Plagiarism is the Writer’s Cardinal Sin

This whole Melania Trump plagiarism flap shouldn’t be a big deal. I think if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the Republican National Convention, we wouldn’t have even heard about it.

It’s never a big deal any other time a public figure has been caught plagiarizing. Sure, it makes the news, but most people could not care any less. But to creative professionals, especially writers, this is yyy-uge.

News analysts reported that Trump’s speech was 7% similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. That may not seem like much, but by college academic standards, that 7% can get you an F in your class, and even get you thrown out of school.

A PhD friend of mine commented on my Facebook status yesterday that she normally checks her students’ papers with Grammarly’s plagiarism checker. She ran a quick check on the two speeches, and found that roughly 7 – 8% of Melania’s speech triggered the plagiarism alert, which would have resulted in an F for the paper. Other friends in academia said they have failed students, including those in Masters programs, for 7%.

Some people are dismissing Melania’s plagiarism as “just common words.” That anyone could have used these words, and that we’re making a big deal out of nothing about these “common supportive phrases.” They think it’s a complete coincidence that the same common words and phrases discussing the same ideas were assembled in that same order.

Let’s take politics out of it for a moment. Forget that this is the wife of the Republican presidential candidate.

As a professional writer and adjunct professor, I can tell you that, common words or not, this is still plagiarism. When you take a series of words and string them together in a particular order, no one else may string them together in that order, unless they cite you as a source.

Even failure to cite your sources is enough to fail your paper.

Ernest Hemingway: Common Words Used Uncommonly

Ernest HemingwayOne of my favorite Hemingway short stories, Big Two-Hearted River, is filled with common words. It’s 8,015 words long, and written at a 4th grade reading level. There are no unusual words, and there’s only one character, Nick, who’s going camping and fishing. Two pretty common activities with common jargon. Here’s my favorite excerpt from the story:

Nick was hungry.

He did not believe he had ever been hungrier He opened and emptied a can at pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan

“I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it, Nick said.

His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue.

No big words, very few 3-syllable words. In fact, he used just 124 different words. But Hemingway could take those 124 words and make cooking a camp dinner one of the most interesting stories you’ll read all day.

Hemingway’s use of common words is not the issue; we’re all able to use them. I could even write a story that only uses these 124 words. The problem is, I can’t put them in that order.

I can’t use the phrase “‘I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,’ Nick said.” without either giving him full credit or suffering the wrath of academics and literary types. I can’t even change a couple of words and present it as mine.

That’s plagiarism.

To most of us who actually care about this — the academics, the literati, the word nerds — it doesn’t matter who plagiarized. The fact is, it was done, and it’s being dismissed as unimportant by people who don’t realize the importance of intellectual property.

Probably because they’ve never had their creations stolen for someone else’s benefit.

This is What Theft Looks Like

No Burglars signThis is an important issue to me, because I’ve been plagiarized on three separate occasions, all by newspaper professionals. Two editors, one publisher. Two Canadians, one American. Three people who financially benefited from something I do for very little money.

Three people who worked in a profession where there are only a few important rules:

  1. Don’t steal shit.
  2. Don’t make shit up.

That’s it. Those are two of the most important rules in journalism, and violating them is a career ender.

Of the three thieves — and they are thieves — the American editor and the Canadian publisher lost their jobs. The publisher lost his membership in the Alberta Press Council, and may have even stepped down as the president of the Strathmore and District Chamber of Commerce. The American newspaper editor will never have a job in newspapers again.

You can Google both their names, and their sins still follow them, five years later.

In the world of creativity, especially its written form, plagiarism is the cardinal sin. Of all the Thou Shalt Nots in the world, it is the Thou-Shalt-Nottiest.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who did it. I think it was an error of process, not malicious theft. If I had to guess, it was a speechwriter who watched a lot of different convention speeches by candidates’ wives, took notes, and used the phrasing without remembering where it came from.

(UPDATE: It turns out, Melania read some phrases from people she liked, including Michelle Obama. The speechwriter, Meredith McIver took notes, and used them in the speech. Then, she said she never checked Michelle Obama’s speeches to see if the phrasing had been used before. So, not malicious, just careless.)

Because despite what she said, Melania didn’t write this herself. Everyone who gets on that stage gets vetted, ghosted, and edited. There are so many people with so many fingers in every pie, nothing is written by a single individual with no oversight.

But worse, much worse, is the attitude that this isn’t a big deal. That the media is making too big of a fuss. Or that the Obamas did it eight years ago, so that makes this one less bad, or even acceptable.

Politics aside, this is never acceptable. Whether you’re an apologist or a grubby-fingered troll digging up dirt on the other side, plagiarism and theft of ideas is never acceptable.

If you have never created something and had it stolen, you can’t understand why this is a hot button issue for so many of us. As a writer whose books are regularly pirated, as a journalist whose columns are pilfered, I believe this is the one line that writers of integrity should not cross.

Do not justify the sin, regardless of who committed it. There are no excuses, you can’t buy indulgences, and it should never, ever be waved off as a staggering coincidence of “common words.”

Weird Habits To Improve Your Writing Skills

Professional baseball players have any number of superstitions they follow to improve their game. They have lucky underwear or a special charm. They don’t change their socks when they’re on a hitting streak. And no one talks to the pitcher throwing a no-hitter.

I’ve developed some of my own weird habits as a way to improve my writing. My ultimate goal is to make my writing as direct and succinct as possible, and I am always trying different techniques to achieve the desired results. Here are three habits I’ve developed over the years as a way to improve my writing.

1. No Orphan Words

In typesetting lingo, widows and orphans are leftover words in a paragraph or page. Widows are the last line in a paragraph that appears on the next page. An orphan is a single word on its own line at the end of a paragraph.

When I’m using my laptop’s word processor, I will often rewrite entire paragraphs just to get rid of that one trailing word. The orphan isn’t actually a problem in itself, but by eliminating it, I make sure my sentences are as tight as they can be.

2. No Sentence Longer Than The Page Width

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterBack in the 1980s, my friend Bruce Hetrick was the communications director for the mayor of Fort Wayne, and often wrote his speeches. Since he wrote them out on the typewriter, his practice was that no sentence could be longer than 6.5 inches, the width of a single page with one inch margins. He would then rewrite it and lay it out so the mayor could read it (larger type, wider margins), but the original text had to conform to Bruce’s line length rule. This made the mayor’s lines short and easy to say, rather than long sentences that required stopping for a breath in the middle.

This is another sentence tightening technique you can try. By getting rid of extraneous words to make your sentences fit a single line, you can keep everything drum tight. I’ve tried this when I’ve done speechwriting, but I tend not to worry too much about it for my regular writing.

3. Use a Typewriter

I bought an old manual typewriter several months ago, a 1956 Smith-Corona Super-Silent, and started writing my newspaper humor columns on it. Not only is it much slower going — I have to use my index fingers to jab the keys — but there are no delete keys, no copy and pastes, no rearranging paragraphs. I have to yank the carriage return at the end of every line, and there are typos galore.

Everything I do on the typewriter is deliberate and requires forethought. On a computer, I can type and think at the same time, because I type fast. While I’m writing this sentence, I’m already thinking about the next three.

But with a typewriter, it’s much slower. I type out a sentence and because I type so slowly, I can’t think about anything else. I have to sit and think about what comes next. Imagine taking 5 – 10 seconds between sentences before you write the next one. Then when you type it, you either have to follow the direction it’s going to take you, or you have to go back to the beginning of it and start X-ing out the sentence and typing a new one.

While it hasn’t changed my overall writing habits, using a typewriter is causing me to use some different writing muscles that I haven’t used since I was 14 and would play around on my parents’ electric Smith-Corona.

My wish as a writer is to sound more like Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, or Mike Royko, all masters of the short, powerful sentence. These three writing habits have helped me work toward that goal, although there’s always something new I can do.

What are some of your writing habits? What do you do to improve your writing? Leave your ideas in the comment section so I can steal them we can discuss them further.

Chiasmus: A Rhetorical Device I Love to Hate, Or Hate to Love

Given how much I love a well-written speech and how much I hate motivational quotes that are plastered all over Facebook and Twitter, I have a love-hate relationship with the chiasmus.

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where two or more clauses are reversed in a single sentence or paragraph.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. (John F. Kennedy)
  • But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Matthew 20:16)
  • In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away. (Shing Xiong)
  • Quitters never win, and winners never quit. (Anonymous)
  • “If you do not master your rage—” “What, your rage will become your master?” (Mystery Men)
So? I used to work for the f—ing President. Float that opposite.

It’s a great rhetorical device, because it’s ear-catching, it’s memorable, and it can zap some life into a dull phrase. When it comes from the mouths of master orators, it’s lyrical and moving. When it shows up in my Facebook stream, I want to punch Facebook in the neck, because it’s being used like the star wipe of motivational quotes.

It’s called the chiasmus because of the Greek letter X, or “chi” (like the “kye” in “sky,” not “chee” as in “tai chi”). Basically, the two parts of the statement cross over like the X, which lends itself to the name. Or, as Toby Ziegler mistakenly called it in an episode of West Wing, the “floating opposites.” (When I was a speechwriter, I searched and searched for more information on floating opposites, and the only references I could find at all were to that West Wing episode, which means it’s not a real thing.)

While it can be a powerful device, it’s often greatly overused by the same people who discovered the Drop Shadow filter on Photoshop 10 years ago. And that’s where the use of chiasmus in motivational quotes becomes so annoying.

It’s such an easy device to use that it gets overused. When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. In the hands of some, the chiasmus is just one big claw hammer that is used to pound emotion into every Facebook update this side of “Hang in there, Kitty, Friday’s coming.”

Just remember, if chiasmus is a spice, it’s garlic, not salt. A little garlic goes a lo-o-o-ong way, and should not be sprinkled liberally into every piece you write, let alone every paragraph. Or status update.

Save the chiasmus for a special occasion, when you know it’s going to make a big difference to what you’re writing. Not when you’re exhorting your Facebook friends “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” (Bleah!)