How to Resist Criticizing New Contributors on wikiHow

Is it ever worthwhile to criticize a budding new contributor to wikiHow even if you feel that they have done something wrong, something that you feel damages article after article? The answer is a frank "no".

If you ever feel the urge to criticize, stop immediately and consider how constructive you are about to be. Are you adding to the pool of positivity on the site or are you sucking it dry? Also call into question your own motives and assumptions by objectively looking deep within. Then consolidate your thoughts and ask yourself, "Have I actually, assumed good faith?"

You should sense some large truths:

  • The potential for scaring off quality new contributors.
  • The very act of criticizing runs against the community mission of making this the greatest how-to site in the world.


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    Put yourself in the place of the contributor. When you were a new contributor, couldn't you have made similar mistakes? Ask yourself: "Will my comments improve both the quality of the article and wikiHow?" "Will they help the contributor, both now and with future contributions?" Wouldn't you make similar literary choices? Would it be wiser to give them the same room to grow? If you answer truthfully, positively, and with conviction, then you can't go wrong.
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    Think wisely. Are your potential comments really necessary? This is the big decision. Is the new contributor making such a big mess that the only remedy is to hold their hand and walk them through step-by-step? Or are they simply making several repetitive mistakes that might be easily fixed with a short and friendly heads up? Or (here is the bigger self-question) is a contributor doing something that isn't so bad, but is bothering you because it is something you have a stake in? Consider the case where you have personally chosen to tend to an area on wikiHow.
    • For example, you might be busy formatting, copy-editing or categorizing articles. And then comes a contributor who writes well but perhaps misspells, never categorizes or doesn't bold when you'd like bold text. Please note that there is no expectation for contributors to fix any of these things, as they are style choices that the contributor might be making deliberately. It is just that they don't gel with your style. So, is this worth getting irritated about and flinging them a "fix it now!" message?
    • Often, it is more about your perspective than about their editing. Think, and ask yourself if it is really worth asking this contributor to conform to your methods, or whether it really is about needing to coach them, or, is it about broadening your own perspectives to tolerate those of others? Think hard before leaping.
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    Be constructive, not critical. If you decide it is worthwhile messaging the new contributor, provide feedback, not criticism. Point out factual examples, then take the time to explain what the problem is, using positive language. Here are some key considerations:
    • Keep it short. - Keep your message simple and direct. Do not use vague generalizations. Instead, make your point, but don't belabor it.
    • Personalize your message. - Templates are useful, but don't overuse them, especially where a personal connection would be much kinder and less stand-offish. Placing the same template multiple times will irritate most contributors, and also decrease the impact of messages-- positive or negative. Use templates sparingly and always favor personalized messages. It opens the door to understanding.
    • Don't repeat yourself. - Overdoing the message devalues the message and the recipient's enthusiasm. One polite message and a succinct explanation should suffice. Harping on one point creates the feeling of being hounded is often seen as your personal agenda rather than a justified community concern. Always think how you would feel before you leave the same complaint multiple times on their talk page - not only does it loudly signal your own irritation but it gives the recipient (and anyone reading it) the impression that the contributor is doing something horribly wrong when, in fact, it's likely that there is only one facet of their contribution that has been inflated beyond what is reasonable or necessary. The key here is to use the absolute least force that is necessary to guide a negative aspect toward the positive.
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    Avoid making assumptions about the new contributor's background. Until new contributors open up to the community about who they are (and they are not expected to unless they wish to), we don't know anything about them. Making assumptions in an online environment is even less sensible than making assumptions in an offline environment! We have nothing to go by other than what they are adding to wikiHow. If what they are adding enhances and improves wikiHow overall, it fills our reservoir of knowledge. We should never throttle an individual creative flow with a sense of indignation or a over doing things the "correct way"! Always resist the urge to call people "newbies"; this isn't a game site and is quite patronizing.
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    Know when to let it be. This is vital - communications on wikiHow are not verbal debates where you try to score the last point. Once you've made your point, have the courtesy and strength to recognize that a good contributor has heard you and taken your message on board. Don't assume that just because they aren't reorienting their style that they haven't heard you; it may be that they simply don't agree with your interpretation of the issue and again, think about whether it is worth pursuing or taking a broader viewpoint about (see next step).
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    Retain a good sense of humor and the broader picture. Wikis are supposed to be edited and improved by a team. Sometimes it is all too easy to take a good contributor for granted and to start insisting that that person produce a complete, print-ready, perfected article. That is not only expecting too much of any contributor in any context but it also undermines the whole spirit of a wiki that expects every interested person to pitch in and polish. Let go of any such expectations and let their creativity flourish, and let the fixes be made by those who adore editing quality articles!
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    Listen when a contributor answers your criticism. Show that you see their perspective as well as your own. If you're not listening, it's likely that your reply will be about you, your interpretation of wikiHow expectations, and what has always been done around here in your experience. Instead, think "In this case, perhaps this newcomer is right. Maybe there is room for this new style/way of putting the ideas across". wikiHow's guidelines are just that - guidelines. They are not set in stone because we don't want to stifle one of the key underpinnings of wikiHow, which is to foster innovation and grow into the strongest, best possible how-to site on Earth.
    • If you are incredibly bothered, raise the issue in the forum for further community discussion, but do not leave out the contributor by assuming they're not aware of this discussion. More and more people know just how wikis operate and it is polite and kind to involve the contributor in discussion of their contributions.
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    Reacquaint yourself with the purpose of wikiHow's editing guidelines. Sometimes it is tempting to trump others with the response "Well, it's in the guidelines, so read those. End of story." In reality, the guidelines provide a comfort zone; a good editor utilizing common sense will always know how far to allow boundaries to be pushed and what still works within the entire framework of this project as a whole.
    • That is what all of us should aim towards being - astute, conscientious, flexible, professional editors who use good judgment to recognize work well done and to know when an innovation works well. The guidance is there principally for learning, for providing basic parameters for less experienced editors, and to guide those uncomfortable with exercising more expansive judgment.
    • Experience teaches us to make reasoned judgments about innovation as a benefit, sparing us from stagnation; wiki experience teaches us that in the greater scheme of things, everything will right itself on a wiki when the right person comes along. If you're not sure, ask someone else, or leave it to someone else.
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    Coach others to resist the urge too. If you see someone else being a little too reliant on the "letter of the law" rather than on the "spirit of the wiki", give them a helping hand by gently pointing out that there is room for flexibility and common sense decisions with respect to novel enhancements, good presentation, and quality information. Remind them that guidelines are not absolute. Point their attention to this article, and remember, be kind, be gentle, and be tactful.
    • While it's nice to be able to recall that so-and-so said that something is how things should be, not only is that giving one person way too much "power" to decide how the site is run, but it also risks stagnation based on a single person's interpretation; not even Jack's editorial interpretations are set in stone!
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    Give yourself a well earned break. If you feel that you are getting concerned about something on the site to the point of obsession or constant irritation, it could be a sign of needing a break to get some perspective. Small, frequent breaks are important on the computer for all usage; and even a passion for a project can be rejuvenated by taking off a few days now and then to rest the mind and the passion! You might be pleasantly surprised how short breaks can generate great new ideas for your passion.
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    Pat yourself on the back for all you do on wikiHow. You do a great job here already, we all respect that and we all notice it. Every single person on this website is a wiki hero who has committed themselves to helping out not only the wikiHow community but the greater world who accesses and relies on this site. That's no mean feat and is something to be really proud of. And finally, when community members say to one another that we appreciate all that you do here, we mean it from the bottom of our hearts!


  • Encouragement is two thirds letting smart people figure things out for themselves. Leaving people to learn rather then having the point hammered in makes good sense. Many creative people learn quickly as they are "doing" and are also quite certain about what they wish to achieve. Such types are highly sensitive to criticism, especially in the very early stage in the process - remember this when making your remarks.
  • Likewise, many people just want to get in and "do it" rather than read copious instructions on how to do it. While that sounds upside-down since they're writing instructional content, it is similar to not reading terms/conditions when joining a site. People who enjoy learning from mistakes often just jump in and learn backwards. Giving them this learning space as they develop is a huge help that allows them to learn in their way while improving wikiHow as well.
  • If you view your voluntary wikiHow contributions as a "chore", you are more likely to be easily upset by contributors who seemingly make things hard for you. If this is the case, it's time to evaluate your role here. Volunteering is a choice and turning it into a chore means that your approach must be reassessed. Nobody expects too much from anybody; if they do, they're being overly harsh and will be disappointed very fast! Do what interests you, when and as you can, and in as little or as much amount as you wish.
  • Let's not scare away the "small business" crowd off wikiHow; they are becoming more commonplace here. Their content is crucial to obtaining more technical and specialized information that the general contributor is unfamiliar with. If we are too ready to jump on them rather than work with them, they'll be driven elsewhere. Be understanding; many social media sites have grown into secondary advertising portals, so newcomers will initially tend to view wikiHow this way. Instead, work with and encourage them: help them to reword the advertising aspects. And remember, as wikiHow fills up more and more with commonplace topics, these are the people who will be the next great resource on which to draw and just might be the difference between ours being the greatest how-to on Earth, instead of another savvy how-to project!
  • Always encourage the new users. Never discourage. If you first start criticizing inappropriately, they may feel uncomfortable, thinking that their contributions are unwelcome, and might leave. What first impression do you want to make?
  • Your on-line comments are "eternal." What will be your legacy?

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Categories: Patrolling | WikiHow User's Manual