5 Things you have to consider when writing an Encyclopedia

I’m not gonna lie: Working on version 7 of the Encyclopedia was particularly challenging, for many reasons. These reasons, however, were just extremes of issues that are representative for working on such a project. After 4 years, I thought it would be fun to write about what exactly these challenges are, not least for the cathartic effect it may have for me.

1. Be prepared to write about the same things over and over again

An encyclopedia is not a novel and, therefore, has no linear structure, meaning that almost nobody will read an encyclopedia from beginning to end. Encyclopedias are basically databases created for references, and where themes overlap, the same information is bound to be filed in several places. Writing an entry about Ellen Ripley means you will have to write about the events concerning her in other entries. This can be very tedious, of course, and can make you feel as if you will never finish the update and do the same thing over and over again until the end of time, just like Sysiphos. Be prepared for it. You WILL eventually reach the top of the mountain.

2. You have to unleash your inner OCD

Of course, you also have to develop an obsession with details. This is actually a great thing 80 percent of the time. You see relevant media in a whole new light. Novel that might otherwise be mediocre suddenly get exciting because it contains this or that reference you can incorporate in the Encyclopedia. However, this is also a magnet for tediousness. Back when there was the Project Prometheus website, and I was cataloging dozens of planets differing from each other only in a non-descript scientific classification as a name and its distance from Earth. But trust me: The feeling you get once you look back at all the trivia you assembled is AWESOME. Realizing that all of it contributes to larger and more complete and detailed picture of a fictional universe is worth it.

3. You also have to keep your inner OCD in check

Attention to detail is great and all. But you also have to be ready to hit the emergency break when things get absurd. On at least one occasion, I had to delete several small entries because they have become so arbitrary that there was no value to be gained. It was something like “Module 1.0: The entry on the Health section on the Project Prometheus website containing the introduction for the subject.” Yeah, it can get that crazy. Not because the information was irrelevant (I wrote entries for the David 8 subsite, which were unique on the site), but because the entry name was so arbitrary. So arbitrary, in fact, that there were several “Module 1.0” on the website. This is where you have to step back and ask yourself: “Does the Encyclopedia really need this?”

4. Ask someone to proofread it

You think you’re diligent? You think no spelling error can get past you? Think again. Once you have let it proofread, you will be astonished by the amount of stuff you missed even after repeated readings. That’s not because you suck at spelling, it’s because you wrote the damn thing. You need another perspective on the document, someone with a bit more distance to it. Sounds esoteric? I agree, but only until you will have experienced the truth of it. This, of course, does not apply only to encyclopedia projects, but every document of a certain scope – be it your own novel, your letter of application or your dissertation. But this does not make it a less valid thing to consider when writing an encyclopedia.

P.S. See how there were a few spelling mistakes right here in this article for the first few hours? Fitting, huh?

5. Watch and learn

Your encyclopedia will not be the first. Others have done this before, and they have done a great many things right. Look at their example and learn. Other good ideas: Look at good Wikipedia articles to learn about structuring your entries and get a feel for objective writing. Or do the old-fashioned thing and grab an encyclopedia in book form. This is a good thing to do if you want to write a book-like encyclopedia such as this one instead of opening a Wiki, as it will teach a lot about consistent structuring and systems for presenting information. In any case, it will spare a lot of chaos and confusion in the long run.

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About mfriebe

Creator & Writer of the ongoing Alien Encyclopedia project.
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