Writing without Plagiarizing
Natalia J. Garland
Plagiarizing means taking what belongs to someone else in the
world of writing. It involves the copying of another writer's
material or the stealing of ideas. Copying means just that: to
copy words, phrases, paragraphs, or entire works from another
writer's compositions and then present the work as your own.
Stealing ideas means to claim the original thoughts of another
writer as your own. Plagiarizing happens in all fields of
academic endeavor as well as in fiction and poetry.
How scrupulous do
we have to be about copying words? When I was in school, the rule
was never to copy more than three consecutive words. If you
copied that fourth word, you were obliged to use quotation marks
and give credit to your source. The only other alternative was to
re-arrange (paraphrase) the material into your own version. But,
is this always possible or even necessary?
What if you were
writing a health article about Jane Doe who lost 55 pounds in 3
months? You have heard it on the T.V. news channels and read it
in the newspapers: "Jane Doe lost 55 pounds in 3
months." It is a precise, factual, declarative statement.
What could you do to turn this into your own sentence? Not much.
You could try changing the word order: "Fifty-five pounds
were lost by Jane Doe in 3 months," or, "In 3 months,
Jane Doe lost 55 pounds." The sentence becomes awkward and
the process is a waste of energy.
Now, what about this
example: "Mrs. Pontellier's eyes were quick and bright;
they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair."
That was the opening sentence from Chapter II of Kate Chopin's
novel, The Awakening, written in 1899. It is artistically
original, in contrast to the dry quality of the sentence about
Jane Doe's weight loss. If you were writing a critique of
Chopin's novel, the best practice would be to use quotation marks
even if you used only two words such as "yellowish
brown." If you were writing your own story about a woman who
had "yellowish brown" hair, your choice of those two
words would be obvious plagiarism. You would need to find your
own original way to describe your character's hair.
Copying involves a
simpler mental process than stealing. You KNOW when you have
copied something word for word. You sat at a table in the library,
with the book in front of you, and busily copied. You deceived
yourself into thinking that nobody would recognize a few words
copied from a lesser-known author such as Kate Chopin. The
stealing of ideas, however, can involve the complicated inner
workings of the mind. We might not always be aware that we are
Most of us get our
inspiration from the ideas of others. We agree or disagree with
someone's ideas, or we continue along someone's mode of thought and
transform it into our own intellectual or artistic contribution.
If you do a lot of reading in various books and magazines, and if
you listen to the T.V. news every day, then you might not be aware
that you have taken another person's idea. Serious writers need to
take notes on any ideas which inspire them and which they might
want to recycle into their own work. Credit should always be given
where due--just as you would want others to give you credit.
Taking notes should be automatic. Even when you are watching T.V.,
document who said what, and where and when.
complete honesty with yourself and with your readers. When I
write, I know when something just doesn't sound like me.
Sometimes I write a catchy phrase or sentence, and it sticks out
from the rest of my composition as not really belonging.
Sometimes I am aware of the unintended plagiarism from the moment
I write it. Other times, it takes a few readings before I am able
to figure out why I feel disturbed over certain words. The more I
develop my own style, the easier it is for me to recognize when
something doesn't sound like me.
It is also possible
for different writers to have the same idea at the same time.
This is especially true when writing about current events. It is
not unusual to find several political experts, for example,
writing similar opinions of a speech or a judicial decision.
However, even though their thematic emphasis may be similar, how
they choose and organize their details will be different and their
styles will be unique.
How scrupulous do
we have to be about stealing ideas? Okay--everyone has heard of
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Since the days when
Freud developed his original idea of the id, ego, and superego,
these have become common working terms in the field of psychology.
No one cites Freud every time they use these words. It is as
though Freud's ideas have become so well-known that they are now
public intellectual property which we freely use. It would be
impossible, therefore, for anyone to try to claim the
id-ego-superego construct as their own. If, however, you were
writing a scholarly article about the id, you would certainly need
to use supportive quotations and to cite which of Freud's works
you used in your study.
Why would a serious
writer intentionally steal ideas? It probably stems from feelings
of inferiority and wishful thinking. It takes a lot of studying
and thinking to create original ideas, or even to analyze and
evaluate the ideas of others. And, it takes a lot of writing
experience to develop style. Plagiarism, for some writers, might
be a matter of wishing they had created that catchy phrase, even
to the point of giving their character "yellowish brown"
The easiest way to
avoid plagiarism is to never, never, never do it intentionally.
Use quotation marks and cite your sources when you are using
someone else's text or ideas. Be especially careful when doing
academic or professional work. Take notes. Know your material
thoroughly so that you can state it in your own words. Treat
other writers with the same respect that you want for yourself.
Be patient, work hard, enjoy growing, and eventually you will
develop originality and style. (Written 11/12/07: bibliography available.)
Until we meet