The Secret to Creating Truly Original Content

In the last decade, the Internet has exploded with content, making research much easier and faster for writers. I find myself online every day searching for information and fact checking. But all this access at our fingertips has its minefields, for it’s far too easy to cut and paste with good intentions during the crazy writing process and later find yourself accused of plagiarism. I know, you didn’t mean it. You had no idea. It was a mistake. But it happens, more than you might imagine.

Journalists and authors condemned for such wrongdoing, including luminaries such as Pulitzer prize–winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, and beloved primatologist Jane Goodall, have been scorned by the publishing industry. Bestselling author Jonah Lehrer’s admission that he made up stories about Bob Dylan and fabricated parts of the 2012 Imagine book seemingly ended his career overnight as a trusted writer; the controversy deepened when he was further found guilty of “self-plagiarizing” from articles he wrote for The New Yorker. In all of these cases, the authors typically minimized the gravity of their trespasses before showing much remorse, excusing themselves for being sloppy in their “inadequate research procedures” and for “chaotic note taking.”

Publishers are increasingly using programs to screen the manuscripts that arrive for production. I think this is an excellent solution to the problem. But I don’t think publishers necessarily need to take on this burden; it behooves us writers to consider using anti-plagiarism software to ensure that our works are bulletproof.

I started doing so last year and have found that using such software has added benefits, helping me to craft notes, bibliographies, and reference sections. The level of research that accompanies most works of nonfiction today makes inadvertent lifting or ill-cited, careless paraphrasing almost inevitable—an unfortunate casualty of the process of research and writing. What’s more, I can’t always know where material is coming from when an author with whom I’m collaborating sends copious files, notes, and drafts of chapters to me. And I know they are trusting me to make sure the end product is truly original.

Fair warning: these programs are not free, and they do have their limitations. To run a 75,000-word manuscript using iThenticate, for example, you’ll pay $150. For that fee you can run the same manuscript five times through the program just to be sure it’s as nearly perfect as possible in the final revisions. You’ll also find that some of what the program picks up may not in fact be plagiarism at all, as it can be highly sensitive and does take time to get used to. It also can’t possibly have everything ever published in its digital library, so you might skate by if you dropped a paragraph in from an arcane source (until future versions of the online software expose you). Despite the shortcomings and expense, I increasingly think such software is worth every penny—and worth the time it takes to comb through a manuscript line by line before it goes to print for the world to see (and compare). I have faith that future technology will make these programs better as well as less expensive.

So while you might think that the secret to truly original content is just great writing, let me suggest that you add, “And it’s been certified organic by an anti-plagiarism program”!

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