avoiding plagiarism in your writing

The best way to think of plagiarism is to consider it theft of someone else’s work. Because “work” is loosely defined it can be difficult to draw a strong defining line beyond which you can categorically state that something is plagiarised. Clearly, though, theft of any kind should be avoided by the scrupulous so it is a good idea to be sure in your own mind that you are creating original work and not borrowing from someone else who covered the same ground before you.

Classic plagiarism involves copying the work of another person directly and intermingling it with your own work or sometimes simply presenting something you didn’t write as though it were yours. Plagiarism of this type is probably most commonly found in exam and assignment situations. With the advent of digital writing technology, it is even more simple to gather information and to cut and paste chunks of text into your own work, perhaps without even reading it fully. To add cites and present this as research is sloppy. To neglect the cites and imply that the writing is your own is plagiarism. Copying ideas and reworking an entire article is also plagiarising. Come up with your own unique angle on a subject in order to both avoid theft and create a more worthwhile piece of writing.

Yet direct lifting of words is not the only way in which plagiarism can occur. As a writer you will not spend a hundred percent of your time putting words to paper. Rather, you will be researching your topic, musing upon it and bringing together some clear ideas of what you want to put to paper. Be sure, though, that your research is thorough and wide. If you regurgitate the information given by just one source then you are essentially using somebody else’s work rather than doing your own. Avoid this. There is no value in your writing if anybody could pick up your source material and learn exactly the same thing. Be unique.

Bring your own information to your writing. Question your source material. Verify it. Consider it carefully. Don’t put anything into your own writing that you are uncertain of. How can you be certain? Look around! Research, research, research. Could you gather statistics not seen elsewhere? Could you interview someone related to your subject matter? Anything you can do which will produce something entirely original will add strength to your work. You can use your own source material to compare and contrast what others have said, or you can abandon the previous writings and concentrate solely on your own aspects.

If you cannot bring outside data to your subject then an effective way of avoiding plagiarism is to read as much as possible about your subject and then wait for a while before you do anything. Cogitate. Mull over all you have learnt. What arguments seemed most convincing? What points in particular stand out? By waiting before plunging into the authoring stage you allow a clear view to form in your mind which in turn leads to a balanced opinion. With a good understanding of your subject you can start to bring together your own piece on the issue at hand. Of course, anything you directly quote and any information unique to one other author must be credited to them. If you add your own perspective to everything you present then you can be reasonably sure that you are working, that you are not stealing, and that you are not guilty of plagiarism.

Be clear in your own mind of exactly what you want to say when you set out to write your piece. Define a logical structure for your argument and follow it through, using supporting quotes and outside material only where necessary. Don’t be tempted to include information you have read elsewhere just because you like the anecdote or the way that it is presented. If it does not suit your purpose then putting it in will seem contrived and will leave you open to slipping into “borrowing” mode.

Plagiarising isn’t clever. It doesn’t take a genius to reword something and re-present it. Always make it entirely clear when you are using words somebody else wrote or spoke. List your sources if it is appropriate to do so in what you are writing. Be clear enough in what you write to let other people realise which parts of your writing are original. Overall, remember that if an article is worth reading it needs to hold some element of originality. Be original and be both honest and conscientious in naming your sources and you can relax about the whole plagiarism thing.


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