Can you write a 1000-word article on a topic you know little or nothing about?
Of course you could. Do some reading, take lots of notes, and get to work.
Let’s face it. Very little you write is completely original—you learned it from somewhere. Even if it’s a personal experience essay, the slant you take or advice you give is based on the beliefs or ideals that you’ve learned and embraced.
And you probably don’t know more than a few or a half-dozen topics so well that you could write an outstanding, informative, and useful 1000-word article without consulting at least a couple of websites or books for a quick brush up.
Even fiction, no matter how creative, taps into the wells of work that came before it. How many popular novels feature a love triangle or a Cinderella story?
And even if you’re writing about something you know like the back of your hand, you’d still want to check a few facts or even quote a couple of experts.
But where is the line between “original” writing, such as it is, and plagiarism? What’s the difference between reading, learning, and writing—and copying someone else’s work? How do you write about something you know hardly anything about?
Then there’s paraphrasing and “spinning.” What’s the difference and what should you avoid?
Let’s take a look.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is stealing.
When you copy someone else’s writing exactly as you found it, that’s plagiarism. It’s stealing, it’s illegal, and it’s considered despicable by publishers, universities, and hard-working writers alike.
Plagiarism can get you kicked out of school or fired from a job. You can even be arrested, fined, and sent to jail.
But what happens when you write about something that’s a well-known fact? Take this, for example:
WordPress is an open-source content management system often used for blogging.
I’ll bet there are at least a few hundred similar or even identical sentences somewhere on the Internet. Is it plagiarism?
Take a look at this one:
Columbus discovered America in 1492.
Is that plagiarism if you can find that exact sentence somewhere? (Whether it’s really a “fact” and whether it should be clarified is a different story.)
Neither sentence in itself is plagiarism because both are considered common knowledge. How many ways can you describe WordPress or make a statement about Christopher Columbus’s main accomplishment?
Check these out:
Maple trees are deciduous and common in temperate climates.
Kangaroos are marsupials that live in Australia.
You might not know that maple trees are deciduous or that kangaroos are marsupials, but anyone a little familiar with trees and kangaroos considers both facts common knowledge. You can read about maple trees and kangaroos almost anywhere.
Knowledge is generally considered “common knowledge” if you can find it in at least 5 reputable sources without credit given to an author, researcher, or anyone else. And it’s not plagiarism if you write the information in your own words, even if “your own words” aren’t super exciting or original.
You’re guilty of plagiarism only when you copy someone else’s writing. It doesn’t matter whether or not that writing has a name and a little © by it or whether it’s online or in print. If you didn’t think it up and write it, it’s not yours. Read about copyright law in the US here: Copyright in General.
What is Paraphrasing?
Paraphrasing is perfectly legit as long as you’re careful and give credit to the source. But what is it?
To paraphrase means to give a summary of what someone else wrote or to explain something you’ve read in your own words. Merriam-Webster says a paraphrase is “a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.”
Let’s say I’m writing an article about hemangiosarcoma, which is a type of cancer that dogs and sometimes cats get. I know a lot about it because one of my dogs died from it a few years ago.
I could easily whip out 1000 words to explain the basic facts, which are common knowledge among veterinarians and can be found in any veterinary textbook and on many reputable websites.
But if I want to add credibility and an interesting angle to my article, I could look up some information written by a veterinarian or a canine oncologist and mention it with a clear reference to my source.
For example, I could write an article called Traditional Chinese medicine offers hope for dogs with hemangiosarcoma.
I’d explain the basics and the standard treatments, and I’d emphasize that, once hemangiosarcoma is diagnosed, life expectancy is short. I would go on with a paraphrase:
But recent research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine has shown that an extract of a mushroom used in Chinese medicine for over 2000 years may extend a dog’s survival time far beyond the usual poor prognosis.
To write the sentence above, I read the article, and I summarized in my own words what I learned. This is not common knowledge, and even if it’s my own words, it’s nothing I could have known if I hadn’t read that article. So I need to give credit to the source, which I did by providing a link and mentioning where the research was done.
Even if all my friends are talking about it, the study was done only recently, and you can’t find it anywhere without the source cited, so there’s no way it could be considered common knowledge. It’s someone’s original research and intellectual property.
Here’s a great example of an article written about that study which uses extensive paraphrasing: Researchers Shocked by Mushroom Study Results.
In the research article itself, you can see many examples of paraphrasing. Each paraphrased section is marked with a number which is linked to the source at the end.
And even if you’re paraphrasing a blogger who happens to be your friend, the same rules apply. If it’s not common knowledge or not your own original thinking or opinion, give credit to the source. Not sure? Play it safe.
What is spinning?
Spinning is just disguised plagiarism.
If you copy someone’s writing but change enough words around so it doesn’t look like you copied word for word, that’s spinning. You can do it manually or with online spinners (which are sort of like translators) that really butcher things up pretty badly.
Here’s a good definition on Wikipedia.
Spinning, to me, is worse than plagiarism. At least someone who plagiarizes doesn’t try to hide it and might even be ignorant of how serious it is. It’s like walking into a store, taking cookies off a shelf, and eating them right out in the open.
If you’re spinning, you know it’s wrong. You walk into the store in stealth mode, snap up the cookies, hide them under your jacket, and sneak out to your car and crouch down while you gobble them up.
Either way, spinning—unless you’re spinning your own articles, which is a separate issue—is as illegal as plagiarism and could land you (or the client you’re writing for) in jail. And if you call yourself a writer, you shouldn’t do either one.
Keep in mind that writing on the same topic that others have written about from your own angle with your own words isn’t spinning.
And if I write an article about this very same topic a year from now for my own blog or someone else’s, sure, it’s going to be similar as far as subject matter goes. But if it’s got a different angle, different tone, different words, and completely different examples and links (or none), it’s not spinning.
What is original writing?
Original writing is (for our purpose here) writing that’s based on knowledge, memory, and imagination. The words, unless specified otherwise, are the writer’s own, as if he or she were talking. It’s like explaining something to a friend.
Let’s exclude personal experience writing and fiction for now and focus on non-fiction, which is what we usually find on blogs and in magazines.
This article (that you’re reading right now) is original, non-fiction writing. It’s an amalgamation of what I’ve learned in college, as a college instructor, as a writer, and as a copyeditor.
I could have lunch or coffee with you and tell you almost everything I’ve written here—and then some. I could fire up my laptop while we’re eating and quickly buzz around finding links to support what I’m saying or give examples. I know it that well.
Even if I didn’t know much about this, I could still do some reading to learn about it. Then, when I feel like I know it well enough to start writing, I’d sit down and get to work.
What about direct quotes?
Sometimes you’ll want to quote an expert directly. This is completely legal (even a compliment to the writer) and pretty clear cut: If you use the exact words that someone else wrote, place quotation marks around the text or indent if you’re quoting more than five lines.
Let’s say I want to explain why research on cancer treatment for dogs is so important. After all, many people—even animal lovers—might wonder why so much effort is spent on cures for cancer in dogs when so many people suffer from it as well.
Here’s what I’ve written:
You might wonder, when so many people are suffering from cancer, why time and money are spent on researching hemangiosarcoma in dogs.
Did you know that the effort spent on dogs also helps people?
According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, “the use of animals as models to address preclinical study of cancer therapeutics has a long history, and important information has been acquired on new and innovative therapies.”
How, exactly, you cite the source depends on the publication you’re writing for, of course. The important thing, though, is that you do it.
Even if you’re not sure how to do it, just tell where you got the information and use quotation marks or an indent. Giving credit for words that aren’t your own is what’s important.
Putting it all together
Writing after doing some reading and research is like tossing 50 or 100 different kinds of fruits and veggies into a blender and mixing it up. The juice is your knowledge, whether it’s recently acquired or something you’ve picked up over the years.
It’s like a rich, flavorful stew with all sorts of ingredients simmered over low heat. The end product is a mélange, just like your writing.
Some of it will sound like any other article on the topic; there aren’t many different ways to describe a maple tree, a kangaroo, or certain types of canine cancer just like there are only so many ways to make a stew.
But the writing and the spices are yours: your voice, your style, your words.
Be proud, be original. Write from your heart, your soul, and your imagination, and write what you know, even if you have to do some reading to learn more than you knew in the first place.
Spike it up with paraphrases and quotes, and take care to give credit to the original author. But make it your own. You’ll be glad you did.
Comments or questions are welcome! And please share: this is important stuff.