The question of originality is a hot topic right now. With digital content making information on just about any subject accessible at our fingertips, it can be easy to read up on a topic and present those findings as universally known fact without ever citing the sources. Or to combine a stock photo with a funny quote, and voilà — your own “original” meme … despite what Getty Images may have to say about it.
As someone who writes and edits content every day, I take plagiarism seriously. Not only is it wrong, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time — if you’re just regurgitating what someone else has said, why even bother? What value are you adding?
As a former English major and lifelong skeptic, however, I also firmly believe that nothing we say is truly original. Nothing that is written was created without the influence of someone else’s work. Of course writers have their own unique styles, tendencies and quirks that make us love them. But what they’re actually writing about has probably been said in some variation before.
Does this belief directly contradict my commitment to avoid plagiarism in my work and my clients’ work?
The answer to that goes back to fall semester of my senior year in college. I was writing my dissertation on American author Flannery O’Connor — a process that had many ups and downs. I loved O’Connor's writing style, and I loved reading what others had to say about her fiction.
But whenever I started to type up my own findings, I was confronted with self-doubt. Nothing I wrote felt original, and I was certain that other smarter people had already said some variation of it before. In one of my many distressed journal entries from that season, I wrote:
“I’m afraid that I’ll walk away with a resounding feeling that I have left the world exactly the same as before I started this dissertation.”
In retrospect, I probably was putting too much pressure on my 20-year-old self, and I could have enjoyed that semester a lot more if I had taken myself a little less seriously. Nonetheless, there’s a question hidden in that confession that I think gets at the heart of the plagiarism issue.
The question is this: In what you wrote, did you contribute something to the world? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or the most eloquent piece ever, but did it contribute something? Plagiarism is the opposite of contribution. It’s a dilution of somebody else’s contribution.
If we could all write like Flannery O'Connor, we wouldn't need to worry about plagiarism. We would have so many ideas for new stories floating around our heads that we wouldn't have the time or need to lift content from others.
If you're like me, you can probably admit that you're not the next great American novelist. But don't let self-doubt keep you from contributing your verse — no matter what it is — to the powerful play, as Walt Whitman once wrote. Write because you have something to say.