Updated: Jan 8, 2021
If you are a writer, chances are good you are also a reader. I’m not trying to be funny. I mean that most writers are life-long voracious readers. Reading a lot as a child is often the gateway drug to becoming a writer. Reading provides writers with ideas for their own stories.
Ah, fiction and its limitless supply of enchanting characters, endless plots, and billions of conflicts, twists, turns, and happy endings. Right? Maybe not.
According to Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are only seven basic plot types that have been recycled throughout millennia. Those seven plots are:
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
And just to confound us, Booker tosses in two other plot types near the end of the book: Rebellion Against “the One” and Mystery, claiming that these are new plot types in the history of literature, plays, and operas. Really?
The Seven Basic Plots has had its fair share of detractors. Critics felt Booker’s plots were overly generalized. But this isn’t a book review. I have not read Mr. Booker’s book, but I was hard-pressed to think of a work of fiction that couldn’t be labeled as at least one of these plot types. Can you?
Creating unique fictional prose is a daunting task. An original plot. Uniquely engaging characters. Conflict like no one’s ever seen before. And the breath-taking climax no one saw coming. It’s a tall order.
Even works of nonfiction that forge new paths are difficult to create. Finding your unique niche in the competitive world of published nonfiction is not for the faint of heart.
One would think there really should be an unlimited supply of material for nonfiction works. But the advent of the Internet has been a booby trap for the credibility of nonfictional prose. Nonfiction texts often borrow from other nonfiction sources — books, magazine and journal articles, research papers, websites, abstracts, speeches, academic talks, course lectures, and webinars. And it’s OK to borrow, if you do it well. There are entire books to tell you how to properly cite sources; perhaps the best known are A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate Turabian and Cite Right by Charles Lipson. From Wikipedia to YouTube to TED Talks, unlimited information on every subject is at the writer’s fingertips. And that ease of accessibility is tempting to exploit.
The point is, between only seven (or nine) plot types and limitless access to information of every imaginable sort, it’s tough to be original.
So now I will get to heart of the matter — plagiarism.
Plagiarism – It’s Not a New Thing
High-profile accusations of plagiarism have made news throughout most of history. Plagiarism weasels its way — intentionally or unintentionally — into books, songs, plays, speeches, and long-form journalism articles with alarming frequency. It happens to the best of ‘em: William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, even Jane Goodall, MLK, Jr., and (yikes) Helen Keller have all had the dark cloud of an accusation of plagiarism over their heads. Why, in 2014 even a gubernatorial candidate’s jobs plan for her state was copied directly from the plans of four other candidates who ran for governor in previous election cycles. She lost the following year.
I am a writer. I wrote this. Mostly, I craft blog articles and short stories. I have agreed to take part in this year’s NANOWRIMO to force myself to produce something resembling a novel. (Just in case you don’t know, NANOWRIMO is National Novel Writing Month). I have an idea for a story. That’s all I’ve got so far. It’s kind of clever, but I’m not sure how original it is. (I’d tell you what it is, but I don’t want you to steal it from me.)
What Is Plagiarism?
If you look up the definition of plagiarism, you will find:
“the act or instance of plagiarizing.”
Don’t you hate that? If you look up plagiarize, you will find:
“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (another's production) without crediting the source.
Oh, I almost forgot to credit the source: Merriam-Webster.com.
So if you write something that someone else has written and — this is the important part — try to pass it off as your own, that’s plagiarism. If you plagiarize in a school paper, chances are you will get a failing grade, which damages your GPA, graduation opportunities, and credibility in your academic setting. Oh, and it’s fraud. Plagiarism is typically considered a misdemeanor offense, punishable by fines of up to $50,000. But with plagiarism, the real concern is being sued for fraud and/or copyright infringement. And the tricky thing about plagiarism is, it does not matter whether it is intentional or unintentional. Saying “I didn’t realize I was plagiarizing” won’t cut it as a legal defense.
Plagiarism checker software and apps let you enter text to analyze for originality. Students should use these products because teachers do. In fact, anyone who writes and does not want to inadvertently plagiarize should use a plagiarism checker.
Is Plagiarism the Same as Paraphrasing?
No. No it’s not. Paraphrasing is defined as:
a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.
Thanks again, Merriam-Webster.com. But I prefer this from macmillandictionary.com:
to express what someone else has said or written using different words, especially in order to make it shorter or clearer.
I think this definition gets to the heart of why most writers paraphrase, to shorter and clarify.
Is Paraphrasing Copacetic?
It is, if it’s truly, properly paraphrased. Paraphrasing is not fraud or copyright infringement, but there are explicit strategies to employ to make certain you are paraphrasing and not plagiarizing. And that’s what I will discuss in my next post. Till then, stay original.