Monday, August 13, 2012

It's Your Voice That Identifies Your Work.

Last week, I came across a piece of student's work which wasn't what it purported to be. It wasn't the student's own work. In fact, after a bit of investigating (although it wasn't exactly a taxing piece of investigation) I found the website where they had 'lifted' the material from. I say 'lifted,' I could have used the words: stolen, copied, pirated, poached, cribbed, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary also suggests, nicked.

I wasn't going to write about this incident, because I didn't want the student to feel that I was vilifying them. However, it also struck me that perhaps there are students who are unaware of what plagiarism is, and therefore a short piece on the subject was valid.

Plagiarism is where somebody takes the words that someone else has written, and then passes off those words as their own work. It can infringe copyright, and other rights, and it certainly infringes moral rights.

There's a phrase sometimes bandied about within the writing world that "using one source of information is plagiarism, whereas using two sources of information is research." Let's be clear about this. Plagiarism is where the words written by somebody else have been copied by another writer who makes out that they've written those words. (That's what the student was effectively saying to me - as a tutor, when someone says, "here's my assignment," I assume they are the one who wrote the words. The student did not say, "Here's an article written by someone else.") If you're undertaking some research and find a sentence, or two, that encapsulates the essence of what you want to say, you can use those words, as long as you indicate that these words are a direct quote and you attribute that quote to the person who wrote those words. When you attribute something, you send a clear message to readers as to who those words belong to. Copyright laws permit the use of quoted text, as long as the amount quoted is reasonable - and defining 'reasonable' is often where the lawyers come in! But, in most cases, quoting a couple of lines from a book, or play, would be deemed as reasonable, but quoting an entire article - which is what my student did - is not.

When we write, we produce written words in a particular order. The way we order and punctuate those words helps to create our style, or our voice. We all have our own voice, and therefore it should be remembered that when you copy someone else's words you're also copying their voice. I have hundreds and hundreds of students, but despite this, as soon as I began reading this student's work, I immediately realised that the text did not have that student's voice. That's what set the alarm bells ringing. A little more scrutiny highlighted some inconsistent spelling errors too. All I had to do was copy a couple of sentences and then paste them into Google, and lo and behold - the source of the entire article was brought up on the screen.

For Writers Bureau students, if there's a question on an assignment that you don't like, or you can't do, or you don't know how to tackle it, then please do get in touch with your tutor. We can usually sort something out. Don't think about plagiarising someone else's work, just so you can get this assignment done and move onto the next. You might think that only your tutor will see it, and that's okay because you have no intentions of sending it off to a real editor, but that's not the point. By copying someone else's work and then sending it to your tutor (making out that you wrote it) is lying to your tutor. How would you like it if someone copied your work and made out that they'd written it? You'd feel pretty miffed!

Every word you write is written in your voice. It's part of what makes you the writer that you are. Be proud of your voice.

Good luck.