How to Avoid Plagiarizing
Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines
October 6, 2016
In my September 1, 2016 post, I wrote "Will Someone Steal Your Idea?" and I talked about theft of just an idea. Now I want to ask you if you have you ever worried about someone stealing your writing? That is, large chunks of your work––not just your idea. We're talking about plagiarizing. On the other hand, have you ever wondered how to avoid plagiarizing someone else's? Well, the reality is that most theft of intellectual property occurs after a piece is published.
This theft can be in the form of pirating the information (copying it along with your byline and selling it, or giving it to other people without your permission), or in the form of plagiarism. It is the latter that we'll be looking at here.
What exactly is plagiarism? It is the act of taking advantage of someone else's work without acknowledging the original creator. Plagiarism can be very direct by simply lifting sentences or paragraphs (or sometimes a whole article). If you copy just a sentence from a Wikipedia article because they say it so much better or clearer and just stick it into your assignment––that's plagiarism. If you copy something from a website about a disease and stick it into your article (even if you also put that website in your bibliography), that's plagiarism. If you copy the exact organization and general facts from an article, but rewrite it in your own words - that's plagiarism too. Why? Because you're still taking advantage of someone else's work without acknowledging that it's not your work, it's theirs. That original author put time and research into gathering those facts and choosing the best order for presenting them. Even if you "put it in your own words," it's still using their work as your work.
This is why some publishers regularly demand you have three sources for each fact. On the one hand it lessens the possibility of you accidentally passing along an error, but it also lessens the likelihood that your article will plagiarize someone else's work.
Plagiarism is not the same as copyright violation, though they are both about protecting the intellectual property of the people who create. They are similar, but they are not the same. For example, copyright law says that a simple list of facts or a formula can not be protected by copyright. This is why you can find chocolate chip recipes in a zillion cookbooks and they're all very similar. A recipe is not protected by copyright law. So does that mean you can just copy any recipe you want and go sell it to Highlights? No. That would be plagiarism. It wouldn't be breaking a law, but it would be an ethics violation and it could easily end your career. No one wants to buy writing from someone who steals the work of other people.
So, how would you do a recipe? Well, I recently had to come up with a recipe to be published with a book. I knew I wanted it to be some kind of scone (because it worked as a kind of pun with the title). So I read a bunch of scone recipes to see what they basically entailed in terms of ingredients and instructions––what did they all have in common? Once I knew that, I began playing with the ingredients. I decided to do a chocolate orange scone, but to get the scone exactly as I wanted it, I made a lot of chocolate orange scones––varying recipes and ingredients and procedures until I came up with something that tasted exactly like I wanted. But I definitely LEARNED from lots and lots of scone recipes. Then I applied that knowledge for mine. But mine was still a scone, so it had a lot in common with all the other scone recipes.
So when you're creating nonfiction, you avoid plagiarism by (1) doing research from a variety of sources, (2) creating organization and structure based on the information you're learning instead of based on how someone else did the organizing, and (3) making sure your words are not the same as their words. When you do quote directly (and with primary sources, you'll sometimes want to), be sure you use quotation makes and note the original author. If you do those three things, you will not be plagiarizing.
There is one more step you must apply if you also don't want to be in violation of anyone's copyright. Even if you completely acknowledge the original author (meaning you are quoting and admitting you're quoting and you're citing the real author in the work), you can still be in violation of copyright law if you quote too much from a single source. For instance, if I decided to throw in a poem by Jane Yolen right here and I gave her name when I did it, I wouldn't be guilty of plagiarism (because I wouldn't be pretending that her work was mine) but I would be guilty of copyright violation, because copyright law says if I want to quote a WHOLE poem (or even a big chunk of the poem), I need to get the poet's permission.
So if you want to know how to avoid plagiarizing, remember these four points:
(1) Research from a variety of sources
(2) Do your own organization,
(3) Don't copy without attribution and
(4) When you do quote someone, keep it short.
Do that and you'll know you're playing fair with other writers––just like you'd want them to play fair with you.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.