Updated: Jan 8, 2021
To assure that you don’t plagiarize in your writing, all you need to do is change the order of the words or substitute a few words with similar words. Right? Wrong!
This blog article will make me sound like a real by-the-book killjoy. It’s one thing to discuss the unethical (and illegal) nature of plagiarism, as I did in Plagiarize versus Paraphrase Part 1. But paraphrasing—how can anyone mess up something as simple as paraphrasing?
Recall that Merriam-Webster defines paraphrasing as “a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.” Let’s dig deeper.
Who Has to Worry?
Paraphrasing and plagiarism are primarily the concerns of writers of nonfiction. In works such as academic reports, research findings, and white papers, the writer must demonstrate his or her understanding of the material by offering an original expression of the subject. In the world of publishing, self-help and how-to books —even memoir—can fall prey to copying the work of others.
Fiction writers must be wary of plagiarizing also. In fiction, simply changing character names, locations, or time periods cannot guarantee you will not be accused of plagiarism if your story is otherwise much like that of another writer and lacks sufficient uniqueness. A solid combination of unique characters, settings, dialogue, and plot details are the hallmarks of original stories.
Writers of all genres must learn what is acceptable and what is not when sourcing the words of others.
Four Strategies to Avoid Plagiarism
The Macmillan Dictionary defines paraphrasing as “to express what someone else has said or written using different words, especially in order to make it shorter or clearer.” But be warned, that definition does not paint the entire picture.
These four strategies ensure effective paraphrasing:
1. Use synonyms for all words that are not generic. Words like planet, food, or science are so basic to our vocabulary that it is difficult to find a synonym.
2. Change the voice from active to passive and vice versa.
3. Change clauses to phrases and vice versa.
4. Change parts of speech.
Rule of thumb: Combine several of these strategies to rephrase the information so that the meaning of the content appears in your words. The use of only one of these strategies does not guarantee sufficient paraphrasing to avoid an accusation of plagiarism.
What’s a Phrase and What’s a Clause?
I don’t want to turn this article into a dry grammar lesson, but maybe a brief review wouldn’t hurt if you’re vague about your grammar rules and vocabulary.
Synonym: a word that has the same or similar meaning. Little and small. Big and large. Several and some. Happy and cheerful. Fortunate and lucky. Funny, humorous, witty.
Generic: general, common, nonspecific. The opposite is exclusive, particular, or specific. Planet is generic, Krypton is specific. Food is generic, soylent green is specific. Science is generic, sexology is specific.
Active and Passive Voice: refers to the quality of the verb—the voice of the verb tells whether the subject of the sentence performs or receives the action. Voice determines whether the subject acts or is acted upon.
I ate the boring kale salad. (active voice).
The boring kale salad was eaten by me. (passive voice)
Susan drove the beater car. (active)
The beater car was driven by Susan. (passive)
Susan changed the flat tire on the beater. (active) The flat tire on the beater was changed by Susan. (passive)
Bill faxed his inadequate resume for the job. (active)
The inadequate resume for the job was faxed by Bill. (passive)
Clause and Phrase: a phrase is a group of words that does not contain a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb). A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. A sentence can consist of one or more clauses.
The old, purple barn (a phrase, no predicate)
Reduced it to ashes (a phrase, no subject)
The old, purple barn stood handsomely, but the fire reduced it to ashes. (complete sentence consisting of two clauses)
The old, purple barn stood handsomely (a clause, with subject [barn] and predicate [stood])
But the fire reduced it to ashes (a clause, with subject [fire] and predicate [reduced])
Parts of speech: The Big Four—noun, verb, adjective, adverb. The parts of speech are many, but these are the four that can most easily be changed to avoid plagiarism.
She succeeded in her balloon business.
Her balloon business was successful.
Her balloon business was considered a success.
All three sentences convey the same idea. The root word succeed is used as a verb in the first, an adjective in the second, and a noun in the third.
I intend to go to her animal blessing service. (intend, verb)
I have every intention of going to her animal blessing service. (intention, noun)
Respect your parents and tax consultants. (respect as a verb)
Be respectful of your parents and tax consultants. (respectful is an adjective)
Show respect for your parents and tax consultants. (respect as a noun)
One Last Thing: Intentional and Unintentional Plagiarism
One last bit of school work: the difference between intentional and unintentional plagiarism.
Intentional plagiarism is copying someone’s words or ideas without citing them, with the intention of passing them off as your own. Simply put, cheating.
Unintentional plagiarism is inadvertently leaving off the required citation(s), likely because you don't understand the rules of citation and plagiarism. A citation is required for any information taken from a source, even if you have sufficiently paraphrased the information.
Originality makes you a writer. To use the words of others makes you a cheat. Numerous surveys over the last decade have found a correlation between the rise in the use of digital tools and increased occurrences of cheating and plagiarism. Those who cheat and get away with it the first time are twice as likely to try it again.
Till next time, stay original.
In addition to my business Strike The Write Tone, I am a contract editor, writing coach, and ghostwriter for The Cheerful Word of Hendersonville, NC.