the problem with plagiarism.

When I taught high school English, one of my favorite things to do was gather the pile of papers turned in over the week and sit and read my students' words. I always felt like I held witness to a sort of alchemy. 

These words—these sentences—didn't exist before the assignment. My students created a thought and placed it on paper. To say I was proud is a complete understatement. 

Every once in a while though, I'd find one that didn't seem right. I'd whisper the words and it didn't sound like my student talking. There would be vocabulary larger than the cinderblock walls of the school building. Or suspicious hyperlinks included within the pages. Or {my favorite} the font would completely change. Sometimes, a few friends gathered together and in one notorious case, they finished the summer assignment and turned in about ten {from what we caught} word-for-word assignments. Carbon copies of one another, they claimed we didn't know we couldn't work together. 

But it was more than that—it always is, really. What upsets me about copying {in whatever form} is the lack of courage involved. 

The alchemy of words doesn't just appear on the screen in front of you. You can't search the internet for {insert topic here} and then input a certain formula for a winning combination of sentences and paragraphs. It takes blood, sweat and tears. It takes lots of pruning. 

It takes an excavation that often we aren't prepared or ready for—no one ever tells you about the battle wounds of writing.

So to copy the words of someone else and paste your name underneath them? It's cowardly. 

And it's happening way too often. 

I notice patterns. It's what I do. A few years ago, a graduate student lost her publishing deal when it was discovered she plagiarized a YA novel. Last year around this time, there were a few cases within the indie publishing world of complete books plagiarized and passed off as the author's own original work. 

And lately? A few weeks ago, a prominent pastor was accused of lifting pieces of his latest book from a book published last decade. This morning, on my way to the coffee shop, I heard of two separate cases of plagiarism from two different disciplines. 

These aren't high schoolers, people. These are adults. 

And I wonder why it was so hard to encourage my students to find their own words.

Listen. We have to treat plagiarism for what it is >> stealing. In my classroom, we spoke of academic integrity and autonomy and using the brain God gave you to come up with something intellectual. If you were caught copying, whether completely lifted or reworded without citation, you were warned. If you did it a second time, you were kicked out the AP program, no questions asked.

Our message was clear :: 

It's not a game, and it's not funny, and you won't get away with it. 

The problem with plagiarism is simple: it shatters any form of originality you have within you. Once you do it, you begin to question the thoughts you own. Why listen to the voice inside when you can go grab someone else's that obviously worked? Why pay attention to the story rattling around in your veins when you can grab this scene from that book and another from this other one and piecemeal them together to make something different-but-irritatingly-similar?

Plagiarism sucks the breath out of the original artist and quiets the voice within you. No one wins here. No one.

Be original. You have a story. Tell it. Speak it. Pull it from your bones and show us but let it be YOUR story. Not some fabrication. 

I'm begging you. The world needs original art. We need your words. You have it within you—I promise.

Posted on December 17, 2013 .