“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…”
This often-quoted statement (or half a statement, since most people don’t bother finishing the entire sentence) from poet and novelist Oscar Wilde summarizes what may be one of the worst yet most commonly practiced mortal sin of writers:
While some forms of imitation may be unwitting, there’s certainly nothing flattering about someone else copying your work. Every writer worth his or her salt knows just how difficult it is to come up with that first line of a hook, much less an entire article. Forget delving into the magnitude of writing a literary piece — even a simple blog post of 500 words can take so much time and effort, not only in the research required to come up with substantial content – but in the act of writing itself.
More often than not, copying is a rookie mistake or one that’s done out of laziness or even cluelessness about the rules that govern writing. But what draws the line between just copying and plagiarism?
Plagiarism vs. Copying: What’s the Difference?
While copying may sometimes be accidental if we were to give people the benefit of the doubt, what separates it from plagiarism is intent. In the case of plagiarism, there is the intent to steal someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. It is essentially the theft of someone’s ideas, thoughts, and words, with willful disregard for the original source.
Of course, intent is one of the hardest things to prove, even from a legal standpoint, so it is in the writer’s best interest to avoid all forms of copying altogether to deliver content that’s accurate, substantial, and most importantly, unique.
How To Avoid Copy-Paste Plagiarism
Unbeknownst to many, even writers can end up plagiarizing themselves if they’re not careful. This happens when they “cannibalize” their previous work and make it appear as if the new article or post is original. This is called rehashing content or spinning (which we will discuss further down the line). How then can you, as a writer, avoid self-plagiarism or just plain plagiarism?
Use Your Own Words
If we were to strictly adhere to originality, it would be extremely difficult for anyone, in any industry, to come up with something completely “original.” Thousands of years of human existence leaves very little room for originality as someone, at some point in time, has written about a certain topic in a certain way. Where does that leave a writer who’s tasked with creating unique content?
While “copying” may be unavoidable in this sense, the smartest way to go about it is to distinguish your work with what only you as a writer can possess: your own words. Simply put: paraphrase. But don’t just stop at mere paraphrasing — go the extra mile by writing and expressing yourself in your own voice. Instead of borrowing how other people have discussed a particular topic or idea, take inspiration from them and synthesize their thoughts to come up with your own understanding of and insights on the subject. If your source says, “Math is a difficult subject,” you can say, “Math is a subject that students of all ages find challenging.”
This can work for simple ideas, but what about when you’re writing about an exact process? For this, synonyms might save the day. There’s always a word that’s similar or equal in intensity with another.
If you’re really, really out of fresh ideas, trying to switch up the structure of a sentence could make a difference. Going back to our first example, if your source says, “Math is a subject that students of all ages find challenging,” you can say, “Students, regardless of their age, often find math to be a challenging subject.”
Look At Things From a Different Vantage Point
For pieces that require a more exhaustive understanding of a particular subject matter, try to look at the information from a different perspective.
If you come across sources that say basically the same things, you can try to find something new about them that might not have been discussed and add the information to your work.
You can even correct errors you find as information constantly evolves. Look for ways to discuss an old topic in a new way by using your sources as a jumping-off point for additional information to harvest.
Use the Power of Quotations
Aside from using your own words, you can also “borrow” the exact words of another person without getting into trouble. How?
Of course, you must have a journalistic approach to using quotations. This means mentioning who the quote was from, as well as who they are for added credibility. Don’t just quote and leave your readers guessing which Tom, Dick, or Harry those words came from (even if they’re a well-known personality like Oscar Wilde). It goes without saying that you should properly use quotation marks to separate the quoted material from what’s not.
Have Multiple Sources and Credit Them
While paraphrasing can help you skirt even the most thorough plagiarism checkers, this doesn’t omit you from the sin of spinning. To spin content is to largely paraphrase the information found in one, or, in some cases, even multiple sources.
Unlike paraphrased content that can be considered unique and original, spun content doesn’t contain one crucial aspect: the writer’s own insights. Spun content not only uses the same examples as its source material — it also employs the same flow of thought and order of ideas. In this case, the writer makes use of all the tricks in the book — paraphrasing, using synonyms, switching up the sentence structure, and even using quotes — but a quick comparison between the source material and the spun article will reveal that they read similarly and espouse almost exactly the same ideas.
Spun content is often detected by a human reader, but is missed by most plagiarism checkers. To be on the safe side, always have multiple sources, and don’t forget to give proper attribution.
A few key phrases can also make all the difference. Some of these are:
- According to
- As stated by
- Based on
Using these phrases when you want to use an idea or example you’ve heavily referred to from your source will save you from looking like a copycat.
Writing unique content is no walk in the park. While it may be tempting to simply copy from other sources, especially if you’re trying to beat a deadline, do your best to create original content instead. When you do copy something, the most basic gesture of courtesy you can give your source is to properly credit them.
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