Thursday, March 7, 2013


Time to address that nasty word we've all heard before but don't care to befriend--plagiarism!  We all know it's bad for us and our writing, but often while working with a student I'll receive a variety of the same basic statement: I don't understand why. Going a bit further, the issue seems to lie in the idea that because we're already citing an author or two (and our professor knows that we are), why do we need to work so hard to rephrase what they're saying?  Let's avoid the simplified answer of "it'll get you in trouble" and go with the more eloquent, longer story behind the big deal.
Basically, plagiarism is taking someone else's information and substituting it for your own, but it can by some definitions also include language and ideas.This not only has tremendous copyright implications, but it completely undermines the whole reason you chose to come to college in the first place.  We all know this part too--what are you learning if you're plagiarizing?  But let's try to expand on that idea a little. When forced to put something into your own words, in a way that truly makes sense to you because you are the one who put the idea together, you become aware that you've truly learned something  If you can convey your information back to your reader, audience, or even just the blank screen on your computer, you're the one creating those thoughts and you're the one relaying the information, making the argument, or whatever the purpose of your writing may be. This has a sort of power about it--not only can you quote someone about economic development models, you can explain it to them in a way that is probably easier to understand than what your textbook has to say about the very same topic.  You'll find this basic understanding of what's going on in the reading is what needs to be conveyed in your writing, and it's the same understanding that'll stick with you long after the class is over.  

How does one do this, though?  Well, it's actually pretty easy, and follows the same way you may already be studying for exams or quizzes.  Even after nine semesters of writing essays I still find these two basic study tips tremendously helpful in writing an essay I'm just not sure about.  It can be done in two basic steps: 
  1. Familiarize yourself with the subject matter--this is probably the hardest one. Maybe you only need to read the chapter once to get it, or maybe you need to re-read some parts of it two or three times for it to really make sense, and that's okay.  Take as much time as you need to get through everything, and take some notes if you need to.  (I find they help spectacularly.)  The most important thing here is that you feel comfortable with the material.
  2. Now, put your books away, close out your ECampus tabs, and shut your notebook.  Tear out a clear piece of paper and jot down the main ideas behind what you need to convey in your own words.  The key here is to make your point without looking directly at your sources as you do so. It may be easier for you to say it out loud, so if you can find a roommate who will listen, try to teach it to them.  If not, try the dog or even just your (closed) notebook.  
You'll find after doing this last step that you really do know the material well and you're ready to write your paper; you may find the opposite to be true, however.  You stalled a bit when it came to a particular theory, or you couldn't think of a particular word you wanted to be using. These things aren't meant to be discouraging, but will just highlight what you need to focus on when you go back to write that part of the essay. Just as you would studying for an exam, you can use this method to work out what you need to focus on when writing your essay.  

When dealing with plagiarism, we're not just worrying over getting in trouble with the professor, but mostly with what is actually being learned in the process of writing, and that's the most important part of these writing assignments.  Your professor doesn't just want to torture you with another writing assignment, but wants you to demonstrate that you've learned something and can convey it back in an original, meaningful way. Keep this in mind while writing your next paper, and good luck! 

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