WORD FOR WORD

                         by Miko Johnston

 

Climbing BooksIn the spring of 2018, I organized a volunteer program at a local high school. Together with three other writers, we mentor students in a creative writing class. Every semester we accept up to three pages of writing from the students, which ranges from chapters from novels-in-progress to poems, short stories to essays. We critique the work, make comments and corrections, and return it to the class. Their teacher has mentioned how much her students enjoy the process, how they anxiously await the feedback we provide.

 

Writer GiraffeEach time we begin a new round of submissions, we, too anxiously await the material, hoping to find both familiar names and new ones. Having worked with the class for over a year, including several students who’ve been in the program since it began, I’m delighted to see a steady improvement in their work.

 

Not surprisingly, some of the writing we’ve seen has been what can be called fan fiction, based on existing work. Beginning writers often borrow, sometimes heavily, from books they’ve read or what they’ve watched on TV. However, I recently received something that crossed the line.

 

One essay submitted dealt with a topic the student obviously felt strongly about, for the words, while lacking eloquence (or grammar), contained genuine emotion. However, by the middle of the second paragraph, I noticed a distinct change in the writing, enough so that I Googled a phrase from his piece. Sure enough, it turned up on the website of an organization, cut and pasted word for word.

 

I have no idea if the student in question understood how wrong it is to take another’s writing and pass it off as your own. I immediately notified his teacher, who assured me she’d talk to the author of that piece. That still left me with the critique. It’s not my place to discipline the student, but I felt I had to address the issue in a way that made the point without overstepping.

 

I began by making corrections to the part of the essay written by the student, along with suggestions on how to improve it. Just before the essay switched to the website’s words I added the following – everything in parentheses has been paraphrased to maintain anonymity:

 

Winding Road Sign(Student), I am stopping my critique here, since this is where your words end and the essay you copied and pasted from (organization’s website) begins. What continues below is called plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. Aside from being illegal and dishonorable, you’ve weakened your message.

The part you wrote yourself needs some work. The grammar is not perfect and you have a lot of unnecessary words in it. However, it is heartfelt, moving and real. It’s obvious that you truly care about (cause), however imperfect your writing about them may be. While (organization) may be dedicated to (cause), their website is designed to raise money. You’re writing to inspire people to care about the problem and do something to change the situation, and you’re doing it from the heart.

I would like to see you go back and rewrite this in your own words. Then I will be happy to look at what you’ve written. I’ll help you put the final polish on it so it stirs the hearts of anyone who reads it and encourages them to help (cause).

 

Now I’m the one anxiously awaiting feedback from you. Do you think I handled this correctly? What would you have done?

 

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

(Due to computer idiosyncrasies, this blog was posted by G.B. Pool for Ms. Johnston. Computers have their own minds.)

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

14 thoughts on “WORD FOR WORD”

  1. This young person has two options: continue this type of behavior and be whopped upside the head later in life by an employer or friend, or learn early that this isn’t acceptable behavior in polite society. Hopefully the student gets the hint early. And learning that the Internet can spot a fraud is eye opening as well. You did the right thing. Hope the student follows your advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do as well. I may be visiting the class before the end of the month. I’m curious to learn the student’s reaction. Perhaps this was the wake-up call needed. Fingers crossed.

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  2. You addressed the problem with kindness and firmness, providing a valuable life lesson for the student. My sister had a student in her college-level class do the same thing (copying from the Internet). My sister probably wasn’t as kind 😉

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    1. Thanks, Maggie. I wouldn’t have been as kind if it were my kid, either, but both the teacher and I felt it was her responsibility to take the lead on disciplining the student.

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  3. Wow–how fun that you not only write, but that you teach writing to young folks who might also find their calling in writing. And your teaching clearly involves more than just the writing process. I’m sure it’s frustrating to find someone engaging in plagiarism but you clearly dealt with it well.

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  4. This whole situation makes me wonder how widespread the problem really is. I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen, but this was a voluntary assignment. Are young students, who can access anything for free online, unaware of what plagiarism entails, or do they not care?

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  5. I keep getting surprised, Miko, at the lack of knowledge about “things” I’d expect students to know about–but I also remember how many “things” on so many fronts(many life issues) I’ve been ignorant about all through life–and still am(smile). But I do think plagiarism should be on English/writing Class One agenda? Good you’re doing what you’re doing–you’re giving knowledge where knowledge clearly is much needed. Good for you! Kids are not my forte (smile).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So much has changed since my teen years, Mad. I would never think of plagiarizing someone else’s work, but in informal situations, like friends swapping stories (which we called ‘writty’), we occasionally repeated scenes from TV, movies or books. We all knew where those scenes came from and we always made them our own in some way. I suppose that makes a difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You absolutely did the right thing, Miko. How lucky that student was that you spotted the plagiarism and pointed it out so directly but tactfully.

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    1. Thanks, Bonnie. I’m sure the teacher pointed out the “law” to the student, but I thought knowing it weakened the intent of the prose might have more impact.

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  7. Very good, Miko. You not only let the youngster know what the problem was and that it was wrong, but you also let him/her know you realize they have their own talents to call upon.

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    1. Thanks, Marja. I felt it was the only way I might get through to the student. Despite punctuation and grammar problems, they could be corrected. You can’t fake genuine passion, which this author had.

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  8. Wise teaching, Miriam. And you did handle it professionally. These kids are getting professional critiques and edits… this student should be able to handle that crack on the knuckles with a ruler, be thankful it was YOU, and then move on to creative excellence of his/her own. Thankfully, the kids I teach writing to, haven’t shown any of those tendencies…yet.

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    1. I found out from the teacher that this student did not realize copying and pasting segments from a website onto one’s own work was improper (and illegal). I later met the student, who seemed embarrassed and humbled by the experience, so there’s hope.

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