The Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Editing Wikipedia

Before this week’s Wikipedia edit-a-thon, I had never edited a Wikipedia page. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could – I had supposed it was a much more serious thing, that you had to know everything there was to know about a topic to meaningfully contribute to its page. But luckily, that’s not the case. I did, of course, choose a page about a topic that I know a lot about – Sarah Polley’s memoir in essays, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. As soon as we learned we would have to edit a Wikipedia page, I looked up the page for Run Towards the Danger, and I was delighted to see that it was quite sparse. The world’s loss (a lack of detailed information about this incredible book collected in one place) became my gain! I’m planning to write about Run Towards the Danger in my dissertation, so rereading the book in advance of the edit-a-thon meant I had the opportunity to reread it for my research too.

When I was preparing for the edit-a-thon, I was unsure of how exactly to improve this article. I had ideas of what to add, of course, but I didn’t really know what it should look like in the end. Throughout the process, I used the Wikipedia page for Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House as a reference. This page was useful because like Run Towards the Danger, In the Dream House is a contemporary memoir with a twist; it’s more innovative and literary than a conventional memoir. It served as a good roadmap for what I thought the Run Towards the Danger page should be. Of course, In the Dream House is a much more well-known and widely acclaimed book than Run Towards the Danger, which meant that I didn’t have as much information I could add, but I wanted to do the most I could with what I had.

This is what the Wikipedia page looked like before I edited it. The “Summary” section, which is supposed to give information about each essay, was not very detailed. Neither were the “Reception” section or the references. I set out to improve each of these sections. I also wanted to change the image on the right of the page to a box containing information about the book, similar to this one on the In the Dream House page:

I didn’t have all of this information for Run Towards the Danger, but I added a similar box to the page, using the “Book” template. I thought this was important to add to expand the information on the page, and for this page to resemble the other Wikipedia pages about books.

I also wanted to edit and expand the article’s opening paragraphs. The opening sentence was missing the book’s subtitle, “Confrontations with a Body of Memory”. I added this because it’s part of the book’s title, and thus it constitutes crucial information about the book. This sentence also described the book as a “Canadian essay collection by Sarah Polley”. This phrasing emphasises the fact that it’s an essay collection published in Canada, rather than the fact that its author is Canadian. I also took issue with how the sentence describes Polley as a former child star first. The book details Polley’s many traumatic experiences as a child actress, and how important it is to her to now have more agency and freedom as a director and screenwriter. I wanted to change the order of Polley’s careers to reflect and respect this detail. Finally, I was inspired by the In the Dream House article to add the publisher and publication date to the opening paragraph, which I think is important information about how the book came to be. I also added citations for the publishing information. I would have added a wikilink (a link to another Wikipedia article) for September Publishing, but it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

I also edited the second paragraph in the introduction. I thought the wording of the first sentence was clunky, so I edited it for clarity. I also thought it was important background information to add that Polley initially wrote these six essays as stand-alone pieces, rather than specifically for a collection, and that it took her many years to write them. I also added the origin of the book’s title and the essay of the same name, and how Polley relates the phrase to the essays in the book. Originally, this paragraph also stated that this book “revealed for the first time” that Polley had been sexually and physically assaulted by the broadcaster Jian Ghomenshi. I thought this was strange when I first read it, because the essay “The Woman Who Stayed Silent” takes its title from a tweet that describes Polley as such because she didn’t speak up about being assaulted by Ghomenshi when other women did. How could the book have revealed that Polley was assaulted by Ghomenshi when the essay is based around this tweet, in which the author is aware of the assault? When I checked the citation for this sentence, I found it was a broken link. I checked this link on the Wayback Machine, and when I read the article, it never stated that the book revealed for the first time that Ghomenshi had assaulted Polley. Because I couldn’t verify this information, I deleted the sentence.

The article’s introduction now looks like this:

My next big edit was expanding the “Summary” section, which gives a summary of the content of each essay. I added more detail to each essay description. I also added wikilinks where relevant. For example, I added mentions of stage fright and the director Terry Gilliam, so I inserted wikilinks to those pages in case future readers want to know more about those topics. For clarity, I also added that Jian Ghomenshi is a broadcaster, for readers who may not know who he is. When editing this section, I had to be very careful not to add any of my original thoughts about the essays. If you edit something on a Wikipedia page, you must be able to cite a published source for it. I erred on the side of caution in this sense. For example, when I was planning my edits, I originally planned to write that in the essay “Alice, Collapsing”, Polley draws parallels between herself and the character of Alice, and between her relationship with her father and that between the author Lewis Carroll and the real-life girl who Alice was based on. However, although I think these parallels are clearly drawn in the book, I decided that this could be seen as more of a personal interpretation of the book, and that I shouldn’t include it. Also, since I plan to write about this book in my dissertation, I wanted to be careful not to add any of my thoughts about the book in case I also end up making those points in my dissertation, and it looks like I plagiarised Wikipedia!

This is my finalised edit of the “Summary” section:

I also expanded the “Reception” section on the page. When editing Wikipedia, I had to be entirely neutral and couldn’t talk about how excellent I think Run Towards the Danger is – but luckily, published reviewers think that it’s excellent too, and I can cite them. For balance, I would have added a negative review of the book if I came across it, but I didn’t. When I was reading reviews of the book to add them to this section, it was a bit of a challenge to choose the best and most appropriate quotes to add to the page. Again, I used the In the Dream House page as a reference for what kinds of quotes I should take from the reviews and add to the article.

This is what the “Reception” section looks like now (I added the final three paragraphs):

Of course, I had to add citations for each piece of new information I added. A lot of information came directly from the book itself, which I only cited once. When I added a citation, I had to ensure that I formatted the date in the same way each time. I also expanded a citation that had been added by someone else, to give it more detail. Then, I removed the template at the bottom of the article that described it as a “stub”. After I expanded and edited the article, it no longer qualifies as a stub. I also added one category that the article belongs to: Canadian memoirs.

The main thing I took away from the edit-a-thon was how much I enjoyed it! I’m pleased to have concrete proof out in the world of work that I did, that can now be accessed by other people who are interested in the topic, and hopefully they can learn more about the book too. It was satisfying to improve the Wikipedia article for something I’m so passionate about, especially since I thought it was so lacking previously. I think that in the future I might find myself editing more Wikipedia pages, especially since I now know it’s so simple. I also understand more about the importance of citing your sources on Wikipedia, especially in relation to neutrality on the website.

Finally, here’s what the whole Wikipedia page looks like after my edits. You can also see it for yourself here: Run Towards the Danger