The Lazy Writer’s Problem: Wikipedia

Tell you what ... you do it.

Tell you what … you do it.

The conundrum is classic: They tell you, as a young writer, that you should always “write what you know.” The idea is sound enough: If you stick to things you know something about from personal experience — be it people to base characters on, or outlandish stories that actually happened, or the infinite details of a trade or hobby — then your writing will always ring true. It was shimmer with that special realistic gravity that sucks people in.

There are limitations, of course. Say you’re halfway through your novel and the plot problems would be solved if someone, say, joined the army. Great! Except you’ve never joined the army. In fact, uniforms, exercise, and weapons — the three main ingredients of military service, peppered with humiliation, violence, and busy work — are so not your thing. You wind up facing the horror that Lazy Writers everywhere fear most: Research.

The Bad Old Days

Of course, in the Bad Old Days, research generally meant either hitting the books at a library or actually doing the thing you needed research on. The former, while affordable and possible no matter your circumstances, was often deadly dull. The latter was only possible if you were a Gentry Writer living off the fumes of a trust fund or something — the rest of us, proles all, were forced to work Day Jobs and do our research on the margins.

Ah, but then the Internet! Suddenly, Lazy Writers like me could just look stuff up. Need to know what a street looks like in a small town in France? Try Google Street View. Everything is out there if you dig hard enough, and you don’t have to put on pants and walk out into the sunlight to the library, or book a flight to France just to snap some photos.

The Bad Old Now

However, disaster looms for we Lazy Writers, because, as usual, Trolls are ruining everything. Wikipedia has always been a dubious place to do real research — you would never have used Wikipedia as the basis for anything serious. Novel research, however — why not. After all, 90% of a novel is made up anyway. Wikipedia was filled with misinformation and politically-motivated edits, yes, but for quick, basic stuff you could at least use it as a starting point.

No more; the Trolls have ruined it. A decline in working editors, an ever-expanding and torturous set of rules in an increasingly insulated Wikipedia, and a growing amount of bullshit going uncaught in the online encyclopedia has put the nail in it: If you want to be a Lazy Writer, you’re screwed.

Worse, a recent experiment found that small errors purposefully introduced to Wikipedia lingered for very long periods of time, meaning that your chances of picking up a detail you think makes you sound smart will actually make you sound incredibly stupid. This, of course, is the fear of the Lazy Writer.

So what does it all leave us with? A lot of novels about being sad, mildly-employed alcoholics, because now all of us Lazy Writers have to Write What We Know.

3 Comments

  1. Patty Blount

    Jeff, I agree completely with your views on Wikipedia. I typically start there, and then dig deeper to either support or disprove what I’ve learned there.

    The internet brings us more than Wikipedia, though. One of the best places for research? Social networks. About a year ago, I posted on my Facebook page that I was writing a novel about teenage volunteer firefighters. Got a reply from a friend of a friend saying that her dad runs a junior squad at a house not far from me. A few days later, I was touring the place with him. Another friend sent me a message that her husband, who is a firefighter, LOVES to talk about his work. He put me in touch with a fire marshal whose input ended up sending my plot in a new direction.

    Like Wikipedia, you have to do some due diligence to determine if the contacts you’re making via social networks are credible but it sure beats enlisting in the service, no?

  2. jsomers (Post author)

    Patty – excellent points. Sadly my misanthropy and social awkwardness make that kind of in-person research impossible. But for more professional writers, absolutely spot on!

  3. Gregory Kohs

    Jeff, perhaps the saddest part is that the Wikimedia Foundation (the group that operates Wikipedia and collects over $50 million a year from donors) has numerous tools at its disposal to make Wikipedia more reliable and credible, but they fail to implement these tools. Easier to just collect money from gullible donors who imagine that the money goes toward improving Wikipedia content, when in reality none of it does.

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