earnest, there are two optional features I recommend you activate. I find they make some very common activities much more convenient.

Select My preferences at the far upper right of any page while logged in, and then choose the Gadgets tab on the screen that appears.

There are numerous options on this very cluttered page.  But there are two in particular I recommend, they are the only ones shown in the above partial screen shot.

The first one (in the Browsing section) is called Navigation popups.  This causes a small yellowish pop-up window to appear whenever your mouse pointer lingers over any internal link in Wikipedia.  The pop-up will show a short summary of the contents of the destination of the link. This ability to peek at link destinations is a major time-saver.

The second one (in the Appearance section) has the unappealing name HistoryNumDiff (something no doubt chosen by a programmer). What this does is change history displays, including your watch list, to list the relative size of every change instead of the total size of the article. That will become very useful in Part II of this series.

Watch And Learn From Your Watch List

Once you have a number of articles added to your watch list, get in the habit of visiting it regularly. This is done via another persistent link at the far upper right.

Here’s a portion of my watch list as it looked recently:

A few things to notice here. See that yellowish pop-up that is titled Moon landing conspiracy theories? That appeared because I was hovering my mouse pointer over the link named diff right above its upper left corner.  This is the result of activating navigation popups in the instructions above.

In watch lists and article histories, this allows you to very quickly examine the substance of each change, without having to click through to load another page. Deletions are shown with a red background, additions with green.  In this case, we can see where an editor repaired a broken link in a footnote.

The other thing to notice here are the red and green numbers in the history, like +251 on the first line and -5 on the second. That’s the result of the other gadget I recommended. Those numbers are the size change in each article as a result of that edit. It helps give you an idea whether an edit might be a trivial fix or something more substantial, before you look at the change.

Homework For Part I

Your homework for Part I is to examine your watch list two or three times per week for a while before you begin editing. Examine the differences in each article by hovering over the diff links. Explore who the editors are making these edits by hovering over their names, talk pages or list of contributions.

Click through the various types of links on the watch list to see what details are available.  Get a feel for recognizing a regular editor versus a newbie.  Notice the discussions going on in the watch list via the edit summaries (the right most portion of each line).


We haven’t done much this week, just set up our account and gotten prepared for what is going to happen in future editions. Taking it slow at first may be frustrating, but it will make your way will be easier later. Eventually the age of your account, the contents of your user page and other details will help other editors realize that you are serious about editing Wikipedia and not just a vandal.

And in the process you will have seen a great deal about how day-to-day editing on Wikipedia happens. That will give you the experience you need to move on to much bigger things.

Continue to Part II

9 thoughts on “How To Edit Wikipedia Part I: Set up your account

  1. sgerbic

    Thanks for doing this Tim, I can’t wait to share this post and the upcoming ones with everyone.

    The only thing I would add is that when creating your user name on Wikipedia (which I strongly support) is not to select a name that gives you bias. For example a name with the word skeptic, or any political information in it.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Oh, that is a VERY good point. That would tend to prime some people to treat you a certain way. There are also some tips on the account creation screen to not use commercial names, trademarks or names of famous people either.

  2. Richard Blackburn (@Thornbrier)

    Cool tips. I always wondered why my name was in red and most others weren’t, but I’ve fixed that now. Soon I shall grow a watchlist. My biggest thing has always been that I didn’t feel qualified in the Wikipedia conduct to make edits, except for a few tiny things like obvious spelling errors.

  3. sgerbic

    Richard, spelling errors are a great place to learn. Seriously. When you do this a few times you will try your hand at something more difficult and so on. You will know when you are ready to try more difficult things, just staring at the Edit screen will clear up a lot of the confusion. Confidence is gained with editing.

    Look forward to your helping us.

  4. Tom Morris (@tommorris)

    As a Wikipedia admin, I’d say that it’s definitely better if people turn up wanting to make a wide range of contributions rather than jumping into controversial stuff. There are people who enjoy doing the controversial stuff on any topic, but I personally avoid controversial stuff as much as possible.

    In terms of finding interesting things to edit, I’d recommend finding a backlog of minor tasks like copyediting, or find some things that need doing in a WikiProject that’s related to a topic you are interested in, like the Rational Skepticism WikiProject. I’m sure Tim will cover some of this in future posts.

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