In theory, Wikipedia is the “encyclopedia anyone can edit.” And some things, like fixing a typo or adding a sentence in, are trivially easy.

But as you’ve probably found, when you start getting into the more interesting stuff — images, tables, citing your sources, or even just trying to follow a discussion among several editors — things can get pretty confusing, pretty quick.

In this post, I’ll take on some of the jargon that comes along with Wikipedia editing, and explain how to use some of the tools that help us work together more effectively.

User contributions screen (similar to recent changes and article history)

The screen shot above shows a “User contributions” screen. This should be a useful visual aid, because it has lots in common with some of the other features described below, like “recent changes”, article history pages, and watch lists.


  • Diff: a web page, or the link to such a page, that shows the differences, or changes, between two versions of an article. (It’s a lot like the “track changes” feature in many word processing programs.) In discussions, it’s often helpful to illustrate exactly what edits you’re talking about; for instance, I might say “Hey Tedder, thanks for adding all that info to the Portland Armory article back in May.” The link in the middle of that sentence is a diff. Anyone can understand precisely what edits I’m talking about, just by clicking it.
  • Edit summary: Every time you make an edit, you should leave a short description of what you did. Many of us use some kind of shorthand, like “r” for reply or “rv” for revert); but this is sort of random. If you edit just one section of an article, you’ll find the edit summary field pre-populated with a code that will put the section’s name, in light grey text, at the beginning of the edit summary. These summaries appear in article histories and user contribution lists, and provide a useful (though not definitive) clue about what was done. For a more authoritative look at an edit, use a “diff.”
  • History page: Every Wikipedia article (and in fact, every page on the site, including user pages, discussion pages, etc.) has a history of all edits that were ever made to it. You can just click the “history” tab at the top of any article, and see a list of all the edits; you can also get to history pages through the “User contributions” page, as illustrated above. Looking at a history page is a good way to find “diffs.”Note, history pages have additional options for getting diffs, not depicted above. Try clicking the buttons next to the date on any two versions of an article, then click “Compare selected versions.” Even if the edits were days or years apart, with dozens of revisions in between, you will get a clear view of what changed in between. Here’s a link to the history page for the article on the Oregon State Capitol.
  • Namespace: areas of Wikipedia that are kept somewhat separate from each other. The most important one is “main space” (also known as “article space”), which is where all the articles live; you can easily browse around in “main space” without stumbling very often on “user space” (where editors keep their personal pages), “project space” (where projects like WikiProject Oregon live), or “category space” (where pages that categorize Wikipedia articles and other pages live). Namespaces are defined by a prefix at the beginning of an article’s name (except for “main space”, which has no prefix). For instance, Category:People from Oregon is in the “category” name space. The most important thing to understand is that the main space is what most of the policies and guidelines apply to; there are lots of things you can do in “user space” or “project space,” like writing drafts that aren’t perfectly cited or complete, that would get swiftly deleted if you put them in main space. (Of course, behavior-oriented policies, like the one prohibiting personal attacks, apply to the entire project.)
  • Recent changes: a link on the left hand side of every Wikipedia page, showing the most recent edits to all articles. On many wiki-based sites, this is a useful way to see what people are working on. But because Wikipedia is such a huge project, this is a pretty random view — it changes by the second!You may prefer the Oregon-specific recent changes page (also shown in the sidebar of this blog’s main page). Then again, some people choose to “patrol” recent changes, and look for vandalism and newbie mistakes; it’s not a bad way to get a feel for how the project operates.
  • Revert, rollback, undo: Wikipedia editors are encouraged to “be bold” in their editing, and one of the reasons is that it’s really easy to fix mistakes when they happen. On user contribution pages, history pages, and in diffs you will see links for “revert” or “undo”; you can also revert to an older version of a page simply by clicking “edit” and then “save” when viewing an older version of an article. “Rollback” is a slightly enhanced version that’s only available to editors who’ve been given the privilege.
  • User contributions: a summary of an individual person’s edits, with the most recent edit listed first. When viewing a person’s user page or talk page, look for the “User contributions” link. Here’s a link to my contributions page, as an example.
  • Watch list: If you create an account, you get access to an incredibly cool feature called a “watch list.” You can add articles to your watch list just by clicking the “watch” tab near the top of the screen. After you’ve added a few articles to your list, you can click on “watch list” any time to see which ones have been updated recently, along with the edit summaries and other relevant information.