Wikipedia — like Google or CNN — is a name we recognize immediately when mentioned in conversation. The collaborative online encyclopedia currently ranks 8th on the Alexa list of top web destinations. Ask anyone sitting in front of a computer to find information for you on any topic. While most might turn first to Google, many others will turn to Wikipedia. It seems there is an entry for everything on Wikipedia and almost every one of my own burning questions have been answered by a quick consultation there. I’ve even said here that I would feel somewhat impaired in my daily tasks without Wikipedia.

But like most people I know, I am a passive user of Wikipedia: I receive information from the site regularly but I don’t contribute to it. Mostly because I don’t have time but also because I’ve found that many of the entries I might be able edit don’t need much help anyway.

In reading entries on the site, I recently found some where I thought I might be able to help, so I took it upon myself to get more involved in Wikipedia and try to add something, but I quickly found that I wasn’t doing things correctly and that my contributions weren’t well-received by the community. Some were quickly deleted, others resulted in a warning about promoting things for my own gain. I was confused as to why, and in thinking more about it, I realized that while I thought I understood how Wikipedia worked, I really didn’t know much at all.

In an attempt to demystify the process for myself and for you, I spoke to a few active Wikipedia users to get the real story have compiled a walk-through for any would-be Wikipedia contributor. Based on those conversations, here are some Wikipedia steps to success.

1. Register on the site.
Signing up for Wikipedia takes but a moment and all you need is a valid email address. Go to Wikipedia.org, click on the language version of Wikipedia you are interested in (in this post I am specifically referring to the English language version, but the rules apply to all Wikipedia versions). Look up at the top right on your screen and you’ll see a link that says “create account.” The rest is pretty self-explanatory.

2. Read the Guides.
Before you even start editing, be sure to read through the information that Wikipedia provides for new users. This will help you avoid frustration later. Wikipedia is a good resource for lots of different kinds of information, so it’s no surprise that the site includes a lot of informational articles about how to use Wikipedia.

There are articles about editing, formatting, community rules, and much more. One of the most important guides to read first is the one about editing. To access it, look to the left of your screen for the link that says “About Wikipedia.” This will lead you to an entry that has just about everything you could possibly want to know about Wikipedia. Then look for the section called “Editing Wikipedia Pages” for more information. From there, you’ll see a link to a guide called How to edit a page.

This guide tells you everything you need to know to get started in the technical sense. To be sure that you are ready to contribute and edit in accordance with the community rules, read the short entry Wikipedia in Brief, which spells out what is and isn’t acceptable in an entry.

3. Start Editing.
Wikipedia exists to be edited, with people — both regulars and passersby — writing, adding, fixing, changing, and deleting things. Though some of us may be shy about this, we probably shouldn’t be, as it truly is an open project and anyone can participate. So how does one get started? I asked Rama, an active Wikipedia user and administrator who writes about “semi-obscure and obscure topics” on the site, to explain the process to me.

“Every article has an ‘edit’ link at the top,” Rama said. “Clicking this link will bring you to a form where the text of the article can be edited. Implement your corrections, press ‘submit,’ and you are done. You will then see more features (talk pages, history, etc.), which are accessible with similar links. Somewhat esoteric code is used to create links, display an image in an article, to add categories, templates; one can fiddle with this syntax and become familiar with it in a matter of minutes. You can also preview the result of your edits to make certain that the desired effect is achieved before submitting.”

Sounds pretty simple — and it is actually. It’s fairly easy to understand how to edit an entry and actually start editing. But there are many things to keep in mind. Among them are the basics, such as correct formatting in Wikipedia style, so refer back to the editing guide, as well as the Wikipedia Style Manual.

Frank Isaacs, a user I spoke with, told me that the formatting can be tough to get a handle on. “It’s not what people are used to with WYSIWYG editing,” he said. “I don’t think that is likely to change soon, but with over 2 million pages in the English version of Wikipedia alone, it doesn’t appear to be a major roadblock. It can definitely be tedious, though. I’ve often spent 10 or 15 minutes on one paragraph. “

I’ve found that some things are easier than others. Editing an existing entry with minor changes seems simple. Creating a new entry is a bit more daunting. Creating a new entry requires writing a “stub” article first — a short entry with basic information to be enhanced later. Of course, there is a very clear explanation of how to do a stub. Be sure to always preview your changes before publishing them.

Rules of Engagement on Wikipedia

4. Assume Good Faith.
This is a phrase that Wikipedia community members are asked to live by. I first heard the words from user David Gerard, a Wikipedia user since 2003 and the UK spokesperson for the Wikipedia Foundation. When I added a few external links I felt were relevant to some articles of interest to me, they were almost immediately deleted. I asked Gerard why.

“Spammers are relentless on Wikipedia, and most of the bad IP addresses identified are related to external links being added to an article,” he said. “So people get jumpy about people adding links. If you are going to add them, they’d better be the 3 or 4 most relevant links for this topic on the entire Internet.”

Oops. I guess my additions weren’t that authoritative. Understood, but this isn’t exactly clear upon first blush as a total newcomer. And even in terms of following community rules, Gerard says that the limit on external links is an editorial decision. Then whose decision is it? He says it’s up to the community.

“A misconception that some have of Wikipedia is that there is some sort of central editorial authority,” he said. “There isn’t. It’s just ordinary people.”

Ordinary people who make mistakes sometimes, and sometimes think enthusiastic contributors are spammers. Luckily, there are ways to convince skeptical editors that your edits are legit. I’ll get to them a bit later.

5. Be Bold: Don’t Get Discouraged.
According to Wikipedia itself, “be bold” is an unofficial slogan of the site. After that initial experience, I wasn’t feeling bold at all. Me? A spammer? If someone “reverts” your edits (changes the entry back to the way it was before you edited it), it might hurt you for a moment. You also might be confused as to why it happened. But in order to survive on Wikipedia, you’ve got to shake off the fear, take the criticism as constructive, and once again, assume good faith.

I told Wikipedia user Ramu about my experience, and he said that some editors might be newer and less experienced, and therefore might jump the gun. “You have taken the time to read Wikipedia’s guidelines, so you clearly are a potential valuable contributor rather than the casual nuisance for whom you have been mistaken,” he said.

For beginners, this might seem a bit overwhelming and you might fear the wrath of the Wikipedia masses if you do something wrong. But think about it: a collaborative project built by unpaid volunteers all working toward a common, life-enriching goal. Most users are more than likely good people. David Gerard’s advice to newcomers reluctant to stick a toe in the Wikipedia pond is comforting: “There are lots of nice people and a few obnoxious ones. Don’t let the obnoxious ones get you down.”

Editing is also constantly being done by non-human editors. Bots are automated editing tools created by and/or controlled by users. The bots do repetitive tasks, checking for things like vandalism or spam. So don’t be alarmed (as I was) if you see one of your edits instantly reverted.

Talk Page for the Citizen Journalism Entry

6. Get Familiar with the Talk Pages. Talk pages are your way of keeping up with what’s been going on with your edits and those of others. The MyTalk page, which can be accessed from your account (it’s a link at the top right hand of your screen), is where other users notify you about changes made to your edits. If one of your edits gets reverted or an entry you’ve started has been deleted, you’ll be notified on the MyTalk page of your account when you log in. If someone makes changes to your edits, or to the entry you’ve edited, you can see those changes on the history page of the entry. If something was deleted, you can check out the deletion log, which is a near real-time list of items that have been deleted.

Each entry also has its own talk page. Using the entry for the Dalai Lama as an example, go to the Discussion tab above the article’s title. Here you’ll find all manner of suggestions, debate and conversation on how the article about the Dalai Lama might be improved.

These proposed edits might be a simple correction in the writing style or full-blown arguments over details that should be included or left out. If an edit you’ve made has been challenged or reverted, this would be the place to (politely) defend your position. The result of the conversations carried out on the entry’s Talk page might be the eventual acceptance of your edits, or you might be convinced that the reverting was in the best interest of the article. It’s a collaborative effort, just like everything else on Wikipedia.

Some of the debates are necessary, most are passionate and at least some are considered by many users as silly, and are compiled in the site’s collection of Wikipedia’s Lamest Edit Wars. In the compendium you’ll find epic debates over things like Ann Coulter’s age and the true ethnicity of actress Jennifer Aniston.

7. Maintain a Neutral Tone.
One of the main ideas of Wikipedia is that it stay neutral on controversial topics, though many people argue if there’s an overall bias to the online encyclopedia. One Wikipedia user Frank Isaacs told me that sometimes a person’s emotions get mixed into the editing process, and the community has to rid entries of any inkling of bias to achieve neutrality. Issacs has been involved in the editing of the entry for Frank Lorenzo, a former airline CEO, and explains how personal bias seeps into the entry:

There is a user who apparently feels on a personal level that Lorenzo’s actions at Eastern Airlines — 18 or so years ago — were personally life-altering. [The user] tries to change the wording regarding the strike that essentially bankrupted the company to indicate that it was some sort of attack on the employees. Here’s what the user has put into the article:

‘The Machinists, fight attendants, and pilot unions were forced into a strike on March 3, 1989 after a company lock-out. On 3 March 1989, President George H. W. Bush and his lackey, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, issued a statement…’ (You can see this version of the article here.)

Note the use of the words ‘forced’ and ‘lackey.’ Also, note that the first sentence is not followed by a reference. That’s a point of view statement. It may actually be true — but without a reference, it can’t really stay in the article. So the current version says that they went on strike without attempting to say why. Now a user might be upset at removing that version, but it is not in keeping with the mission of Wikipedia, so if there’s any activity at all on an article, it will be changed.

One of Wikipedia’s missions — and one of its 5 Pillars — is to provide information with a neutral point of view, so don’t go injecting your opinion into an entry, even in subtle ways.

Wikipedia’s 5 Pillars

8. Always Provide References.
References are a rule on Wikipedia. Wikipedia states that “articles should rely on reliable, third-party published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy.” As Issacs points out above, the article that was deemed lacking in neutrality was also lacking in references to back up its claims.

David Gerard is emphatic about this point. “Always put a reference. Always. Always. Always put a reference,” he says. If you are writing a new entry, and it contains no references, it’s likely that it will be quickly deleted. Wikipedia spells out all the reasons why you should cite sources and how to do it in a guide called Citing Sources.

This also means that no original research is allowed. Gerard told me that Wikipedia gets its fair share of “physics cranks” that claim they can debunk Einstein’s theories. There is no place for stuff like that on Wikipedia. If it can’t be corroborated, it doesn’t belong, so don’t even try it. That goes for ego-trippers looking to use Wikipedia as their own personal fan site by creating entries for themselves. If you think you’re famous and you’re not, you’ll quickly be outed by the Wikipedia community, which will look for evidence of your alleged notoriety.

What do you think? Are you a Wikipedia consumer, contributor or both? Why do you choose to edit and add to Wikipedia or why don’t you? What things are good about contributing to Wikipedia and what could be improved? Share you thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.