Monday, October 13, 2008


I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher in my junior year of high school. I had not plagiarized; I had not read the book I was accused of plagiarizing, nor any articles by the author. I had simply turned a phrase similar to that of the author, I guess. But the thing I never understood, quite, was what the point of plagiarizing was. If all you're supposed to do is report what some other writer said, can't you do that easily enough by paraphrasing? Directly copying a large piece of writing always seems so tedious. Writing, to me, seemed hardly more difficult.

To me how one uses a piece of writing is always individual--unless one is simply repeating what the work says without thinking about it or challenging it. I guess I would say that one ought to be thinking about the things you read, but that's not always what the educational system calls for--it is often enough to simply repeat without understanding.

If the way that you use a work is interesting or original, then there's no need to plagiarize: you can give credit where credit is due and still take credit for your own addition.

If you're pursuing your own voice or your own sense of purpose, then you benefit more by trying to understand the things that you read and by challenging those ideas. The process of critical thinking and checking your positions against the ideas of others is the foundation of clear thinking and clear communication.

I didn't really have much to say today about writing; at least nothing I'd like to say in this blog. I thought about writing about plagiarism because this blog has had a spurt of activity viewing a blog entry that I wrote about Emerson's quotation "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Part of the traffic was driven by searches for "writing an essay on Emerson's foolish consistency...". And that made me wonder whether I am being plagiarized by some college or high school students looking for an easy cut-and-paste essay (I suppose cutting and pasting is much easier than copying by hand).

Generate your own ideas. Make up your own thoughts and theories. Challenge accepted wisdom. Rely on logic and evidence rather than on what you are told by others or by what you have read. These things are all the classic hallmarks of great science. Which is of greatest use to you? To repeat what others say? Or to pursue new ideas? There are pros and cons on each side.

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