How to Avoid Plagiarizing

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | 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.


Jan Fields
October 20, 2016

Sara: Jokes and Riddles, Cute Sayings, and things like trendy catch phrases are basically okay to use, especially if you're not having your character pretend to have invented the joke. [If you do have a character invent a joke, then really, you should invent one for that character]. I just finished a story where a character tells corny jokes that everyone has heard before, but the jokes sound particularly odd because of the character's questionable grasp of human language -- but the jokes are just oldies. It's not an issue. Something that short (other than poetry) is rather had to copyright because it's hard for any one person to claim to be the originator. Jackie: I use for all my bibliographies. Always have. I've used it for book bibliographies, magazine article bibliographies, and passage writing bibliographies. I've never had a single editor complain about them. Jean: I have intentionally written something inspired by a different story before. Mine was substantially different in a lot of ways including theme and pacing and characterization, but having been inspired, there were also similarities. [The original character constantly proclaimed that she only liked this specific thing and wouldn't accept anything else. In my story, the main character proclaimed a totally different thing to be better than anything else and her actions were totally and completely different. I only borrowed the idea of a child's single minded devotion to a favorite thing.] So that can happen without being plagiarism or a copyright violation. But if you're talking about a word-for-word exact use of several lines to end your story that has been used by someone else to end their story -- I would strongly advise against that. That would fall in the realm of plagiarism in that specific passage -- no one would argue that you plagiarized the whole story, but it would be clear that happened in that line. Now, again, I've seen tons of copies of the "if you give a ___ a ___ then slowly building catastrophe happens, and that's pretty heavy handed copying. Sometimes that kind of thing can fly if it's argued to be satire. And sometimes I've seen publishers argue it as a homage. But again...I think your situation is a little different and one I wouldn't do.

Jan Fields
October 20, 2016

Carol -- Sounds like you're doing your due diligence to be sure what you write is original. The reality is that everything we write is colored a bit by everything we read. Small similarities aren't usually a problem. It's the big chunks lifted that make a problem. I've often read books in publication that were definitely "inspired by" other very popular books in print. Obviously a certain amount of inspiration is okay. (Sometimes the publisher even calls it an homage to the original). I think the easiest way to avoid accidental copying is through lots of revising and a tendency to avoid the first structure or rhyme or idiom or metaphor that comes to mind, because the first thing that comes to mind tends to be memory rather than originality. Plus, lots of times, the first thing that comes to mind is also cliché.

October 16, 2016

Hi! I've been dealing with Carol's problem. I read a delightful children's story to my grandchildren about 10 years ago and basically remembered three or four lines of someone's book that was printed about 30 years ago. The other author's catchy wording at the end of their story made a strong impression on me and I basically remembered it. I recently finished my poem/story and I'm not sure my ending is altered enough to be legally mine. I do not know the author or title of the original book that I read. The local libraries have discontinued it. 95% of my story is uniquely mine and good enough to stand on its own, but the ending makes it extra special. (I don't know why a red line is showing under my writing,..sorry).

Jackie Smead
October 10, 2016

I'm looking for Bibliography requirements and format, please. Jackie Smead W789019

October 7, 2016

Thanks for explaining, Jan. Another thing I wonder about is jokes and riddles. Even Highlights publishes jokes and riddles that kids send in, and these can't all be original. Can a writer freely use a joke/riddle that they didn't make up in their story?

Linda Gilden
October 7, 2016

Good explanation of a tricky subject. Thank you.

October 6, 2016

Thanks for this informative article. I write poetry & PB's & sometimes when I come up w/something I think particularly good (too good for me--from the muse?) I start to wonder if I've heard or read it before, from a childhood book, that sort of thing. I usually enter some of it word for word in search & see if anything comes up. I try different parts, words, approaches. Is there another way?

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