What Is a Wiki (and How to Use One for Your Projects)
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Wiki Organization Tips

Now you're committed to your wiki; here are some tips for staying organized, which will lead to a successful, happy wiki experience:

  • Keep an index: If the wiki is heavily structured with pages you can only get to with a click-click-and-click-again, you'll never find anything. We kept a single page called "AllHacks," listing all of the hacks and potential hacks. These were organized in the same order as the book, and a note made around each one according to its status. Because they were all on the same page, it was easy to have a quick explore. Remember, you want to be thinking, "Oh, what was that idea again?" and find yourself clicking on the link, reading briefly, and clicking Back without really even noticing. Keep navigation simple.

  • Keep it messy: Provisionality is key--don't let perfectionism get in the way of throwing down on the wiki all the half-thoughts, potential seeds, links, and factoids that you'll need later.

  • But not too messy: We talked earlier about "wiki gardening," which is the process of wandering around the wiki tidying as you go. The point isn't necessarily tidying, it's seeing pages and ideas with fresh eyes, too. It's a good habit, it's easy, and really shouldn't just be ten minutes a day--it's continual. Try spending your first cup of coffee in the morning on the wiki, picking up loose ends, trimming the index, and so on. Do more whenever you have a spare few minutes. You'll run across late-night ideas from before that might change your day. Be wary of imposing structure too early, however. You'll find you come to an understanding, as you garden, of what needs to be structured and what doesn't. Reorganization (but not too much) keeps things fresh.

  • Don't be scared of synonyms: Having lots of pages about the same thing isn't bad if it means you make more notes. But keep all these pages linked off of your table of contents so they can be gardened away later. In fact, it's good to have a lot of text and synonyms on one page because it makes it more likely you'll find it with text search later.

  • Make context-dependent notes: Keep notes where you think you'll run into them later. This is like sticking the "buy milk" note on the front door where you'll see it as you go out instead of on the fridge where you'll find it just after you boil the kettle for your tea. Or like putting your passport in your shoes so you can't leave without actively picking it up. Dump notes everywhere, but dump notes together on pages with other notes. Remember, the intention is that when you come to actually writing a full article, you run across things you'd forgotten, and can use them to make your article even better.

Wiki Sharing Tips

The wiki is common space for everyone in your group, so here are some suggested house rules to help you get along:

  • Total immersion: Every edit should be emailed to you, and use the WikiWords in even in private correspondence. We set up our wiki to send an email every time a page was updated (most wikis have a RecentChanges page that you can subscribe to). That may seem like overkill, but it's really not! We could read the wiki subject line and delete the mail. Doing this, just scanning down your inbox gives you good background awareness of what's changing, and where. (If you're an RSS hound, you can subscribe using a web feed instead.)

  • Comment in situ: Feel free to make comments on everyone else's ideas and writing on the same page--maybe even in the same paragraph. You'll figure out a standard for commenting to each other (use bold, perhaps, or use square brackets and your name). Doing this keeps conversations together and out of the immediate workflow, where they're able to proceed at their own pace without interrupting any urgent work. It's also an incentive to follow the RecentChanges email subscription closer. On these same lines, make sure you log in to the wiki and have a meaningful username. If you don't use this to see who did what, you'll forget.

  • Don't share too much: Keep the wiki private. Life's too short to have to be aware of what the public are doing to your space. Think about it like a shared office where everything is where you left it and you're used to each other's presence--it'd be annoying to come in one morning and find the books on your shelves alphabeticized when they used to be in easy-access order. Put a password on your wiki.

  • Be non-precious: Wiki software helps you let go of your own writing and not feel precious about it, and gives you practice at getting thoughts out of your head into words (because the pressure's low). Both of these are essential for a successful collaborative project, and can be hard to learn. Remember: feel free to edit your colleagues' pages, and feel flattered when they help out by editing yours--even when they delete all of your words and totally rewrite it. It can be painful to start with, but it's about the project, not about you.

  • Be precise: Gardening and ease of editing doesn't mean you should be shoddy or slapdash--for effective sharing, you want your collaborators to know exactly what you mean. Watch your spelling and grammar, be clear, and don't expect anyone to clear up after you. This is true for collaborations in general, but when you're not physically sharing the same space it's more important to be aware of what you're doing.

Technical Hints

It's not all about the writing and how to get along. We have a few tips for whoever's responsible for the technical side of the wiki, too:

  • Always back up: If you're a hacker, consider installing the wiki software on your laptop and using rsync to copy it over periodically. You'll have a local copy for reference, and a backup should the server have any trouble.

  • Never upgrade: Never upgrade your wiki software halfway through your project, even if you think you need an extra feature. It's too easy to get sidetracked into updating and upgrading. It's not about the wiki, it's about the project.

  • Pick carefully: The wiki software is a huge factor in whether your everyday work is enjoyable and productive. Remember to check the engine against the evaluation criteria given above, paying particular attention to page histories, user accounts, and attachments. Being able to subscribe to changes by email (or RSS) is a must.


Wikis are at their best when a small number of people are working intensely on related material. They're messy, immediate, and a powerful way of sharing thinking space with your collaborators.

Once you've used a wiki for a project, you'll find it hard to go back to regular methods. You'll find yourself using wiki syntax in emails, and your own WikiWords in conversation. Using the wiki as your notebook will ensure you don't lose the seeds of good ideas, and spending time browsing and gardening will keep those ideas returning when you need them. Most of all, you'll find that having a shared memory on a large project moves the administrivia out of the way and lets you concentrate on the real job.

Tom Stafford has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently a research associate in the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield. He is also an associate editor of the Psychologist magazine and has previously worked as a freelance writer and researcher for the BBC.

Matt Webb At Schulze & Webb, Matt Webb engineers, designs, and hacks technology and physical things. He is also the coauthor of Mind Hacks, cognitive psychology for a general audience.

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