4 Tips for Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism

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on November 9, 2012 in Freelance Writing Business
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Several days ago I was contacted by fellow freelance writer, Luana Spinetti. She wrote to thank me for a recent post on my business writing blog -- one where I talked about the risks business owners take on in hiring bottom-of-the-barrel content writers.

In that post I talked a bit about plagiarism and how passing a plagiarism checker (like Copyscape) in no way meant articles were ethically, or legally, written. That's because those tools can't generally separate original and derivative works. And derivative works ("spinning," translating someone else's articles for publication, rewriting text with the same structure and ideas, etc.) is still copyright infringement.

The post caught Luana's attention and she realized she'd unintentionally plagiarized the work of others when she was starting out as a freelance writer. In her case she would use the format or structure of someone's content as a basis for her own -- essentially just rewriting the text of the main points. She also re-used their images.

In Luana's defense, as soon as she realized her mistake, she did something about it. She contacted the client where the incidences occurred and she offered to fix every case of plagiarism for them.

Unfortunately many other writers don't step up like that. It's bad enough that folks get into freelancing without understanding such a huge legal issue. What's worse is that many people in that bottom-of-the-barrel group don't care. They do it intentionally, and it's how they can afford to charge next to nothing.

Here we don't care about those pseudo-writers. But we do care about new freelancers who are trying to learn the ropes, and who sometimes make mistakes in the process. Today I'd like to share some information that should help other new freelance writers avoid the kinds of mistakes Luana faced.

A Note on International Client-Writer Relationships


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First a bit of background. Freelance writing opportunities have increased for many writers thanks to the Web. It's easier to build your presence and find clients -- all over the world. Sometimes that means copyright laws where you live, and those where clients live will differ. In that case, which rules should you follow?

My suggestion (and of course I'm not a lawyer -- I don't even play one on this blog) is that you should always choose the more conservative option. In other words if it's legal in one country and not in the other, don't do it. Make sure it's legal in both.

I suggest this because you never know who might sue and who they might go after (and which rules would apply in that case). Doing something that's inherently dishonest anyway is never worthwhile. You put yourself at risk. And you put your client at risk. That simply isn't something a professional does.

4 Ways to Make Sure Your Writing is Original

If you're concerned that your writing might cross the line, making you unintentionally guilty of plagiarism, consider following these tips in the future. They'll help you create more original work.

  1. Always use more than one source in your research. -- The only time where you might write from a single source is when you're writing about your own experiences, sharing a personal story. With everything else, refer to multiple sources to avoid having it look like you just rewrote someone else's content.
  2. Cite those sources. -- Whether someone sparked the idea for your article or you plan to quote them directly, it's always a good idea to cite sources. Quote directly when possible. And if you paraphrase, don't forget to mention the source there as well. If it's a case of wanting to protect a source's privacy, ask them if they wanted to be cited or not first (which is what I did for this post before sharing a bit of Luana's story).
  3. Don't "quote" large portions of someone else's work. -- The more you use, the bigger the chance that your use doesn't fall under "fair use" standards (in the U.S. -- check your own country's rules on such things). There's no specific cut-off, but you can think of it in a couple of ways. Would your use impede the owner's ability to use that work later (such as stealing an image which could later hurt their license sales)? If so, don't do it. And would your use give away the bulk of the author's points or even their most important points, where your readers would have no reason to read the full source material? Again, if so, don't do it.
  4. Bring a bit of yourself into your writing. -- One of the best ways to make sure your work is original is to share original ideas or personal thoughts and commentary. For example, rather than stating a bunch of facts and leaving it at that, you might write your article from a specific viewpoint where you can share your opinions or interpretations. You don't have to be the only person with the opinion for the work to be original. It's all in how you express yourself.

It's important to remember that there are consequences even when you don't cross the line into copyright infringement. For example, ideas can't be copyrighted. But if you regularly steal blog post ideas from another site or two, people notice and talk. It's not illegal. But to the people you're swiping from, it's likely to be perceived as unethical. You'll ruin your reputation.

If you write for clients and swipe your idea list from their biggest competitor, they're likely to notice too. And so might their readers. In that case you aren't the only one who could look bad. Again, it's not worth the risk of bad PR for you or your client.

Come up with your own material. Share your personal thoughts and ideas. And don't limit your sources to the point of research becoming unintentional plagiarism.

What other tips would you offer new freelance writers who are worried about unintentionally plagiarizing their sources? How much is too much to quote in your view? When do you ask for permission as opposed to just citing your source? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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11 Comments

  1. Jenn, I’m so glad my experience resulted in this list of useful tips to help new writers not to make the same mistakes. :) Starting out without proper guidance and with a lack of copyright information risks to kill our career and reputation from the very start; it’s losing too much for having gained so little.

    My client appreciated my decision to audit all content I produced for his blog to get rid of plagiarism. Apart from the copyright issue, I realized there’s so much of my own I could have added to those articles that it’s a pity to leave them as is. This work is going to take months, but it will be worth of every minute spent.

    Thanks for this article, Jenn!

    ~ Luana

    • Jennifer Mattern November 9, 2012 Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story Luana. Like you, I hope other new writers are able to learn from it. It’s great that you took the initiative to fix things. But months of extra work — wow. I hope more folks manage to avoid that from the start. Even more, I hope some folks stop pretending that things like article “rewriting” are legitimate businesses. Then again, as long as there are clients who think it’s enough (and it’s all they’re willing to pay for), I know the problem won’t ever completely go away.

      • I can tell you there’s a trend on Italian forums for translations from English to republish on blogs. I never liked the idea, so I (wrongly) thought it could be better to just use the points in the (single) source to write about the same topic.

        Too bad I still mimicked the original. Good enough that they’re not blatant rewrites so it will be easier to turn them into original pieces. I guess it would have been tougher to do the audit if they were mere translations. Thank goodness I had some ‘instinct’ that the thing wasn’t completely legit.

        But in these cases knowledge is much better than instinct. :)

        ~ Luana

        • Jennifer Mattern November 9, 2012 Reply

          The translation issue is one that I find frustrating simply because it can be tougher for the content creator to find the infringement. And the thing is, I’d bet most bloggers would allow someone to make that kind of derivative work if they couldn’t do it themselves, especially if they were properly attributed. The problem is that they often aren’t asked.

          • Luana Spinetti @ Writer's Mind November 10, 2012

            True. sking never hurts.

            When my Italian freelance writing blog goes live next year, I’ll make sure this topic is touched and explained thoroughly. And I’m going to link to this post. ;)

          • Jennifer Mattern November 10, 2012

            lol Glad to hear it Luana.

  2. Amandah November 10, 2012 Reply

    Great tips!

    My advice would be to write original content. As far as formatting goes, I’m a little confused by this because many bloggers give away their formatting secret. For example, most people write “how to” posts and use bullet points, headers, pictures, etc. Derek Halpern of Social Triggers shared his format with everyone who attended his webinar; he gave all of us a copy of it.

    I always city my sources like I would in a research paper. I don’t use large chunks of text, but I may use a line or two. Most importantly, I link back to my source. Again, it’s no different from citing your resources in a bibliography at the end of and within a research paper.

    The bottom line is to write original content. You’ll be alright as long as you do this.

    • Jennifer Mattern November 10, 2012 Reply

      Not copying someones format just means that you don’t take their actual headings and use them (or just reword them). It’s fine to use the structure of headings and bullet points. It’s not fine to have all of your headings say the same thing another author’s headings say, and then have the same basic information below each of those headings.

      I think the problem is that some new writers don’t understand what “original” means. They think different words equal original content. And unfortunately that’s not the case. There are very few original ideas in the world. Someone else will always share your viewpoint on an issue. I’ve even seen writers use that as an excuse — the fact that your ideas are original means you can’t technically write original content. That’s utter BS. Original content is less about what you say and more about how you say it. It’s the fine line between that and rewording something you’ve pulled from someone else that’s often the issue.

  3. Lori November 12, 2012 Reply

    What kills me are these so-called professional writers who think “mashups” — basically rewritten articles using multiple original works — aren’t the same as plagiarism. It’s not your work, therefore….

    More disturbing is their seemingly blase attitude regarding what this could do to their careers. If you stand firmly behind using other people’s work as the basis of your work, what client in their right mind would hire you?

    Your article is what we learned in J school — always use more than one source and always cite your sources. To do otherwise is to skirt ethical boundaries or cross them altogether.

    • Jennifer Mattern November 12, 2012 Reply

      Another good example Lori. There’s such a fine line between those kinds of posts and ones that aggregate. If you must do one, the latter (where you’ll cite and link to several sources rather than just paraphrasing their points) is definitely the better option. Plus, it’s an opportunity to spread some link love and share some new resources with your own readers.

    • Luana Spinetti November 18, 2012 Reply

      I’m fine with rewrites as long as the client is the author of the original piece. Sometimes they don’t want to disclose it’s a rewrite; I’m OK with that, too, as long as I’m sure the original is their own work. Since my first experiences with rewriting led to plagiarism (as Jenn said in the article), I’m no longer taking things for granted. :) If in doubt, I’ll ask.

      Using multiple original works is only fair when we need background research, or to quote a source (example: “not everyone can do that”, says John Abc in his blog Link). In any case, we should make it clear that we’re mentioning a collection of opinions about a same topic (after which we’ll add ours).

      One way I’m planning to fix old plagiarized pieces is to add, before the main points of the write up: “Blogger ABC introduced an interesting point about XYZ at URL, and I agree with him/her, so below you’ll find my take on the topic” After that I’m going to change all the points with my own opinion and add at least another original paragraph with examples and sources.

      A million writers could write a million different articles on “How to prepare a banana split” and I wish I knew better when I started out. :) I didn’t even realize I was missing out the fun— that of putting some of myself into those pieces. They were sterile, as brainless as a photocopy… and I’m glad I have a chance to fix them, now.

      (The audit will take many months, but it’s worth every minute ^^)

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