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

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 article prose.

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 MilHist articles.

Organisational tipsEdit

 
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 strengths and weaknesses and matching them with those of others.

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

  1. What MilHist topics are they interested in?
  2. What skills do they have? (There are many possibilities, including 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 non-member Wikipedians (and even people who are not yet Wikipedians) into MilHist, 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 basic copy-editing beforehand.

Often, copy-editors and those with substantive knowledge of the topic and its sources will need to interact to produce a professional article. This can be done on the article's 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, without accidentally changing the appearance of the text.

Ways to improve your copy-editingEdit

Style guidesEdit

These pages have 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 processesEdit

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 steady improvement in the quality of MilHist prose.

Strategic distanceEdit

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 a break, and 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 organisation, it is often helpful to copy-edit more than one article or section at a time and to alternate between them to freshen your mind. No two copy-edits are exactly alike.

Language tipsEdit

Generally write for non-expertsEdit

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; when 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 using parentheses, dashes or commas; 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 EnglishEdit

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 divided with a semicolon or period:

Similarly, long paragraphs are daunting to 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.

RedundancyEdit

Redundancy, rather than poor grammar and spelling, is the biggest source of problems in prose. A smooth read requires no wasted words; it's as 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.

PrecisionEdit

Be precise wherever 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; it 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 wordsEdit

A lot of MilHist involves storytelling. Stories are strings of actions and facts; 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 words as "then", "in addition", "also", "next", and "after this".

RepetitionEdit

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 a word normally is, the more a reader will notice its repetition.

However, repetition isn't quite as simple as this. There's bad repetition (like what we've just seen) and good repetition. Explicitly "back-referring" to an important word by repeating it can make the text more cohesive and avoid ambiguity.

ConsistencyEdit

Inconsistency in naming and formatting within an article makes the text more difficult to understand. 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 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 lineEdit

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 its dramatic events. Remember that 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 resourcesEdit