Friday, February 20, 2009

Me, Plagiarize? There Are Only So Many Ways to Say It and Other Myths

Having recently joined the honored multitude of plagiarized writers on the Web, I was intrigued when the subject of plagiarism cropped up again in my life, and so soon. It turns out eHow writers are up-in-arms because eHow has kicked up their plagiarism software a notch. A number of writers' articles are being removed for being copycats of each other.

Owned by Richard Rosenblatt's Demand Media, is a content site that hosts both professional and user-generated content on a wide variety of topics. Based out of the West Coast, they allow registered users like me to post articles that follow their guidelines for free. They also hire "experts" who are professionals in their field to write articles on a variety of topics, as well as professional writers who work for Demand Studios on a write-for-hire basis (I'm one of those, too) and topic editors.

EHow has a huge database of articles which are earning revenue, both for eHow and for many of its writers, based on advertising. EHow users thus have serious incentive to add new articles rapidly and in quantity. The more articles, the more revenue for the freelance writer, is the general idea.

EHow's newly invigorated plagiarism software is now catching writers who ostensibly are plagiarizing not other writers, but themselves. EHow states that they want original content in each writer's library of articles. Without specifying exactly what a "clone article" is, they've stated that they don't want to see a series of articles like "How to Apply for Unemployment in Florida," "How to Apply for Unemployment in Illinois," "How to Apply for Unemployment in New York," etc., with boilerplate text that varies only slightly. They want, they say, a quality site with quality, original content.

Why is this interesting? OK, aside from the admittedly pertinent questions of whether or not the writers plagiarized themselves and whether or not eHow's no-clone policy is consistent with their publishing model, what astonishes me is hearing a writer say, "How many ways are there to say mix the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients? Duh! Don't they know there are only so many ways to say things!"

I'm baffled. This is, well, how do I say it? An oversimplification. Not true. In error. Mistaken. Slightly erroneous. Misguided. Inexact. Without validity. Like, totally untrue. Wrong. Absolutely bogus. Rather doubtful. Oh, sure - not. Not exactly correct. Utterly false. Unlikely. Hardly the way it is. Certainly possible, but....

There are plenty of ways to say pretty much anything in the English language...including some of the common phrases and sentences, and yes, even stuff in "technospeak."

Mind you, each different construction has its own connotation of meaning, its own level of precision, its own flavor of authority, and its own level of accuracy. And not all of the permutations are pretty--or keyword rich. But there are far more choices than "mix the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients."

As writers, we have to choose the times when we use the default construction for common phrases and the times we use our own construction. Sometimes the default cliches are right for the context, other times not.

When I write, I'm tempted to "say it like the experts do." I lean toward "suffered a heart attack" and "risk of cardiac arrest." But there are times when it's better to depart from the norm. I'm not saying you should write "Her heart went kaplunk." Especially if you're writing for the Internet, you need those keywords for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes. So vary your construction as much as possible.
  • "If you have high cholesterol, you have a greater chance of suffering cardiac arrest."
  • "Heart attack is prevalent among those with high blood cholesterol levels."
  • "High blood cholesterol means serious risk of coronary occlusion, or so say the doctors."
  • "To lower your chances of experiencing cardiac arrest, doctors advise you to lower your intake of high cholesterol foods such as eggs, red meat, full-fat cheese and pork."
  • "Don't increase your risk of suffering a heart attack. Reduce your intake of the richer foods laden with cholesterol."
But that takes work. My first instinct is to write the first words that come to mind...forgetting that they come to mind first because I've heard them before. And sometimes I wrack my brain and can't figure out a more concise or attractive way to say something than the standard, "Mix the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients."

But it's my job as a writer to do it. They pay me for that! So....
Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.

Gently stir the wet and dry mixtures together in the bowl.

With a fork, blend the wet and dry ingredients together.

Pour in the eggs and mix with a spoon gently just until moist.

Blend the egg-and-milk portion with the flour portion just until mixed.
If you're stuck in legalese, recipe-speak, standard terminology, or cliche-land, or just generally having trouble coming up with a different way to say something, then try these tips:
  1. Switch the order of the words.
  2. Use synonyms.
  3. Combine steps or break steps up.
  4. Use lay terms instead of technical terms.
  5. Let time pass between researching an article and writing it.
But none of that guarantees you won't be accused of plagiarism. The only way to make sure your work is original is to think creatively. To think, in other words, like a writer. A writer isn't someone who puts words together, but rather someone who puts words together creatively.

So, take your own slant. If you've written on the subject before, veer from your former slant, if only slightly. Pretend you're not an expert. Pretend you're a novice enthusiast. Then pretend you're a "man in the street." Pretend you're a tourist. Pretend you're looking at the subject outside of its normal context. Ten new approaches will come to mind when before only one did.

The secret nobody ever tells you about writing original work is that nothing is original. It's all derivative. Every word has been used before, or it wouldn't be, well, a word. Only human creativity saves a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a story from being a copy.

Update for writerseHow is no longer publishing new articles via their Writers Compensation Program as of April 5, 2010.

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susie said...

Okay now that was what I am calling a very fine and brilliant read. Thank you for the valuable info and the entertaining way you put it. Reading your writing?... kind of like just a pure joy. Eagerly looking forward to many more of your forthcoming posts here.

From the Desk of Jerrie Dean said...

Nice post. Well put.

Anonymous said...

"Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture."
57,400 hits on Google.

"Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients."
73,300 hits on Google.

Plagiarism at its finest.