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Writing without Plagiarizing

Natalia J. Garland

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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 stealing.

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.

Writing requires 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" hair.

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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland