From time to time, many of us will have the opportunity to write for a reference work like an encyclopedia or a handbook. The word encyclopedia has been around for a couple of thousand years and comes from the Greek term for general education. Encyclopedias as general reference books came about in the eighteenth century and the most ubiquitous when I was a student was the Encyclopædia Britannica. But there also specialized encyclopedias of linguistic, law, mathematics, cuisine, music, and more. These are sometimes just called handbooks (or yearbooks if they are published annually). And there are encyclopedias of particular geographical areas, such as the online New Georgia Encyclopedia or the Oregon Encyclopedia.
Reference works like encyclopedias are often organized into a taxonomy of categories like biography, events, places, institutions, ideas and theories, the natural world. In the age of the internet, well-balanced coverage is crucial to be sure that all the necessary topics are covered well, not just the most popular ones. Editors debate about the right taxonomy, what topics to include, how many words to assign. They wheel and deal to get the most authoritative writers, and they fret when someone doesn’t come through on a crucial topic.
What should authors focus on?
The first rule is to stay within the word limit, even if you think that your topic deserves more space or than the 500 or 750 or 2000 words you’ve been allotted. Consider it an opportunity to practice the virtue of conciseness.
Draw on existing well-documented research, even if the documentation will not appear in the printed or posted version of an article. Many reference works ask for citations and notes, but use them as in-house tools for the editors and fact checkers—and keep them on file in case there are questions later.
Your audience is the general reader, so imagine someone who is interested in the topic but is also new to it. That means you will want to either avoid technical jargon or unobtrusively explain it. You also-want to have an organization and exposition that suits the topic. It’s easy to fall into a one-size-fits-all formula, but some topics require a chronology of events, others need an explanation of a process, problem, or reasoning, and some topics are best treated with a sense of wonder.
Specific details are your friends. Rather than mention that so-and-so was part of a large family, mention that she had six brothers and a sister. The detail shows the readers and referees you’ve done some homework and keeps the reader from wandering. If you can manage it, and an anecdote or quirky fact. That can make the difference between a memorable snapshot and a mere recitation of facts.
Remember to start strong, with a good lead (or lede as the old school journalists would spell it). Here are some examples from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
Fudge, typically chocolate but commonly marketed in dozens of flavors, is a candy made by boiling a sugar mixture until it forms a soft ball when dropped into ice water (or reaches 234˚ F to 238˚ F at sea level), then stirring to make a soft candy.
Cream soda is a soft drink whose main ingredients are water, sweetener, and vanilla.
The cucumber, Cucumis sativus, is a subtropical annual originating in India.
Applejack, an American type of apple brandy, was widely produced during the colonial period of American history.
Such openings get readers interested and hint at what is coming next: discoveries, domestication, properties, recipes, cultural impact. With a good lead, much of your work is done.
Encyclopedia and other reference articles are a chance to think about topics that you are already familiar with in a way that makes them teachable. And they can also be a way for you to rethink and expand your expertise–to learn something new and something more. It’s definitely worth the effort.
Featured image: “Encyclopedias: 336/366” by Kevin Doncaster. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.