Paraphrasing: The Key to Avoiding Inadvertent Plagiarism

My October 2017 column “Train Your Brain to Recognize Inadvertent Plagiarism” covered the sticky, sensitive topic of plagiarism, including the inadvertent brand, which tends to crop up more often in content writing. Or at least that’s been my experience. With journalism, you’re pulling from your imagination, the ideas/quotes of others and a variety of second- and third-tier sources. Because there’s so much raw material to work with, it seems easier and more natural to be completely original, combining, synthesizing and shaping ideas using your own words and citing outside sources for substantive information and facts.

With narrowly focused content marketing, not so much. Not that content marketing doesn’t require creativity—it certainly does—but when you are working with X number of facts with a limited pool of sources, it becomes extremely challenging when say, discussing a particular drug, widget or type of software. And when the content is for a particular agency or company that’s competing for a product or service in a specialized marketplace, it becomes even more so.

The answer to this conundrum is twofold and mostly involves paraphrasing, “your own rendition of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else, presented in a new form,”

according to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). Of course the OWL folks—bad joke alert—“whoo” should know about such things, wisely point out that you must always cite sources when using someone else’s information. However, paraphrasing takes this one step further because, along with avoiding overquoting which can drag down copy and use excess verbiage, “the mental process required [in paraphrasing]…helps you to grasp the full meaning of the original.” For effective paraphrasing, they recommend the following:

  1. Reread the original passage until you understand its full meaning.
  2. Set the original aside, and write your paraphrase on a note card.
  3. Jot down a few words below your paraphrase to remind you later how you envision using this material. At the top of the note card, write a key word or phrase to indicate the subject of your paraphrase.
  4. Check your rendition with the original to make sure that your version accurately expresses all the essential information in a new form.
  5. Use quotation marks to identify any unique term or phraseology you have borrowed exactly from the source.
  6. Record the source (including the page) on your note card so that you can credit it easily if you decide to incorporate the material into your paper.

Source: Purdue OWL

While this probably seems basic to experienced writers, the suggestion to write down your ideas, then compare them with the original quote, is a good one.  I tried it with a recent entry that came a little too close to the original source (identifying specifics whited out and underscored):

“_____, generic name _______, is an _______ medication and a member of the class of drugs known as _______. While taking _____ as prescribed poses minimal risks, misusing it without a prescription _____________________________________ can have dangerous and potentially fatal consequences.”

And here’s the rewrite:

Although it is a prescription drug, misuse of the ______ medication ______ can be extremely hazardous, unless taken as indicated by a physician or other healthcare professional.  As a “_____,” part of the _________ family of drugs, taking excessive amounts, in combination with ____________________________________ can result in addiction, physical and medical complications, and death.

The second part of the solution is using of what are commonly known as plagiarism checkers, such as Grammarly, Copyscape, Plagiarisma, Quetext among many others. These are free and/or low-cost. There’s also my personal favorite Google. Some might consider it to be the Wikipedia of plagiarism checkers, which generally means that people use it a lot, but may not always admit it.

Yes, careful paraphrasing takes more time and running your beloved, seemingly original words through the various copy checking programs can be a pain in the you-know-what. And while I’ve said before that I’d rather be writing or researching, my rethinking is, that especially in narrow-market content writing if there’s any doubt, better safe than sorry. Better to catch it yourself and fix it, then lose the client or damage your reputation.

Are you ready for the next session of Special Interest Groups or SIGs? Sign ups for the October 22 through November 18 sessions start next Monday, October 8. First come first serve! SIGs are a member benefit, and discussions take place on the ASJA forums. Topics for this session include: B2B Content Marketing, SEO, Ghostwriting, and Blogging. For more information, visit the ASJA SIGs page.