Accidental plagiarism is symbolized by a red OOPS key on a keyboard

7 Tips To Avoid Accidental Plagiarism When Writing Content

In school, we were taught to think of plagiarism as a type of cheating. It was something BAD students did. They stole information and text from various sources and deliberately tried to pass it off as their own work.

As a professional writer (and a decent human being), I know how to avoid that kind of plagiarism:

  • Always give credit when you quote someone.
  • Add footnotes when you take facts and figures from a specific source.
  • Don’t cut and paste existing content into your own. 

In a bullet point list, this seems pretty straightforward. But when you’re in the content writing trenches, things can get more complicated.

For example, let’s say you’re writing about widgets and how to use them properly. Before creating the world’s greatest widget-related content, you need to know exactly what widgets do, what problems they solve, hazards and risks, regulations, alternatives, etc. There’s a whole world of widget wisdom begging to be explored!

A thousand years later…

You’re ready to write. But now your brain’s full of other people’s words and every sentence you create sounds vaguely familiar. Arghhh!

In this moment, you may be a GOOD person, and a GOOD writer, but you’re also vulnerable to committing acts of accidental plagiarism. That’s the kind that happens when you unintentionally incorporate the words of other writers into your work – without giving them credit.

So, how do you research a topic without absorbing the words and insights of other writers into your own thought processes?

The short answer is that you can’t. The purpose of researching is to find new information, examine different perspectives on a subject, and gather evidence to support your ideas and opinions. And mixing all that information, and perspectives, and evidence, with what you already know isn’t a negative. It’s a positive. This is a natural part of learning.

The problem is that we’re sometimes impatient. Or rushed. So instead of taking time to do some “big picture” thinking, we race to the keyboard.

Tip #1: Press PAUSE between researching and writing.

Before you can write about something with a degree of authority and originality, you need to understand what you’re writing about. Accidental plagiarism is a risk when you jump straight from reading someone else’s words to writing your own. The phrases you’ve just read fall easily onto the page because they’re front of mind – and because you’re leaning too hard on the insights of other writers.

That’s why it’s always best to let things percolate. Write down facts, figures, and quotes you may use in your final content and cite them each properly so it’s easy to insert them later. Then WALK AWAY.

Make a cup of coffee. Take a walk. Or, better yet, walk to a coffee shop and treat yourself to something yummy.

Give your brain time to ponder. Relax and let what you’ve just learned mix and mingle with what you already knew.

When you get back to work, start by creating an outline. Lay out the points you want to make and the order in which you want to make them. Focus on your thoughts and how you want to approach the topic.

Tip #2: Never write about something you don’t fully understand.

If creating an outline becomes a struggle, there are likely remaining gaps in your understanding of the subject. Write down the things you’re still not sure about and do a bit more research. Then ponder again.

This may seem frustrating, especially when the clock is ticking and a deadline is looming, but trust me…

Writing happens faster and the quality of your writing goes WAY UP when you confidently understand what you’re writing about.

You will get across the finish line faster by not scrimping on the research part. And you’ll be less apt to unconsciously borrow words from others.

Tip #3: Read from lots of different sources. 

Working from a broader collection of information deepens your knowledge and helps you create something of value. In essence, the more you read, the more you learn.

Reading from multiple sources also lessens the risk of memorizing and regurgitating bits and pieces. When you go too deeply into one main source, everything about that piece of writing – including facts, opinions, writing style, and tone – can seem important. So important that you unconsciously mimic it.

Using multiple sources lessens the power and impact of each individual piece.

Tip #4: Close your tabs.

Remember way back in Tip #1 when I told you to write down (and cite) interesting facts, figures, and quotes? Keep that document open. It’s useful.

But CLOSE all the tabs!

Bookmark your sources in case you need to look at them later, but don’t leave them open and readily available. It’s too tempting to keep peeking at them.

The more you jump back and forth between your own writing and the writing of others, the blurrier things get. The words in those source documents move to the front of your mind again and that’s not good. It places you at risk of falling down the slippery slope into accidental plagiarism.

Note: Creatively using synonyms does NOT make a sentence your own.

Tip #5: Use links generously.

If you’re writing a thesis, or a white paper, or a guide of some sort, footnotes and bibliographies are the norm. But in the world of blog posts and general interest pieces, it’s generally okay to use a link in lieu of a formal citation.

If you take a fact, figure, or passage of writing from someone else’s content, the simplest solution is to add a backlink from your content to theirs. Easy-peasy. And respectful.

Also, backlinks are valuable. They’re like a vote of confidence from one website to another. They tell search engines that the content you’ve linked to has value. For this reason, backlinks are an important part of search engine optimization (SEO).

Tip #6: Edit, review, and read aloud. 

In my opinion, rushing is the #1 culprit when it comes to accidental plagiarism. When you take the time to edit and review your work, you’re able to polish your words and express your thoughts more creatively – and more authentically. You’re also more apt to see things that should be cited.

As part of the review process, I highly recommend reading your work aloud. If a passage doesn’t sound natural coming out of your mouth, it may be because those are someone else’s words! The ears sometimes hear what the eyes fail to see.

Tip #7: Don’t lie to yourself.

At the end of the day, honesty is your best friend. You know when you’ve written something using your own words. And deep down, you know when you’re cheating.

Becoming more knowledgeable about your topic is important and reading what other folks have written is part of that process.

Learning from others is good. Stealing their words is not. And plagiarism is a NO-NO even when it’s accidental.

When in doubt – link to your source. Or create a citation. Or both.

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Kim Scaravelli

Kim Scaravelli

Kim Scaravelli is a brand voice coach, writer, and author Making Words Work. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her unruly family, a sweet dog named Stevie, and a sarcastic cat named Winnie.