Backstory Blog

Posted in Plagiarism, Writing

How Writers Can Avoid Plagiarism

The word plagiarism should invoke terror into the heart of everyone who ever wrote a college or university paper.

But even if you have never written an academic paper in your life, and you think that all your work is entirely your own, I recommend you consider the possibility that you might very well be falling into the plagiarism trap unless you take a closer look. And make no mistake, plagiarism comes at a very steep price―both in terms of your reputation as a writer and financially if someone sues you.

I spent twenty-six years of my career teaching (and writing and researching) as a university professor. My department was communication studies, and I taught corporate communications ethics and strategy to both undergraduate students and our Masters-level students. Of course, after a career of writing and teaching about ethics, the concept of plagiarism is even more important to me.

When I was a university professor, I had a long section on every course syllabus warning students of the perils of even the slightest whiff of plagiarism. And if you think professors (and readers) will never find out, you are so wrong.

Once, while reading a student assignment (a feature story), I noticed that the story didn’t sound quite the same after the lead paragraph. I copied and pasted a section of the paper into a search engine, and lo and behold. The piece appeared on not one but numerous sites. Then I looked at parts of the story further on. Sure enough, copied and pasted into the story by a lazy, dishonest student. But it’s not just a student problem.

In recent years, finding evidence of plagiarism in the work of public figures has become something of a cottage industry. Remember when Melania Trump’s speechwriter plagiarized a speech from Michele Obama in 2016?

In her speech, she said the following: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.” Eight years earlier, Michele Obama made a speech during which she said the following: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” There is no argument here for this being anything but a case of plagiarism (later, the speechwriter admitted she had consulted Obama’s speech because Trump had admired it.)

And there have been many more high-profile cases through the years. Even J.R.R Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have been named in plagiarism cases for similarities to others’ work. No one is immune.

So, no matter what you write, you could be plagiarizing―sometimes even inadvertently. However, motive doesn’t matter: you won’t like the ending if you plagiarize.

There are, however, a few steps you can take to avoid this plague.

First, be sure you understand exactly what the term “plagiarism” means. Here’s a dictionary definition to begin:

“…closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author…”

(from lest you think I’m plagiarizing!)

Here’s how I define plagiarism:

…using someone else’s work (ideas or words) and using them as if they were your own…

Once you understand this, you can start to analyze your own work and determine how much of the ideas you’ve accumulated throughout your research are your own and how much are others and should be credited.

Next, be sure to keep a record of every source you consult. This means keeping a record of every article you read concerning your writing, every website and the information you glean from each one. You can then go back to check that you have credited outside sources accurately.

The third step you can take is to focus on your own unique ideas. Of course, many of our thoughts and ideas result from all we’ve been exposed to throughout our lives. This is all part of being a living, breathing human being. You must begin to figure out what aspects of your ideas and thoughts are your own, though, and which of them is essentially nothing more than a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas. You have your own ideas. Focus on that.

Next, don’t mistake paraphrasing (putting someone else’s unique idea, not your own words) for avoiding plagiarism. Even paraphrasing an idea that belongs to someone else can be considered plagiarism. And if you want to quote someone else, by all means, do it. Just make sure you give the source credit. (And be sure to quote them accurately.)

For example, I used quotes at the beginning of each chapter in my most recent book, and each quote is credited to the source.

Finally, be careful of self-plagiarism because it’s a real thing. Dr. Ben Mudrak, writing in American Journal Experts Scholar, defines self-plagiarism this way:

“…any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new…”[1]

In other words, if you’re sending a book manuscript to a publisher, or an article to a magazine, the editor has a right to expect that the work is new, never before published. It might be in the same topic area that you’ve published before, but the approach should be fresh, the ideas new.

Just be sure that nothing turns up if someone took a piece of your work and popped it into a search engine.


Posted in Writing

A writer’s 2021 letter to Santa Claus

What does a writer want for Christmas? Inspiration, tenacity and a killer work ethic spring immediately to mind. But these are things that neither friends nor family members can provide. They’re the kinds of thing a writer must find within, but maybe there’s someone who can assist at least a little bit with these.

Most of the lists I see online for suggested gifts for writers are filled with things like computer writing software, printer paper and coffee cups emblazoned with bon mots from writers who have gone before us. I’m not sure that these are things most real writers covet. Of course, every year, I wish for more Moleskines, of which I can never have too many.  Apart from that, there are a few things I might covet. I’d like to share my 2021 letter to Santa with other writers and aspiring writers. 

“Dear Santa:

Well, here we are. We made it to the end of 2021. Last year on New Year’s Eve, we all toasted to the end of 2020, hoping that it was gone and forgotten and the weirdness we’d been experiencing would fade away. That, of course, didn’t happen, and we’ve been slogging on through this peculiar pandemic and all it entails. For me, though, it has had a silver lining. It’s been a year of writing, not writing, writing some more, editing manuscripts, and publishing not one but two books. Well, you know what I’ve been through this year. I’ve worked hard, so I know you’ll look kindly on this writer’s little Christmas list. 

First, I would like a few more Moleskines.[1]  Of course, they’re expensive as notebooks go, but who can put a price on a writer’s dearest companion? I thought you might agree. I know that other people in my life can provide these as well―but one can never have enough Moleskine notebooks, can one?  Anyway, if they’re good enough for Ernest Hemingway, they’re good enough for the rest of us.  I continue to be addicted to those brightly-coloured covers. I seem to be inspired to write just by looking at them, and surely contributing to inspiration is Santa’s job, n’est ce pas? Other people can also give me Moleskines, and that’s fine with me.

Now to the things that only you can give me. First, I’d like the gift of present mind―one that stays in the moment and pays attention. Let me see ideas everywhere I go and in everything I do (then the Moleskines become very useful, right?).  If that mindfulness could be with me wherever I am―sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, riding the subway, dining at a favourite restaurant―then I might pick up a few ideas. You know what I mean?

I’d also like the gift of serenity in the rewriting and editing process. When I write, I seem to be in the moment, but I get fidgety when I begin editing. You know that feeling? When you just want it to be over? Well, I know that the rewriting and editing are at least as important as the writing, so I need that serenity, unflappability. Could you bring me some? Thank you.

Then, Santa, although I know it might be difficult, I’d like the gift of benevolence toward the editors who can’t seem to answer their email in a timely fashion―even when they’ve requested my proposal or manuscript.  *deep breath*

Well, that’s it for this year, Santa.  I’m planning another hard-working writing year, a new book out next fall and hope to be able to share with you at the end of 2022 just how far I’ve come with these gifts of Christmas 2021. Oh, and if you can manage it, please deep-six this damn virus so we can all travel again. You know how much travel inspires me! Thanks for reading, Santa. Merry Christmas!”

[1] For the uninitiated, Moleskines are (as their website says): “…the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway…”  You can read about them at and buy them all over the world in book stores and online.  The paper is great and the array of sizes and colours is amazing.

Posted in Backstory, Book launches, Book trailers, Fiction Writing, Uncategorized

Launching a new book: It never gets tired!

Anyone who knows me personally or knows my work also knows that I’ve been writing nonfiction for over thirty years. I started my career as a health and medical writer. After moving into medical communication and working as an academic and consultant, my writing focused on communications. I occasionally was able to mesh health and communication in my writing. Some of you still use my textbooks – I know this because I still get royalty cheques!

Now, as a recovering academic, I spend the bulk of my writing time writing fiction. Today, I launch my latest novel, “The Inscrutable Life of Frannie Phillips.”

I never really intended to write this book. In fact, when I finished The Year I Made 12 Dresses that launched six months into the pandemic, I thought I was finished with the main character, Charlotte (Charlie) Hudson. Not so much. Have you ever had a character whisper into your ear? Keep talking in your head? Generally, bug you until you had to write about her again? That’s where Kat’s Kosmic Blues came in. But it seemed she wasn’t finished there.

So, today, I launch The Inscrutable Life of Frannie Phillips and here’s my little launch party where I tell you about writing this book…

And here’s more info…

I’ll now return to my usual blogging: sharing my writing tips, advice and general journey. You might even enjoy reading this book.

Care about people’s approval, and you will be their prisoner.

Lao Tzu