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More About Plagiarism

Last week, I wrote about how the metaphors and imagery we use to impress the eeeeevils of plagiarism on our students results in scared, confused students. But that’s not the end of the story. Maybe our focus on plagiarism is the root problem because of its attendant focus on originality. What I mean is that maybe we shouldn’t be so focused on being original in the first place.

Question: How do we get students to write original work?
Answer: We don’t, because originality is a rotten concept.
Photo by Birch Landing Home via Stocksnap

Originality, at its core, is a myth. I’m normally uncomfortable with calling things “myth” when we simply mean a notion that isn’t really true, because folklorists use “myth” to mean stories that are in some way sacred to the cultures whose stories they are (e.g., stories about figures like Abraham, Hercules, Thor, etc), meaning that someone believes/d they’re true. But you know what? Here I’ll accept it. Originality is a myth. In the not-true sense and the folklore sense.

We worship originality in our culture. We consider it mystical, something that people have by merit of being geniuses rather than by study and effort. We fetishize and fight over who was “first” to do a thing, as if the thing came ex nihilio and somehow was not an organic product of its time and all the things that came before it. We constantly celebrate the new, the fresh, the unique, while ignoring that these things are seldom actually new, fresh, or unique–more likely they’re simply imports or fusions.

Most creative writers start out writing something quite derivative. I know I did. My first draft of my first novel was a godawful melange of damsel-in-distress tropes mixed with every dashing swordsman I could think of punctuated with way too many exclamation points. The first thing my older brother said to me when I excitedly summarized to him what I thought was an original story core was “Terry Pratchett already wrote that.” And he had, but I hadn’t gotten as far in the Discworld series as my brother had at that point.

And I was crushed. My idea–which was original and fresh and new to me–wasn’t original at all. But how was I to know? I was eleven years old and while I was reading voraciously, there was a lot to read that I hadn’t gotten to yet. Some time thereafter, some time after I had picked up the pieces of my broken spirit and decided I could go ahead and write my novel anyway (ultimately changing its premise) and that I would be a writer for realsies, I came across an interview with Terry Pratchett (I’d link it but I can’t remember where it was–I was like 14, ok?) in which he said that a woman had once said to him that she didn’t read because she didn’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas. He said that this was a surefire way to write something completely unoriginal. And it is.

There are two things that are necessary to write something that will be perceived as “original”: 1) you must be saturated in the things that you are writing and 2) you must also be saturated in something(s) else. For the first, you need to know what’s new and old in your genre, what’s convention and what’s invention. For the second, you need to have something to add to the genre that isn’t there already. Neither of these things is actually creating something new; they’re both innovating on what already exists. Both these require being exposed to and unafraid to use other peoples ideas.

Painting doesn’t come from nothing. To paint, you need a palette, which gives you options. To write, you need genre conventions, which give you options. Photo by Birch Landing Home via Stocksnap

We scare our students away from using sources. They’re scared that if it’s not a direct quote, with perfect citations, it’s not correct and will (as per my last post on the dreaded p-word) land them, apparently, in jail (it will not). This makes them scared to incorporate other people’s ideas, scared to synthesize, and scared to innovate.

Innovating is not the same as creating ex nihilo, being original. It’s making something new by remixing it with other elements. It’s, well, how writers write.

Terry Pratchett’s genius isn’t originality. Sure, I encountered a lot of tropes first in his writing. A lot of us did. But nothing he wrote was original taken granularly; it was all bits and pieces from here and there. The truly original–rather, innovative–part of his writing was in the recipe, the arrangement, the unique mix of ideas and tropes and motifs, rather than creating ex nihilo.

Writing is messy. Let students get messy, ok?
Photo by Lisa Fotios via Stocksnap

If we want to truly foster good, innovative writing–writing that engages with other ideas and has conversations, rather than that just shouts itself into the darkness–we need to move away from the idea of originality. That means we also need to move away from the scary p-word plagiarism.

Instead of telling our students “don’t take other people’s ideas,” we need to tell them how to take other people’s ideas in genre-appropriate ways, in ways that recognize the hard work and innovations of others while also recognizing that nothing is truly new. It all comes from somewhere.

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