Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This article is part of Writing Essentials,
in-depth coverage of the elements of fiction and writing basics.
I once assumed that everyone who made it through junior high (middle school) understood what plagiarism was and also understood that you don’t do it. Ever. Not at all. Not one sentence.
But if reports out of our schools and newsrooms are any indication, then plagiarism is thriving.
I’m not going to make you wait until you get to the end of the article for the conclusion on this one. The conclusion is, you don’t take the work of others and pass it off as your own. You don’t borrow or sample. You don’t write in the style of another author—not even one that you love, love, love—by using her phrasings. No, it’s not an homage or a tribute. It’s theft. And that author, as well as everyone else, knows it’s theft. And if you borrow or sample or steal the words or ideas of another, you are a thief.
Was that clear enough?
If you’re a student, please take this as your notice—you can’t take even one line from someone else and present it as your own. If you’re writing fiction, the story must be your words. If you’re writing an essay, you can refer to the work of another using either direct or indirect quotes, but you must include attributions in your essay. Whether your footnotes are in the body of the text or included at the end, you have to provide references for your source materials.
And if you do refer to the works of others, those references should only bolster your own words. That is, you are the author of a report or essay, so the major part of any writing project should be your words—your questions, musings, and conclusions. Quote only short sections of someone else’s work, not paragraph after paragraph. (There are limits to how much can be quoted of a single work, even for non-profit educational purposes. For more information, check the Fair Use provision of copyright law.)
If you quote directly, without a paraphrase, you must use quotation marks. And include citations.
If you paraphrase, using indirect quotes, you don’t use quotation marks but you still include citations.
If a thought isn’t original to you and is not common knowledge, you must cite your source.
This one should be easy, but apparently it isn’t. So I’ll find another way to say it.
If you use someone else’s words, no matter where you got them, you must put them in quotation marks and report the source. (The format for reporting source information depends on what you’re writing. Reference info typically includes author name, title of book or article, publication name, publisher’s name, date of publication, and page number. Internet sources have their own requirements. Make sure you know what’s required and the format you should follow.)
If you paraphrase, you must actually paraphrase—restate the meaning of something in different words to either clarify or summarize. Taking one or two words out and removing the quotation marks is not a paraphrase. Merely changing a few words—using synonyms—is not a paraphrase.
Each writer has a style. The way they craft sentences and arrange words is peculiar to every writer, so substituting words, especially for adjectives only, is no way to paraphrase writers. You need to change not only the words but the sentence construction and layout as well.
And if you paraphrase, you still cite your sources. Why? Because you must give credit where it’s due. If you use someone’s words or ideas, you tell where you found those words or ideas.
The Internet has made it infinitely easier to discover information, but that doesn’t mean that everything you find on the Internet is yours for the taking.
Let’s consider examples of a paraphrase appropriate for essay or report or non-fiction article. (This entire example is made up, therefore there are no sources for me to cite.)
Journalist Juan Edgar wrote a book about naturalist Josiah Teasdale. In Edgar’s words—
Teasdale is an expert on the flora that flourishes near waterfalls. When he invited me on his next expedition to the Snake River and Black Serpent Falls, I never thought to say no. Only as we approached the crest did Teasdale tell me that more than two dozen hikers had been killed by the Black Serpent in the previous 18 months.
Blind to the danger, Teasdale knelt near the very rim of the falls. Soaked from the sharp spray in just seconds, he watched, entranced and unmoving, as the cataract tumbled blindly, lushly, violently, over the summertime boulders, impatient to plunge into the frothing pool below. As for me, I not only didn’t go near the edge, I scrambled back five or six yards. Away from the pounding water. Away from the power that vibrated the earth under my feet.
Next, a few attempts of another writer to paraphrase Edgar that are actually examples of plagiarism—
Edgar reported that Teasdale seemed blind to any danger and knelt near the rim of the waterfall to watch as the cataract rushed blindly, violently, over the summertime boulders, eager to reach the frothy water of the pool below. X
Soaked from the water’s spray, Teasdale watched, unmoving, as the cataract tumbled over the boulders, impatient to plunge into the pool below. X
Only as they approached the crest did Teasdale tell Edgar that more than two dozen hikers had been killed by the Black Serpent in the previous 18 months. X
Oblivious to the danger, Teasdale knelt near the edge of the falls. Soaked from the stinging spray in seconds, he watched, without moving, as the water raced violently, loudly, over the rocks and into the churning pool below. X
These examples don’t work because they are primarily the words and ideas of Juan Edgar, not those of the writer who’s trying to paraphrase him.
Rewording that does work—
Edgar seemed surprised by Teasdale’s indifference to the power of the water rushing over the falls. Teasdale sought out that power by moving closer while Edgar reported that he himself moved away.
Edgar reported that Teasdale ignored any danger inherent in standing at the edge of a violent waterfall, that he actually didn’t note the danger, so caught up in the moment was he.
When Teasdale took journalist Juan Edgar to Black Serpent Falls, Teasdale ignored the danger inherent in standing at the edge of a waterfall. In fact, he seemed oblivious to any danger, so caught up in the spectacle of water rushing over the rocks was he.
Such rewordings allow you to not only report what another writer said, but to also turn the focus toward a particular section of the referenced material. You get to show, by drawing a conclusion about the words you’ve referenced, what’s important in those words.
You can thus use a reference to prove or disprove a point. But the reference standing alone doesn’t do that. You can’t just quote or paraphrase and think, Ta-da! You have to point out the connections for your own readers. You have to connect the source material to your point or conclusion. At the same time, you need to make sure your conclusion truly derives from the source material. That is, you can’t make a connection where none exists.
Paraphrasing is not a matter of changing the word order or cutting out a word here or there—you don’t get to take advantage of the word choices and rhythms and sentence constructions of others. What you can use paraphrasing for is to put the meaning of a section of text into words that mean something for your writing project.
So our paraphrases that did work focused on the responses to the power of the waterfall but did not borrow Edgar’s words and visuals. You could have used the same source material to draw other conclusions as well.
Maybe Juan Edgar later died when he fell from the edge of a waterfall, and the police suspect foul play. If the only witness, a neighbor found to be having an affair with Edgar’s wife, said that Edgar brazenly stood close to the edge of the waterfall, an investigative journalist might take Edgar’s report and focus on the fact that Edgar stepped not closer to the edge but farther away when he’d been to a waterfall with Teasdale.
For your own paraphrasing, try this: rather than simply changing another writer’s words, pull out one key word and build your paraphrase around it. For one of my examples I focused on the word danger. For the other two, power.
Fiction is different.
Quoting others and paraphrasing their words is not something we do in fiction, especially in the body of a story. (For the most part, that is. There are always exceptions.)
You may need information straight from a source for essays and term papers and school reports and non-fiction articles and company reports, but fiction stands on its own. Even if you have to research an era or need to know about weapons or clothing or scientific principles, you do not drop the research, whole, into your story. You learn the information and then put it into the head and heart and words of your characters, or you use it to create a realistic setting. If one of your characters offers an insight into space travel, that insight shouldn’t come out in the words or sensibilities of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking or an uncredited writer at Wikipedia. The words, the attitude, and the intent behind the words should sound like your characters. The style should fit this one story.
An example of plagiarism used in fiction. (Assume that the terms for measurements are real, something the author found in a book on astronautics. Again, this was created for this article and was not taken from a real story. )
As his Astropod zipped past the Xiklam quadrant, Braintree estimated the distance and time to Piqot. Tongue caught between his teeth, he made the calculations—there are five bodats to every dat and the speed necessary to achieve bodat is 9600 boodles. Boodles are the space standard, decreed so by the Treaty of Ghar in 2765. Before that, jenz and pla-ang were used, but only by the members of the United Galaxy. Minority members eventually convinced the others of the supremacy of boodle calculations.
Pretty awful, isn’t it? But that’s how bad a passage can get when you drop research, verbatim, into fiction. Not only are you inserting words that aren’t your own, which we’ve already said is theft, but the words and phrasing and tone don’t match the story. These sentences will stop your readers and pull them right out of the fiction.
If you have a character who starts to lecture, chances are you’ve thrown some research, perhaps word-for-word research in someone else’s words, into your story. You’ll definitely want to change such sections in your fiction.
Yes, you want to make the story sound real and, yes, you may have to do some research to learn something you don’t know. But just as you wouldn’t stop to explain how a car runs, you don’t need to go overboard just to prove you did your homework. Use the facts, but work them into the story in a way that reveals character or advances the story.
As his Astropod zipped past the Xiklam quadrant, Braintree estimated the distance and time to Piqot. Tongue caught between his teeth, he made the calculations. When he saw the estimate—all five different estimates—he flung his blip screen across the cockpit. Damn boodlian projections! What was wrong with the old system when you could estimate, just once, and be accurate within a half jenz?
What About Exceptions?
What if you want to quote from a song or poem or another fiction work in your fiction? Are there allowances or exceptions? You would, of course, reference the source of your quotation.
For the most part, if the other work is not in the public domain, you must obtain permission to use the words of another writer in your fiction, even if you cite the source. The reason is that you have no right to make money off the words or ideas of other writers and they have the right to say what their words and works can be used for. The copyright holder gets to determine where his words are used, who or what is affiliated with his words and ideas, and who gets to make money off his work.
Fiction is typically considered for-profit, whether you actually make a profit from it or not. Thus the different allowances between writing done in schools, for educational purposes, and commercial writing. Quotations used in educational settings can typically be used without the author’s or publisher’s permission (yet you must still cite sources and must use quotation marks for direct quotes—citing sources and obtaining permission are separate issues).
Note: Publishers of non-fiction books that quote and refer to the works of others routinely obtain the permission of both author and publisher and include source citations. Such is the nature of non-fiction books, where references to source material are expected and commonplace.
The Fair Use section of copyright law deals with this issue, explaining how much of another piece of writing can be quoted without permission, but the specifics and allowances aren’t easy to discern. There are a couple elements to consider and they must be weighed to see if wording constitutes fair use or not. Even though Fair Use might allow for a few lines of a song or poem or story to be quoted without permission, publishers are rightly wary. They have no desire to delay a book’s release if a copyright case goes to court when the original author wants to pursue copyright infringement. They have even less desire to defend such a case, so they’ll often discourage the use of quotations from copyrighted sources.
Is there an absolute law (in the U.S.) that says you can’t include a few words from another source without permission? In those terms, no, there is not. But there are limitations.
Note: If you are self-publishing, read the Fair Use section of the copyright laws and consult a lawyer if you intend to quote the work of another. Yes, you could be sued if you include someone else’s words in your stories without permission.
Limitations mean no inclusion of the full lyrics of your favorite songs. They mean no collection of Maya Angelou poems—nor the quoting of any whole (copyrighted) poem at all. They mean no quoting the speeches of favorite characters from other books.
You could, of course, get permission of the copyright holder. And that could cost you some big money. It will probably cost you some big time as well. If you’re close to your deadline and haven’t secured permission for your quotes, it’s likely that your publisher will encourage you to drop them.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have options.
Have a character refer to the title of a song or book—yes, that’s allowed.
Have characters refer to a line from a song, poem, or book without actually quoting it. This is actually easier than it sounds. I urge you to try it.
Write your own songs or poems or novel quotations in the style that fits your story. If you can write the novel, you can try writing the quotations as well.
Common Knowledge and Public Domain
So what about common knowledge? How is that handled in writing projects?
Common knowledge has to do with information known to a wide body of people or information that can be found in a variety of places. It can be something we all know or something a great many people know. So while a child may not have knowledge of something, that doesn’t mean it’s not common knowledge.
We know the sky is blue, that two plus two equals four, and that the Super Bowl is played by football teams, the World Series is played by baseball teams, and the World Cup is played by football (soccer) teams.
Even if an individual didn’t know these facts, they are common to a large population. Therefore you wouldn’t need to cite references to such information.
Also, even if knowledge isn’t widely known, if it’s information that’s available from a variety of unrelated sources (and not simply one source that’s quoted again and again), it’s considered common knowledge.
For example, the Nama-Herero war of 1880, in what is now Namibia, can be referred to without a writer having to cite references, even though many in the world might never have heard of the war. The insights of one historian in regard to the war, however, would need to be referenced. It’s the general facts of the war that don’t need to be cited.
In the same way, if you researched the World Cup and found some interesting insight peculiar to another writer and used that insight, you would need to cite your source. If you quoted him directly, you’d also need to use quotation marks.
If a story or song or other information is in the Public Domain, that means it doesn’t belong to anyone. There is no copyright on it or the copyright expired. You can make reference to works in the public domain, even quoting from them, without having to get permission from anyone, but you still have to cite your sources. And you still have to use quotation marks or otherwise indicate which words are not your own.
For example, some novels open with a quote from a poem, the Bible, or other material from the public domain. Often the words are not in quotation marks; you may instead find them italicized. You’ll always find the reference cited with the quote.
Note: While some versions of the Bible are public domain, newer translations are not. Contact Bible publishers for their allowances for quoting their versions and for instructions for citing Bible references.
While you can use information and material from the public domain without permission, you can’t treat such material as if it were your own. You still can’t include passages from the works of others in your writing without giving proper credit to the author.
Don’t be the high school graduate who gets to college and flunks a class or gets kicked out for using a source that you don’t identify or for using someone else’s words verbatim. And please don’t be the college grad who gets a job with a newspaper, presents articles as your own, and then loses that job because you borrow a phrase here or there from other writers. Even obscure ones. Even dead ones. And don’t be the novelist who samples from other writers, pretending that the practice is a compliment to the other writer.
If you’re writing a story or an essay or a poem—if you’re writing anything—then you need to write it. Your ideas. Your conclusions. Your words and flavor and styling.
Use your mind and experiences and questions and even your inexperience to frame your writing projects. Use your style. Use your ideas. Write sentences as you, not anyone else, would write them.
For non-fiction, make research material work for you. Use references that prove or disprove a point. Draw conclusions from what you read and include those conclusions, in your voice, in your projects.
For fiction, put research into the context of the story. Make even common facts fit the story era, the character, the plot, and the emotion of the scene.
Make your writing reflect you, not some other writer. Trust yourself to write your own words.
Use quotation marks for direct quotes
Cite sources for direct quotes and paraphrases
Get author and publisher permission for quoting other materials in commercial and for-profit books
Use the fewest words possible from another source
Pick one word or idea from a quotation and use that as the base of your paraphrase
If you’re taking research notes, use quotation marks in your notes when necessary and note all info needed for the citation
While you can’t buy the work of another (from essay mills or your best friend) and pass it off as your own, you can hire an editor or ghostwriter and use the words that he or she suggests
Sampling and borrowing are not homage or compliments but plagiarism
The story you have to tell or the writing project you have to deliver is worth telling in your words. Use them, those words of yours. We want to hear what you have to say. If we wanted the words of another, we’d read their work. Tell us your story and your grand or fascinating or unique ideas as only you can.
If you need help, there are plenty of people to help you. But don’t give us someone else’s words in your story. They won’t fit. They won’t be as compelling as your words and your slant and your style.
Words that aren’t yours simply aren’t right for a project that bears your name.