Thursday, September 16, 2010

That's MY line!

As a writing teacher, I'm trained to be extra vigilant for plagiarism. Most of the time, students are usually just guilty of "accidental plagiarism", meaning they didn't cite the source correctly or they tried to paraphrase a statement but still used some of the same words. I'm usually very patient with them; what I tell them is something like this:

Me: I've got MY EYE on you, PEOPLE! Nothing gets past me! If I catch any of you plagiarizing, I'll make you write ten extra research papers and I'll put B-minuses on all of them! That's right, I said it! Take THAT! Now drop and give me fifty thesis statements!

Not too long ago, I read a piece of writing by a writer whose writing I admire. But in this particular piece, the writer used a passage that I recognized from someone else's work. The writer, however, did not indicate exactly who the lines came from, and several people have praised this person for the writing. I have to admit; it bothered me.

It wasn't a big deal. It was just a brief passage. But still. Maybe I should have sent him a letter saying, "I'm ON to you, MISTER!" Or maybe I should have photographed a picture of a notebook with several pens sticking out of it, and sent it to the writer with a message saying something like, "This notebook could be YOU."

I have heard of other more egregious cases of people "borrowing" other people's work. There was the 19-year old Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan, who was busted for lifting entire passages from the works of several authors, like Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Salman Rushdie. She got a book deal and a movie deal before she was caught; both deals, were, of course, later cancelled when the truth came out.

In one of the articles I read about her, she claimed that she had photographic memory and had read those authors' books so many times that they had just become ingrained in her head; when she started writing, those authors' words became her words. But I thought this was problematic, because if she had photographic memory, wouldn't she remember that those words didn't belong to her?

I still have a lot to learn about writing (and blogging). But whatever I write down is MINE. And maybe it's not Pulitzer-worthy, and maybe some reader's immediate reaction to my writing might be, "You insult me with your mediocrity! I SPIT on your story!" But even if the stuff I write isn't good enough to be published (at least not yet), at least it's coming from my own mind and my imagination. And that is something.

What are your thoughts on "borrowing" other people's writing? If you were in a position to say something to the writer, would you?


  1. I think it shows a lack of imagination. Besides that, it also shows a lack of respect for the person who DID come up with their own thing.

    I would absolutely say something!

  2. What a tough position. I would point it out, but giving them the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to change it. If it came up again, I'd take off points or worse.

  3. As a college student I think I've heard every variant of the anti-palgiarism speech, but I think your idea about taking pictures of abused notebooks is the best ;)


  4. Hi MissEmy,
    Thanks for the advice. You're right; it does show a lack of respect for the author. I don't understand why anyone would want to plagiarize anything, because whatever credit they receive wouldn't be for their own work.

    Hi Theresa,
    The writer I referred to wasn't a student but actually a published writer, but I did think about sending him a letter. I didn't, but I thought about it. If it was a student, though, I would definitely have pointed it out.

    Hi Delilah,
    Thanks! Tee hee...I wonder what other undergrads would think of that picture.

  5. Ugh! I'm a community college English instructor, and nothing peeves me more than finding a paper rife with plagiarism, despite my lectures. I explain very early the difference between common knowledge and information from another source. It's big difference. Here's something interesting though: I've started telling my students that it's incredibly easy for us to Google sections of their papers. And that we do, in fact, do that if we see anything suspicious. They all have that jaw-drop face for a minute, but I try to tell them that plagiarism isn't an easy way out. It's really a way of cheating themselves out of learning the skills offered by the course.

    Best of luck!

  6. Oh hey!You're a writing teacher?Like, teaching people to write literature? Cos I was looking for a wrting program but you know, the kind of distance-learning programs for creative writing, and i thought maybe you could suggest any of those to me, if you're aware of any?
    Thanks anyway, and sorry for butting in with sth so irrelevant.


  7. Hi findingserenity2010,
    Thanks for the advice. That is helpful because I have seen several websites that sell papers, but the sample papers I've seen aren't even very good. And students won't always have that option, so it's better that they learn now.

    Hi nerstes,
    Actually, I teach freshman composition, which is teaching students how to write research papers. And my degree is in literature, so I also teach students how to write about literature and how to read it. But I haven't taught any creative writing classes, though, because I'm not educated in that field. So unfortunately I don't know of any creative writing distance programs, sorry!

  8. I like that writer with the photographic memory. But it must exclude the names of the authors and the book titles!

    It can happen where a writer does borrow & it's done subconsciously. But it can also be done consciously, and what you do at that point is up to you...

  9. Hi notesfromnadir,
    You're right. I think it's one thing if a writer does it subconsciously, because at least it's not deliberate. But I'd still feel upset if someone took my writing.