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3.5.17

Avoiding plagiarism: How elegant authors quote sources and attribute ideas

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Respectful authors credit the sources of their ideas and information. Proper attribution helps us to address our feelings of uncertainty as writers of blogs and books (such as feeling like an imposter). Quoting our peers and other great thinkers and writers positions us alongside them; it’s good for our credibility. And, of course, it puts us on the moral high ground should anyone rip off our ideas and claim them as their own.

And yet quoting is quite hard to do elegantly. Too much attribution is laborious to read. Too little is rude at best and borders on plagiarism. Not the attributes we want in sticky stories – which are memorable, inspiring, thought provoking.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” the English physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, wrote in a letter to his brother in 1676. Newton’s way of expressing humility and gratitude was so ‘sticky’ that it has stayed with us for over 300 years! But let’s not scare ourselves with such high standards. We do not need to be as poetic as Newton.

Skilful attribution is learnable. In fact, we do it all the time. ‘Guess what Jane told me last Friday night,’ we say over coffee with a buddy. Or, ‘This article about plagiarism is so useful,’ you might write on Facebook or Twitter and share with a link to this story (and please do!).

For bloggers and authors, here are some simple principles to help you avoid the pitfalls, and respect your sources.

Get their name, title and other details right 

When I quoted Newton, I first described him as a scientist. I checked the internet as I wasn’t sure whether he lived in the 17th century. I went to several sources: Wikipedia, which I am not snobby about, and feel very grateful for; something purporting to be the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I’m not sure what whether it is; and Biography.com. Instead I found that he is variously described as a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and physicist.

Then I check the British government’s broadcaster, the BBC, a source that I trust.

There I discovered that he wasn’t such a nice guy. Despite his memorable quote, Newton’s story ‘is also one of a monstrous ego who believed that he alone was able to understand God’s creation. His private life was far from rational – consumed by petty jealousies, bitter rivalries and a ruthless quest for reputation.’

It’s always worth checking! He was knighted in April 1705, and so deserves to be correctly titled, Sir Isaac Newton.

Start at the exciting bit

The website, The Writer’s Handbook, has this advice: ‘Integrating a quotation into your text usually involves two elements:

  • signal that a quotation is coming–generally the author’s name and/or a reference to the work
  • An assertion that indicates the relationship of the quotation to your text.’

I disagree. I suggest you put the quote first. Who you are quoting is always less exciting than what they say – unless you are quoting a huge celebrity who is not very interesting.

Newton’s quote comes first, and then I named my source. Every blog, chapter, paragraph and sentence need to start at the most exciting idea you offer your reader. This is the sticky content way.

There is an exception to this rule. When we switch sources, introduce the source first to avoid confusion about who is saying what. But make your introduction is as short as possible.

Grammarly’s plagiarism check

Sometimes we plagiarise without being aware of it. We use an expression only to discover it deserves attribution. Did you know that the song, ‘Happy Birthday’ was copyrighted until a major court case in 2016, for example? It’s easy to make a mistake.

Imagine if you could press a button and discover ideas or phrases that breach copyright rules. The online spelling and grammar checker, Grammarly, has a plagiarism option that checks your text against ‘over eight billion web pages’ (they say) if you lash out and pay for the premium version. Not only does it alert you to possible breaches, it shows you the source. Now you can attribute it. Yay.

Attribution is an art. Weaving in quotes and data from various sources takes a little thought, but adds richness to our writing. That makes it worth the effort.

PS: Want more? You might like: How to find your writer’s voice

 

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