There are very few truly original stories. Take a novel that you love and think of as highly original and then think about potential parallels.Les Miserables, for example, centres on one man’s obsessive quest to bring down his foe. The plot is not completely dissimilar to Moby Dick. One is on land, while the other is at sea, but you can see a similar story arc. And how many variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet have you read?
The reason for raising this here is because there is a lot of confusion about plagiarising. It is not stealing someone else’s idea. However, this is not to say you could take the entire plot of Harry Potter and simply replace the name to star a young boy wizard called Parry Hotter. You do need to use some common sense here. It is basic conceptsthat come around time and again, not specific characters and plot lines.
No, the most common form of plagiarism is stealing someone else’s presentation of an idea. This means using someone else’s exact words and phrases without giving due credit and without getting permission. It also considered to be plagiarising if you copy another piece of work, while subtly rearranging the words. If it can be recognised as noticeably close to the original, you’re skating on thin ice.
Now, with all the millions, no billions, of sentences written in books over time, the odds are quite high that you will somehow repeat the exact same order of words as has appeared elsewhere in other sentences. It could be a complete accident, or you may well have even read this amazing passage and it has stuck in your subconscious, only for you to inadvertently use it at a later date. It is an easy thing to do and it is not thought of as plagiarism. What is wrong though, is when you deliberately copy out whole passages of someone else’s work and claim it as your own.
What then, if you want to cite someone else’s work in order to develop your own argument? That’s fine and I am sure most authors would be flattered and pleased to have made an impact. However, those authors would, quite rightly, expect credit and also for you to interpret their work in your own words.
If you are using online sources to build your argument, giving due credit is not always that easy. Some websites use content without giving it the proper accreditation, so it looks like they are the originator. Not only does it make it almost impossible to find the original source, or even realise there was one, but it might leave you crediting the wrong person.
The best advice is to keep track of all your sources (to your best abilities) and to be as organised as possible. As a professional writer, I know what it is like to be ‘in the zone’, flicking over to Google to check a fact, researching on the hoof and then furiously typing to keep the flow going. Then, months later, when the manuscript goes to the publisher for its first edit, I’ll receive a list of questions about the sources for this or that fact. Believe me, there is nothing worse than trawling back through to find out where you got various things from so you can give due credit. It is far, far better to keep track as you go along.
There are various ways to keep track. Where necessary, I add footnote, with the name of the source, the exact page on the website I found it on and the date it was published. For added security, you could keep an electronic file of the pages used, so it is a very handy aide memoire should questions arise at a later date.
Giving credit is never carte blanche to now copy out the author’s work word for word. You still need to put it into your own words, injecting your own ideas and points. The emphasis of your book is on your own theories, the supporting work is just that: supporting. If you are using other references, my advice would be to read everything you can as research and make notes of the key points. It is really useful to use several sources, then there is less likelihood of copying one. Then, close or hide the page you are using and work from your notes. Focus on developing your own arguments and how what you are saying relates to your work. The key is to use the sources to help your understanding.
It may sound like an obvious tip, but it really helps to read over what you have written, out loud if you can. Does it sound like the rest of the chapter? If something sounds clunky, or unoriginal, or just not quite how you’d say it, you may have inadvertently copied it.
The best way to avoid plagiarising is to know and understand your subject well and to be confident in your own ability to tell your story. If you know anything in enough depth it is natural to use your own words. However, if you do use any other sources, use in moderation, in your own words and always, always give due credit.