A Wikipedia reading technique that will make you a better writer

Wikipedia is hard to tame. We all know what it’s like to wander down that endless rabbit hole of links. There is so much information there, and it’s put together in such a compelling way. French history soon turns into the biography of Charles the Great, which soon turns into the founding of Rome, which soon turns into Romulus and Remus. Is it any wonder that, by the time 20 minutes have passed, you’re reading about archipelagos?

I’ve found a way to read Wikipedia every day and stay on track. It took me some time to develop this in my reading discipline, but now that it’s come together, I’d like to share it with you writers out there—or anyone who wants to boost their general knowledge about the world.

Find your main reading tracks

When I use the term “reading track”, imagine I’m talking about a book.

For example, right now I’m reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gregory Hays). I’m reading it front to back. This is a procedure. I will pick it up each day and resume where I left off the previous day. I will do this over a certain number of days, until I finish the book. And beyond that, when I’m finished, I will move to the next book in my reading queue. In this way I’ll always have a procedure for “reading books”.

This is the general way to describe the process of reading we’re all familiar with.

Our goal, then, is to create “books” in this sense with Wikipedia tracks. Another way to think of this: linear reading goals. This means you have a procedure that gives you a sense of “beginning to end”. More importantly, you have a sense of where to pick up tomorrow, and how to keep going so that you feel like you’re reading a story.

Dynastic reading track

The simplest track is the dynastic one. Start any dynasty with its founder (i.e. English or French monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Chinese emperors, Numidian kings). Read the article about them, in full, then at the top “quick facts” section, click on the “succeeded by” section, i.e. their successor. Starting with Alfred the Great, you will come eventually to Queen Elizabeth II—and what a great tour you’ll get on the way!

For me as a writer, I love this track the most. I find the best inspiration for stories is found in the stories about real people. Real lives. What’s important about dynasties on Wikipedia is these lives intersect with so many other topics that have shaped the common concept we share of the world. It’s inevitable that in reading through dynasties, you’re going to get curious about all sorts of other topics that knit together the world as we know it.

If you don’t like “dynastic” you can generalize this concept. Take any office or administration where there is a line of succession. Some examples:

  • The U.S. Presidency, for example, starting with George Washington
  • The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (starting with Henry Lucas)
  • The CEO of any business that’s been around for a while (i.e. Ford or IBM)

It doesn’t even have to be limited to a line of succession. The goal behind this really is to create a linear story line that will start somewhere important then move forward. You could begin with the biography of Socrates then, once you’ve read it, pick up on the biography of someone who stood out to you who he influenced (i.e. Plato). You might do this then eventually come to Alexander the Great then follow the lines of succession after him that eventually mingle (in time) with the rise of Julius Caesar. You could conceivably continue on this way all the way to the end of the German Empire, with several branching lines to double back on (i.e. French monarchs, Italian monarchs, etc).

But don’t spend too much time deliberating the perfect way to do this. Just think of what interests you the most. All you need is a starting point. Guaranteed, once you start, the options will soon abound.

Topical reading track

Reading dry facts can be boring. Fortunately, if you start in the right places on Wikipedia, moving forward through topics can unfold as a story about people and the world much like with dynasties.

The key is picking broad topics. Mathematics. Economics. Business. Law. Politics. Science. Physics. Psychology. Archaeology. Geology. Try to think of every major subject that comes to you.

The key to picking broad topics is they all branch into several other major articles, then these in turn branch out into further major articles. If you’re curious about shingling, put that article away for some other time. You want topics that will have longevity—much like the dynasties.

The routine is straightforward:

Read the article for a given topic top to bottom. When you’re done, start at the top again and this time click on the “see ….” links at each of the major header divisions. Mathematics, for example, has major branching articles on history of mathematics, fields of mathematics, arithmetic, number theory, etc.

As you can see, the idea is to read top to bottom and each time go one level deeper. But as you go deeper you’ll have to use your intuition. Reading your way through a topic’s first level of branching articles, there will be further branches that catch your eye. When you get three or four levels deep, there will be so many branches you’ll have to pick the ones that seem more interesting (hint: pick the ones that also seem gateways to further levels).

You can choose to focus on one or two topics, or you can rotate this around. For instance, you might read the article for “physics” then after that, read the article for “sociology”. Then you might want to go back to the “physics” article and read through its first level of branching articles.

Keep track of it on a list. I have mine written on a piece of paper. To help me remember where I’m at, I put a tick (i.e. physics’ ) to mark how deep I’ve read. If I see music” then I know I’ve read two levels deep on that topic.

Having the visual list helps with overwhelm of feeling like there are just too many topics to keep track of, and to restrain the urge to wander off and forget your objective. On the other hand, having the freedom to switch topics after each iteration frees you up from getting locked too long in one topic.

List-based reading tracks

There is yet a third approach beyond lines of succession and topics: lists.

For example:

  • Lists of the different cultures in the world (cultural)
  • Lists of the world’s nations (geographic)
  • List of world time lines (chronological)
  • List of world languages (linguistic)
  • List of world religions (religious)
  • List of world races (ethnic)
  • List of works of fiction (bibliographic)

I recommend you only pick 2-3 of these and focus on them, based on your core learning goals. These are the three I’ve chosen and why I like them:

Geographic:

I can start at the top with a list of all the nations of the world and work my way down all the sub-articles over time. This keeps me well-balanced in developing a broader perspective about world diversity. Even the idea of what a “nation” is, i.e. “state” vs. “sovereign state” is important to consider when one thinks about just what the nations/countries of the world really are. And as a fantasy writer, this is one topic I will milk and milk and milk for many years to come.

Chronological:

Reading dynasties is great, but it’s possible to fall into a tunnel. I’m reading my way through the English monarchy right now. I picked it because of all the dynasties this is the one that I’ve always been curious about. However, I find I’m often wondering about the French perspective, or the Spanish, or the Islamic, or the African, or the First Nations’, etc.

Starting at the top of an article that lists the world time line provides this broader narrative. Working progressively down its sub-articles is giving me a perspective of the broader strokes of time from the Big Bang all the way to the present. It’s a good balance.

Linguistic:

I am fascinated by language. While I enjoy constructing aspects of the language for my story, I’m often guessing.

But reading about language for me is about a lot more than inventing better languages for my stories. Reading my way from the top down from the “language” article, then eventually through a tour of the major languages of the world and how they work, is giving me a better perspective on how I use language, as I write in English, based on how other people who speak other languages approach phrasing.

Just like with topics, you read your way down the main branching points. With these lists, you’ll eventually get into articles of sub-lists and this will spread out. Again, you’ll need to use your intuition to keep this on track the further you go.

Approach this like a martial art: you need flexibility and flow. I guarantee you as you get into any one of the lists, you’ll get curious and develop a sense of where you want to go next and how to do so without freezing up.

Putting it into practice

1. Determine how many tracks you’ll read, and for how long

Once you have your tracks chosen, you can begin on each of them. I recommend you pick the number of tracks you can keep up daily. I have 6 and I spend about 10-15 minutes on each.

Now, for reading a novel, that would not be enough time for me to feel any momentum, but for Wikipedia, my goal is to try and learn something new every day. Even just 5-10 minutes of reading in one track, I will take away a few things I didn’t know before. There also is no rush to finish, like one might feel with a book—this is about the journey; the destination is only a way of making sure you keep your daily tour of stops interesting.

I have one dynastic track, then two topic tracks. I begin with those.

Two topic tracks lets me have one that I’m more interested in and the other that’s general knowledge. You might think of it as “major” and “minor”, like topics in university. The major track right now is mathematics and I’ll keep working on this one and the iterations that take me down deeper branches of main sub-articles. The minor is a rotation, where my goal is to get through the main articles on my very large list of main topics. I just read philosophy and physics and am now on chemistry. When I finish one of these articles, instead of starting again and moving down the sub-articles, I move to the next topic.

My major might change, and I might do a 2nd level of reading on one of my minor topics now and again, but the idea is one track allows me to latch onto whatever I am most curious about, while the other forces me to keep learning outside that so as to broaden my awareness.

I always let my intuition guide me as I read. Sometimes I might spend a bit more time reading my dynastic track and topical tracks, then quickly touch base on the 3 remaining list tracks (geographic, chronological, linguistic). But I always read from each one so that I keep the tap flowing.

2. Set boundaries on link-hopping

Aim to read an article top to bottom. There will occasionally be links that interest you and it’s okay to wander into them briefly.

I like to use a simple rule: preview, then read the summary if relevant.

This means if I’m curious about a link, I’ll click the preview of the first sentences of the summary to get a sense of it. If that’s not enough, I’ll wander in to briefly read the overview. For example, at one point the Order of the Garter was mentioned and I was curious about it. I wanted to know a little more while I was there. Reading the full article would be off track for my purposes. As a rule, if I’m spending more than 2-3 minutes on a “detour” I’m off task.

A good analogy would be a tour bus. It will make stops on the way and you can get out to look around, but you better be back on time or the bus is leaving and you’ll be lost.

3. Separate “need to know now” from “can find out later”

It’s important to remember that this Wikipedia method is simply a daily reading method that will help you learn something new every day on Wikipedia. It’s balanced and broad, and allows you to go deep.

But it’s not the only way you can read Wikipedia. You’ll probably find, as I have, that over time your instinct to need to know now cools down a little the more you learn to restrain it.

It’s a bit like thoughts that enter your mind during meditation. Focus on your breath and let the thoughts come then go. Over time, you’ll get better at focusing on your breath.

If something is genuinely important, you can always look it up quickly on Wikipedia later. Try to separate this Wikipedia practice from “quick fact checking” that you can do any time, as needed.

One thing I find helpful: I have the Wikipedia app on a tablet that I use just for reading. This concretizes my Wikipedia reading habit. I have the Wikipedia app on my phone, and of course I can pull up a Wikipedia article anytime in my browser. When I have a moment I need to check something, i.e. “Who is that actor on The Terror who plays the captain and the king in The Crown?” I can do that on my phone. My tablet though is sacrosanct.

CAVEAT

Wikipedia is “good enough, but not enough”

What I mean by this statement is that for the purpose of expanding your general knowledge, Wikipedia will suffice. But for the purpose of being an authority on a given topic, it’s only a starting point.

For example, you might have learned a lot about Richard II of England in your tour through the English monarchy reading track. In a conversation, you might be able to throw in a great one-liner, “He was a real tyrant. He was deposed by Henry IV.” Whereas before, all you might have known about him was, “He came after Richard I, was he in one of Shakespeare’s plays?”

But beware. If someone in the conversation has read their history, especially if they’ve specialized in the history of the English monarchy, you’re in trouble. Wikipedia is helpful, I find, at giving you a roundabout sketch. This is especially true of popular topics where the content has been through thorough editing by their committees, and has been worked by various authors. You will usually see this in comments where they contrast opinions.

For example, Richard II is described as a tyrant. But wait a minute. That’s someone’s opinion. What are the facts that support that?

Try to steer clear of those sorts of statements, at least in terms of pieces you might pull out in conversation. Far better are the sentences in an article that reflect discussion and citation. For example, Richard II “was athletic and tall; when his tomb was opened in 1871 he was found to be six feet tall” is a good fact, taken from John Gower’s Historia vitae et regni Ricardi II.

But this is all beside the point if you’re reading Wikipedia as a writer. The point isn’t to have a perfect scholarly recollection. It’s to give yourself inspiration grounded in the real world. If you need to dig on a specific topic (say you’re setting your book during the reign of Richard II) then you’ll need to read further as part of writing for that book.

But for general reading practice, to gain awareness about the diverse topics and broaden your knowledge in the ways you want, this is “enough”. Think of it as opening doors that otherwise you would never have known existed. And that is what makes for the best stories.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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3 Responses to A Wikipedia reading technique that will make you a better writer

  1. Pingback: 7 tips to help you make a living as an Indie self-published author | John Robin's Blog

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  3. Pingback: How I read as a writer — an easy-to-follow template | John Robin's Blog

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