Learning how to write a Wikipedia page that tracks your life and career will help you chart the next steps in your amazing life. How will your story measure up against your legal heroes and mentors?
Imagine you’ve just shuffled off this mortal coil and somewhere someone is struggling to write the headline for your obituary. What will they say about you? What did you contribute that’s worth laying down in 12-point type? Such a thought experiment has often been used to motivate people to consider their professional trajectory. And it has a dramatic origin story.
Sometime just after April 12, 1888, Alfred Nobel opened a French newspaper to discover he had passed away. It was clearly a mistake; the newspaper had mistaken his brother Ludvig’s death for Alfred’s and published a lengthy obituary for the wrong Nobel. Alfred was deeply affected — not by the obituary itself, but by its headline: “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” The article opened with this line: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
The moniker hurt, but it wasn’t wrong. It inspired Nobel, who’d grown Elon Muskishly wealthy on munitions and dynamite, to change his will to endow the Nobel Prize, which is still given away every December 10th to the people who’ve helped the world most in the previous year.
Writing your own obituary, however, is a stale motivator.
Instead, You Should Write Your Wikipedia Page
Writing your obituary is a time-tested motivational wake-up call. It’s unnerving to consider what others might think of you. It might even inspire you to grow. Maybe. But it’s mostly about your postmortem image. Yeah, it’s a wake-up call, but then what? While I want to grow in my work, I don’t need a professional jump scare. I need a plan.
Wikipedia’s Standard Bio Format Is Like a Blank CV
You have to be slightly famous to get onto Wikipedia. It’s not LinkedIn. The minimum entry fee is to have been recognized in your field in a very public way. But Wikipedia isn’t about famousness. It’s about notability.
Here’s how Michael Lowrey, an administrator on Wikipedia, answered in an interview with the BBC:
“We like to see a clear explanation of why you are sufficiently notable that an article in an encyclopedia is appropriate, backed up by at least three different published references to substantial content about you (not just mentioning or listing your name) in unrelated, reliable sources not connected to you.”
“You’ll Never Be on Wikipedia”
It’s maybe the meanest insult you can levy at pretty much anyone. But it’s true and this article isn’t about getting there. It’s about pretending you’re there. A solid Wikipedia page about a notable lawyer offers a kind of notability footprint for you to measure your career against.
So let’s indulge in this Wikipedia page writing exercise.
How to Write a Wikipedia Page for a Future Notable Professional
Entries for notable lawyers have common threads — early life, early career, major focus and career highlights, and publications. Each person has different categories because everyone is different with divergent trajectories in their career. But the basics are there for all of them. If you look at the Wikipedia page for a couple of your professional heroes, you might get an idea of where you are in your career — how you measure up and where you need to go next.
Your Wikipedia Page Has an Essential Format
For people, it’s like this:
- Short-form bio — the dictionary entry, the essential description. Your story in a nutshell.
- Early life and education.
- Personal life.
- Accomplishments, awards and causes.
- Bibliography and publications.
- References and external links.
The short-form bio is the hardest part to write. First, Wikipedia expects the piece to be written from a neutral point of view. This is a good exercise as it forces you to write about yourself as if you’re someone else. Second, the form is highly stylized and rigorously concise. Here is the entry for David Sedaris:
David Raymond Sedaris (/sɪˈdɛərɪs/; born December 26, 1956) is an American humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor. He was publicly recognized in 1992 when National Public Radio broadcast his essay “Santaland Diaries”. He published his first collection of essays and short stories, Barrel Fever, in 1994. He is the brother and writing collaborator of actor Amy Sedaris. Much of Sedaris’s humor is ostensibly autobiographical and self-deprecating and often concerns his family life, his middle-class upbringing in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, his Greek heritage, homosexuality, jobs, education, drug use, and obsessive behaviors as well as his life in France, London, and the South Downs in England.
The first graph is your life boiled down to its essence:
Name (pronunciation, birthdate) is a [country of scope] [profession]. [Why you are notable]. [Another reason why you’re notable]. [Basic biographical info that matters].
After that, it’s straightforward. You write about your early life, your formative years, your career, your notable efforts, your causes and interests that are notable, and your list of work.
Using the Wikipedia Pages of Your Heroes as a Template for Your Career
Since any famous lawyer I pick for this example will be the wrong choice, I’m going to use my heroes as examples. I hold three authors in the highest esteem. They are the writers I emulate and learn the most from: Erma Bombeck, Bill Bryson and Terry Pratchett. When taking stock of my career, I look to them for inspiration and guidance and to remind myself to work a lot harder.
So what’s on their Wikipedia page I’d like to have on mine?
Erma Bombeck’s Wikipedia Page
Erma Bombeck was a humorist in the 1960s to the 1980s. She was one of the funniest American humorists ever and her books were very influential for this writer. Here is the table of contents for her page with unique entries noted in italics. These are the parts I’m interested in:
- Early life
- Formative years
- Housewife column
- Housewife (1954–1964)
- “At Wit’s End” (1965)
- Diversified production
- Success (1970s)
- McGraw-Hill (1976)
- Equal Rights Amendment (1978)
- Great popularity (1980s)
- Awards and honors
How we compare:
My career also started with a column, and I was also a housewife. Guy. Husband. I’ve racked up a couple of awards.
How we contrast:
I’m not sure I have formative years. I definitely don’t have a McGraw-Hill contract or a TV show and I don’t know what Great Popularity is, but I want it. Her list of books is impressive and challenging. I have a few but good lord, look at her shelf. Finally, a legacy. Well, I mean, that remains to be seen but it rests on what happened earlier. Or, I mean, now.
- I need to find my niche. Bombeck’s success came from her hilarious but brilliant observational humor from the home front. Finding a profitable lane in one’s industry is vital.
- I need to diversify. Which is not a conflict with finding a niche. My niche is humor, but humor lends its power to different verticals in the publishing industry. Diversification broadens one’s base, leading to great stability.
Bill Bryson’s Wikipedia Page
Bill Bryson is an American-British humorist you may know from his book, “A Walk in the Woods,” wherein he hikes the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. But this book was a spurious artifact in his literary career. Most of his work is witty literary essays and academic explorations, including an extraordinary dive into Shakespeare.
- Early Life
- Move to the United Kingdom
- Awards, positions, and honors
- Environmental protection
- Scientific and other writings
- Honorary doctorates
How we compare:
I am alive, so we’ve got that. I’ve been to England. Otherwise, bupkus.
How we contrast:
The section headed “Writings” is interesting. It’s there because the work Bryson did as a writer is notable but also because that work is formative. For a lawyer, this might be titled “Cases” and would include any trials that are notable and helped to shape your career.
If I could go back in time (and space, and multidimensional personal cosmogony), maybe I’d make sure both my parents were journalists like Bryson’s. I’m definitely open to being a chancellor (Oxford University, I’m looking at you).
Bryson wrote in several disciplines, including science. His book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” has won several awards for its ability to communicate about science with passion. I really, really want an honorary doctorate. And then, the books. So many books.
- I could maybe use some further education. It hurts to even write that down, as I am an autodidact who didn’t finish college. But Bryson’s chancellorship and honorary degrees could only be appointed to someone who graduated. Continuing education gives one a competitive edge and a deeper understanding of one’s profession.
- I need a cause. Championing a cause is a way to lend one’s professional skills to the greater good and give back to the cosmos what it lent to you.
Terry Pratchett’s Wikipedia Page
Terry Pratchett was best known for his 41-book “Discworld” collection. His books are superficially silly and humorous, but that humor rides on deeper truths of human development and society. Also, he was a world-class craftsman on par with any literary titan.
- Early life
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Personal life
- Natural history
- Amateur astronomy
- Terry Pratchett First Novel Award
- Sir Terry Pratchett Memorial Scholarship
- Views on religion
- Awards and honors
- Fantasy genre
- Style and themes
- Publishing history
- Other writing
- Children’s literature
- Collaborations and contributions
- Unfinished texts
- Works about Pratchett
How we compare:
I too am a rabid footnoter. I love parody. I load my chapter titles and characters’ names with hidden puns and meanings. I like hats.
How we contrast:
Do I even have any interests? My job, my hobby and my pastimes are so intricately related that I’m basically just reading and writing sunup to sundown. I am not a Knight.
- I don’t think I’m going to make knighthood, but there’s no reason not to hope for an honorarium of distinction. Now, you can’t aim for this kind of thing, but you can take such bestowments as indications that one should live and work with the highest standards of craft and integrity as lodestones.
- Perhaps I should develop some interests other than reading and writing. Variation in one’s attention and focus helps develop one’s inner library, which helps you at dinner parties and in those completely unscheduled times when you are able to carry on a conversation that doesn’t employ the word “synergy.”
How to Use Your Wikipedia Page to Map Your Career
Now what? I’ve learned I’m about 9,000 levels below my heroes. It’s not surprising, but it stings a bit.
Once you’ve evaluated your heroes’ Wikipedia page, you can assemble your takeaways into a kind of bullet-point Ikegami chart, like mine:
- I need to work my niche.
- I need to diversify my production.
- I need to find ways to further my education.
- I need to find a lifelong cause.
- I should explore the ways I incorporate integrity and discipline into my work.
- Maybe I should develop some interests.
Those are worthy endeavors. Any one of them is enough to keep me busy for a long time. And these are not overnight goals. These are notes on charting a new course for my future. Who knows, maybe a knighthood is out there somewhere.
Subscribe to Attorney at Work
Get really good ideas every day for your law practice: Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch (it’s free). Follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.