Wikipedia, as we all know, can be one of those sticky life resources. You can’t use it for work usually, can’t use it as a school resource, can’t cite it on an academic paper. But on the other hand, it is a massive life blessing bringing all sorts of knowledge to you at any given time, and the ability to alter things you know to be wrong. What could be better than that?
As writers, research isn’t the sort of strenuous activity it can be for academics. You can use resources that aren’t permissible in a journal article or a term paper, Wikipedia being one of them. But for the same pitfalls that keep it from being a solid academic resource, it can be a misleading one for writers as well. Therefore, all writers should definitely use Wikipedia, but they should use caution and follow a few basic guidelines when utilizing it.
I have two basic scenarios in my research life that make me turn to Wikipedia. The first is when I know absolutely nothing about a general topic, person, or place and I need a starting point. Wikipedia is great for this, because especially on broad topics like Stockholm, pesto, or BDSM (to take a recent search of mine), you can learn a lot of information in one place. From the main article, you can branch out to related side-shoots you need more information on, and more importantly you can use the sources that are cited in the article for further research and information, as well as to double-check any facts from the Wikipedia article itself. This is the almost obvious scenario that most people use it for.
The second scenario is one I’ve encountered recently. BDSM, my recent search, is something I happen to know a lot about. It’s something I’ve studied in both a scholarly and writerly context for years now. But because it’s such a broad topic and I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how to actualize this in the piece I’m working on, I turned to Wikipedia as a refresher to help me fold certain aspects into my outline and character profiling. Very little of it was new to me, but it helped me to organize a vast amount of information, like numerous types of bondage ties and a lot of different equipment that I couldn’t recall the names of. While I’d read literally all of this before (the Rousseau quote on the erotic spanking page was like an old friend that comes to my mind every time I think of the concept of erotic spanking, actually), it was immeasurably helpful to have such a vast array of information free and easily organized to help me make my own hand-written set of relevant notes.
And that is the most important thing to keep in mind with Wikipedia. It’s a great starting point, a quick reference, a guideline as a beginning of something. But it’s best not to use something on Wikipedia if you can’t find the information somewhere else. Any resources gathered from the source list should be doubled checked to ensure that they’re reputable sources, and if the page you’re reading on Wikipedia has a warning at the top, like one telling you that the article is a stub or the resources are suspected, or that things are improperly cited, pay attention to that and be extra careful.
Wikipedia, like anything else, is a resource. There are some great backdoors, as well, that can be especially interesting on controversial topics. If you can find the discussions on what should and shouldn’t be on the page by regular users, they can open your eyes to some pretty cool debates and how people approach them. On the page for Saladin, there’s a massive, multi-month debate about his nationality (Kurd, Turk, Arab?) that rehashes many of the same points over and over again, and people get very worked up about it. These can be as helpful or even more helpful than the articles themselves.
Remember to be responsible when you’re trying to be accurate, always double and triple check important things, and happy writing!