Every now and then I stumble across a little nugget of localised travel wisdom on Wikitravel that makes me laugh out loud, and have a little more faith in the project's reason for being. I refer in particular to the observation made by user User:18.104.22.168 on the Fez page, under the heading "Berber Pharmacy". How many other guidebooks can offer advice that detailed! Allyak 05:44, 26 Jul 2005 (EDT)
One of the things I love about travel guides is the sense of adventure they instil. Well-written guides don’t only inform and educate, but they inspire you to venture to far-flung destinations, amuse you with wry observations on local culture and provide you with insights into history and observant tips on how to make the best of your travels.
Which is why, when I look across WikiTravel—a website which I presume is written largely by passionate travel nuts like myself—I’m amazed at how dry the tone is across most articles. Entries for most cities, even some of the most awe-inspiring, read like encyclopaedic entries from a university textbook. Beijing, for instance, isn’t described as a complex child of Communism and Feudalism slowly awakening to the drumbeat of the West, but “as the capital of the most populous country in the world ... well known for its flatness and regular construction”.
As a little experiment, visit the WikiTravel entry for a city you haven’t travelled to yet and read the introduction and Understand sections. Does it make you want to travel there? Now compare that to the little intros published on sites like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or Fodors. As an example, here are four guide book introductions for Beijing:
If your visions of Beijing are centred around pods of Maoist revolutionaries in buttoned-down tunics performing exercise in Tiananmen Square, put them to rest ... today's youth are more interested in MTV than Mao, rhetorical slogans from the Cultural Revolution have given way to butchered English splashed across designer-copy T-shirts, and expats, tourists, foreign investors and a mobile phone-toting hip-oisie are mixing it up with the bureaucrats.
The brash modernity of BEIJING (the name means "northern capital") comes as a surprise to many visitors. Traversed by freeways (it's the proud owner of more than a hundred flyovers) and spiked with highrises, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic. For the last thousand years, the drama of China's imperial history was played out here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe, and though today the city is a very different one, it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country.
Beijing's historic, cultural, and political preeminence dates back nearly six centuries. Yet, in spite of devastating urban renewal, modern Beijing continues to convey an imperial grandeur … Its 12 million residents are a compelling mix of old and new. Early morning taiqi (tai chi) enthusiasts, bearded old men with caged songbirds, and amateur Peking Opera crooners still frequent the city's many charming parks. … The result is an ironic mix of new prosperity and throwback politics: socialist mantras emblazoned on electronic billboards hung at shopping arcades that sell Gucci and Big Macs.
Beijing (北京) is the capital of the most populous country in the world, the People's Republic of China. It was also the seat of the Qing dynasty emperor until the formation of a republic in 1911, so it has rich historical sites, and important government institutions. The city is well known for its flatness and regular construction. There is only one hill to be found in the city limits (in Jingshan Park to the north of the famous Forbidden City), and like the configuration of the Forbidden City, it has concentric "ring roads", which are actually rectangular, that go around the metropolis.
This is one example, but it is by no means rare. Although there’s some great writing and prose on WikiTravel, I think the extract above is fairly representative of the vast majority of entries.
So, what’s your point?
I appreciate that WikiTravel contributors aren’t necessarily travel writers or English majors and my comparison is a little unfair in that regard. I also understand that WikiTravel is very focused on practical travel advice, rather than descriptive prose. But is it possible to have factual advice that just happens to be entertaining to read as well?
It was one particular edit that got me thinking down this line. A user changed part of my entry on Iran to tone down the, well, tone a little. The two grains of humour I’d sprinkled the copy with while drafting the entry were sanitised into a factually identically but more ‘correct’ and straight-laced account. Now tone is inherently subjective and I appreciate that just because I find a quip funny, many others may not (and given my sense of humour most probably won't). Puccini didn’t like my tone and changed the edit. Fair enough.
But a thought occurred to me: if we’re blindly chasing a tone to satisfy everybody’s tastes (or get the fewest people offside), then won’t we ultimately end up with the bland language that seems to be dominating WikiTravel at the moment? All of the non WikiTravel examples above—in fact most entertaining guidebooks in general—usually offer some kind of opinion or make some kind of remark that somebody may take offence to and edit out in a wiki environment. And how would you defend such language? A fact can be debated and proven, but tone and observations are inherently subjective and therefore harder to support.
Is this even problem, or is seeking language that makes you want to book a plane ticket right now asking for too much from a wiki publication? Does WikiTravel aspire to be something more than a compendium of train timetables, museum opening hours and hotel addresses? Should it? Can any wiki group publishing effort produce a consistent tone other than one of factual detachment? Can consensus produce something that’s not only useful, but enjoyable to read?
I think that it's absolutely possible to have strong, well-written prose in a wiki and in Wikitravel. I realize an awful lot of Wikitravel right now is flat and boring; there are also lots of other things that need work. People will sometimes mistakenly edit an article to make it less lively; they will also put in advertisements, misspellings, and photographs of their own bottom. I don't think you should draw any particular conclusions on editorial policy or the nature of wiki by one or another edit or contributor.
Let me also say that lively writing is a goal, and I don't think a travel guide is finished -- a star -- until its "prose is not only near-perfect grammatically but also tight, effective, and enjoyable." To quote neutral point of view,
A "neutral point of view" also doesn't mean using bland, empty, vapid, or timorous prose. Wikitravellers should feel free -- nay, obligated -- to use concrete, lively descriptions that paint a clear, concise picture of the subject in question. "Greek restaurant just off the plaza" doesn't tell anyone anything. "Dingy but passable Greek restaurant with surly waitstaff, rich and generous portions of moussaka, tinny stereo system" gives a lot more info. You don't have to tone down your writing in Wikitravel just to remain neutral.
I know that I in particular am a source of much boring, flat writing, since I make a point of moving and restructuring articles to fit our manual of style without actually knowing anything about the places I'm writing about. So I'll take someone's long, rambling essay about their day in Marseilles and try to cull the factual details. Oftentimes this means taking a paragraph like this:
For those who love the finer things in life -- specifically food and fine wines! -- Marseilles has a universe of options to serve every taste and fancy. Who couldn't love the spectacular array of fine dishes and full-bodied wines provided by a panoply of publicans in this city? The fine diner will find themselves best served by heading to Rue Main, where a gustatory ecstasia awaits in the form of Chez Larry's. Found at the 112 point on the street so named, Chez Larry's should often be telephoned in advance to secure a reservation in order to be insured of excellent service. Those prudent souls who wish to employ this method should use the reservations telephone number at 52-331-2218, which will put them directly through to a reservations agent who will be more than happy to assist them. You can call from your hotel or even call from home before you arrive. In a pinch, you can use a public pay telephone or borrow someone's cellular phone in order to make this important phone call. But don't call on a Friday, because that's the one day out of the week that Chez Larry's is closed to visitors (for reasons unknown). Otherwise seatings are available for gourmets and gourmands alike starting at the hours of six o'clock in the evening. So, go, enjoy the Italian food and drink that await you at Chez Larry's! Once you are finished with your meal, which will be before midnight since that is when the restaurant closes, you can seek other forms of entertainment throughout the city, whatever your desire! It is up to you.
...and changing it to:
Chez Larry's, 112 Rue Main, 52-331-2218. M-Thu, Sa-Su 6PM-12AM. Italian food.
I think that's just tightening up some purple silliness into the essential information; it's no less visual or concrete, but sadly much shorter than the original. Usually I won't have been to the restaurant in question, so I'll have nothing to add.
I know I also make stub articles out of navigational branchpoints with ledes like "Independence is a city in Missouri" -- definitely not Pulitzer material. This may be a seed for more boring writing -- we should probably make a point of livening up outline-status articles to set a good example.
Maj wants to start a Wikitravel:Writers' Expedition to stimulate contribution by writers and editors, especially those not necessarily writing about their own experience. You may be interested in helping out. --Evan 11:23, 20 Jan 2006 (EST)
I very much agree with Allyak, and I consider this issue one of my pet peeves; see eg. Talk:East Asia and the near-edit war over changes like this.
However, unlike most travel guides Wikitravel is edited by locals, not travelers, who have a vested interest in making the place sound "nice" and thus get offended by flippant, if funny, comments about sushi and ninjas when, dadgummit, visitors to Japan should be impressed by technology and multinational corporations instead. And then there's also the heavy crossover of Wikipedians who bring the mantra of "boring is NPOV and thus good" with them. The latter can possibly be educated with time, but the former, I'm afraid, is an unwinnable battle that can't really be solved without somehow separating factual and editorial content. Jpatokal 03:49, 21 Jan 2006 (EST)
Wikitravel is edited by locals, not travelers is untrue. Wikitravel is edited by locals and travelers. --Evan 14:58, 23 Jan 2006 (EST)
I meant that most of the blancmange-porridge edits come from locals defending "their" turf, not travelers... Jpatokal 04:06, 20 October 2006 (EDT)