Backstory Blog

Posted in Plagiarism, Writing, Writing Nonfiction

Self-plagiarism: A writer’s guide

Some years ago, I wrote a blog piece on self-plagiarism, a concept that seems to be largely unknown in circles of wannabe writers these days.

It seemed important at that time because I was still teaching full-time at a university, and a former student contacted me to ask for advice. She had been taught over and over again while she was student about the perils of plagiarism. According to how she told it, now that she was out in the work world, she was routinely asked to do what she believed to be plagiarizing. I wondered whether or not she was really defining plagiarism accurately, or perhaps there was a different crime that needed consideration. It turned out that it was a situation more akin to “self-plagiarism.”

Just to back up a bit: I was an accidental academic. I never intended to have a 26-year career that took me all the way up the academic ladder to full Professor. I was hired part-time while I was still mostly a writer as an instructor assigned to teach news and feature writing to undergraduates in a corporate communication program. Part of my mantra at the time – and one that continues in my world even today – is this: Recycle your research.

I have always held the belief that you never know when you’ll be able to re-package material for a different audience, in a different genre, with a different purpose. Why reinvent the wheel each time for each project? Is this plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Does it even matter? In a word, yes. But let’s start with the basics.

Oxford University provides one of the most unambiguous definitions of plagiarism in general. This is what they say:

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.”

Note the essential characteristic of plagiarism:

  • It is presenting as if it were your own, work created by someone else.
  • It might be with or without their consent. (If you have consent, you have to say so.)
  • You fail to acknowledge the work as not your own.
  • It might come from published work, but it could also be from unpublished work. It is still not yours.
  • It doesn’t matter if the work is in print or electronic form.
  • Even if you do it unknowingly, it’s still plagiarism.

So, you, the writer, look at this and say, “I never do this. I would never do this.” Then you turn around and recycle a piece you wrote on a blog somewhere and provide it to another blogger who believes it’s original. Or you lift a passage you particularly like from one of your books and put it into a new book.

“Well, I wrote it,” you say. That doesn’t matter. If the blog (or the reader) expects previously unpublished work, if you provide previously published material without telling them, you are still plagiarising. It’s just that this kind of plagiarism is self-plagiarism.

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]

So, does this mean that my mantra about recycling your research to use in new and fresh ways, results in self-plagiarism? Not exactly, but it could.

To avoid self-plagiarism on my part, here’s what I said on that original blog post all those years ago:

“… strictly speaking, self-plagiarism is different from plagiarism by definition. Self-plagiarism in practice means passing off your own previous work as if it were new and original to the situation. So, if we accept this as the definition of self-plagiarism, then we have to accept that when new and original work is expected, it is not okay to use what you’ve written previously…[this] doesn’t preclude you from reusing your research. And ethically, I believe that this is where that black line has to be drawn...

Reusing research that you’ve used before – even using your own writing as a reference – seems to be completely acceptable. However, writing what is supposed to be – and is understood by your readers to be – an original piece (whether it’s for a magazine, a newspaper, a blog, an academic journal or a book) without referencing material that was actually written previously is in my view lying. You are essentially passing it off as original when it clearly isn’t…”

These days, writers who are trying to make a name for themselves look for opportunities to write for online magazines, book blogs or other kinds of platforms. It’s tempting to try to use the same piece for a variety of platforms, but it does constitute self-plagiarism unless you acknowledge its provenance.

Worse still, though, is the practice of newbie writers reusing old passages from their previously self-published work as if it were something new and fresh. Traditional publishers are likely to find these transgressions. Self-published authors have no third-party plagiarism checker. But beware. Readers these days are likely to find you out anyway…and tell the rest of the world in a review. You might want to avoid that.

And it’s just wrong, anyway.

[1] B. Mudrak. Self-Plagiarism: How to Define it and Why You Should Avoid It. AJE Scholar.

Posted in Uncategorized

Who’s on first: Understanding who’s who in book editing

There’s a lot of misunderstanding among new writers about the editing process and the specific responsibilities of specific types of professional editors.

I’ve tried to clear a bit of the fog over on the Moonlight Press blog today…

Moonlight Press

by Patricia J. Parsons

Writers write. Editors edit. It’s that simple. Right? Well, not really. Let’s take a trip through the writing-editing process from the beginning of an idea to when a book makes its way into a reader’s hands.

An idea forms in a writer’s head and that writer takes a unique, individualized approach to percolating the idea until it gets to a point of forming a story. Then the writer sits down in front of a computer (or less often, with a pen and paper) and begins to put words on the page. Those words accumulate through the writing process until, sometime down the line, a book is finished. Then what? The editing process begins, and it begins with the writer.

The first draft of anything is shit, or so said Ernest Hemingway. That means regardless of how experienced you are as a writer, you never publish…

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Posted in Uncategorized

How to Reduce Clutter in Your Writing

You might think that with all the writing we do on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, that cluttered writing would be a thing of the past. You’d think it would be spare and to the point more than ever. You’d be wrong.

Outside of platforms where there are clear limits to reading and/or writing capacity, clutter seems to be worse than ever.

Here’s what I wrote today on the Moonlight Press blog…

Moonlight Press

by Patricia J.Parsons

In his book On Writing Well, an absolute must-read for anyone who writes, the estimable William Zinsser presents to us an entire chapter simply titled “clutter.” He begins by telling us that “…fighting clutter is like fighting weeds – the writer is always slightly behind.” This is probably truer these days than ever before as so many people seem to be writing and publishing books just because they can.

There are two ways that we clutter our writing. The first Zinsser describes as using a “laborious phrase which has pushed out the short word which means the same thing.” His example: “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation” rather than clearly stating: “It is raining.”

There is also another kind of clutter that is subtly different and has a different motivation on the part of the writer.

All you have to do is read the…

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