How To Avoid Plagiarism: Tips + Tricks To Safeguard Your Writing
Finding the right balance between referencing original content and creating your own material is crucial to avoiding plagiarism in all settings, from academic to commercial. Whether you’re a high school student, undergraduate, or professional writer, plagiarism comes with serious consequences. Here’s what you should know about how to avoid plagiarism in your writing.
Referencing Other Content
Acceptable references in our strategies to avoid plagiarism include quotes of any length, as long as you define that someone else said it and use the proper citation style for clear source attribution.
In most cases, you don’t need to use more than a paragraph when quoting someone. You can also use formatting adjustments, like a call-out box, to indicate that this is someone else’s words.
References are appropriate when you’re relying on someone else’s knowledge, authority, or experience to make a particular point. Quoted references work best when they’re from notable public figures or organizations, including company sources.
It’s also appropriate to use an exact quote when someone gave it with that intention. If you’re writing a news article and someone gives you a statement, you should always use as much of it as possible.
The primary thing to understand about referencing other writing is that it’s heavily situational and can admittedly be difficult to know when something technically does or doesn’t need to be quoted and/or cited in full. A how-to guide for building a deck likely won’t require a quote, but a doctor’s recommendation for using medicine sure would.
In-text references with hyperlinks are usually good for web content. If you’re printing something or have no other rules to follow, the APA style guide (with full references at the end of a document) are a widely acceptable default.
Research is the process of collecting information, usually about a specific topic, to help understand how something works or make a decision.
Most people do not do real, original research. In fact, you’re not doing research right now while reading this article. You may be studying plagiarism, but that’s different from designing a test and gathering information to create a conclusion for a new understanding of the subject.
This is an essential distinction because original research cannot be plagiarism. If it’s plagiarized, then by definition, it’s not original research. Even people who do this type of research often cite numerous sources for their conclusions, although the addition of original information-gathering makes it unique.
We’re clarifying this because learning material from someone else lets you reference the ideas and concepts without quoting them directly. In other words, you don’t need to do your own original research to create original content, but you should understand the subject well enough to write convincingly about it from a new angle.
What Plagiarism Is NOT
Plagiarism does not occur when dealing with things that are too common to be attributable to one person. This includes anything that’s common knowledge (like the fact that water’s freezing temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit), single words (like “No”), and common sayings or idioms (like “What goes around comes around”).
Similarly, plagiarism does not apply to names or proper nouns. Sometimes online plagiarism checkers, like Turnitin, may falsely identify multi-word names of things or titles of common research topics as plagiarism (i.e., “The Prevalence of Childhood Obesity”).
Changing Words to Avoid Plagiarism
Are you plagiarizing if you “rewrite” by changing a few words in a sentence but otherwise keep it the same?
Yes, this still counts as plagiarism and commonly happens when the intent is to paraphrase the original source.
These kinds of questions come up a lot. Can I reword a sentence to avoid plagiarism? Can I reorder the material or sentence structure, so it’s presented differently? Can I write it in a different tense?
All of these count as plagiarism because they’re avoiding originality in favor of trying to change something just enough so that it’s liable to sneak by anyone checking for it. However, this goes against the spirit of originality (not to mention the law), which says that you should always try to write something in your own words—and when you can’t, cite it.
Changing words has one more problem: It rarely works. There are plenty of words with similar meanings, and finding them is as easy as going to a site like Thesaurus.com and searching for the word. Most synonyms don’t quite match the original word, though. Replacing words runs the risk of losing coherency in a sentence, and astute readers will notice this.
For example, let’s say that my truck is having trouble. If I decide to replace words in that sentence, I might write that my van is straining. The difference between a truck and a van is relevant because these are completely different sorts of vehicles. Furthermore, the word straining implies a specific type of trouble not suggested in the original sentence.
Changing words to avoid plagiarism can destroy the meaning of sentences. If you don’t want the intention of the sentence you’re copying, why are you duplicating it at all? It often takes just as little time to write a new sentence that doesn’t risk distorted meaning.
Strategies to Avoid Plagiarism
Here are some strategies to help you avoid plagiarism and maintain professional and academic integrity.
#1: Don’t Look Too Closely at Other Material When You’re Writing
Plagiarism occurs when you copy something else too closely. If you study the topic and learn about it first, then write about it, you’re a lot less likely to end up plagiarizing it.
This can be hard to do if you’re writing something exceptionally long or need to add many references to it. If you’re dealing with many facts and figures, quote directly, use quotation marks and proper citing, and link to the source text to neatly avoid the issue.
#2: Present Your Opinion on the Matter
Another great way of avoiding plagiarism is presenting your thoughts, opinions, or experiences on the topic while discussing it. A helpful format here is “X says Y, but I think Z.” That lets you start by quoting someone else, then presenting your own opinion.
Originality is the best way to avoid plagiarism. Clearly explaining one position, then your thoughts and how they differ can help you add a lot of content without relying on external sources.
#4: Understand the Different Types of Plagiarism
When it comes to both professional and academic writing, there are many more types of plagiarism than you might’ve realized. The most commonly known ones are direct and complete plagiarism, source-based plagiarism, and self-plagiarism.
These typically involve some level of intentionally presenting another author’s words without proper citation. But unfortunately, it’s possible for what’s authentically your own work to still be accidental plagiarism—whether in the form of improperly summarizing someone else’s exact words, forgetting an in-text citation, or even presenting your own ideas from an older research paper…but forgetting to cite yourself.
#3: Use a Plagiarism Checker
Plagiarism checkers can scour the internet to see if your content matches anything else too closely.
They’re not 100% perfect, but the most advanced ones come pretty close. Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and copywriters rely on Quetext to help them identify any and all instances of plagiarism that matter. Quetext even takes this a step further by allowing writers to generate the proper citation, be it MLA, APA, or Chicago style, right inside their document.
In fact, this tip comes last because it should always be the last step before submitting your writing to your teacher, boss, or whomever it goes to. Even writing with the best intentions can benefit from the close eye that only advanced technology can provide.
Strategies NOT to Use to Avoid Plagiarism
Knowing what to do is essential for internalizing how to avoid plagiarism, but there are also a few strategies to avoid.
#1: Don’t Base All of Your Content on One Source
Plagiarism is particularly easy if you only have one source for your material. Drawing from one source is also a surefire way to limit the scope and credibility of your writing, as opposed to referencing a variety of content and viewpoints.
#2: Don’t Just Reword Content
Rewording content is functionally plagiarism even if it manages to slip past checkers. As explained above, rewording content isn’t just unethical, it’s often ineffective because it can destroy meaning in your material. If the content isn’t something you understand enough to explain in your own way, you’re better off referencing the direct quote, using quotation marks and citing the original source.
#3: Don’t Quote Too Much
While some quotes are unavoidable, part of understanding how to avoid plagiarism is knowing how much you can fairly cite or quote directly before it becomes a problem.
The correct ratio depends on the topic, but try to avoid having more than one quoted sentence every few paragraphs. If you have a long quote, add more commentary before your next quote to balance it out better.
Remember, content that’s only made up of quotes is both hard to read and often pointless for the reader. Original insights and commentary are far more valuable and are what bring meaning to the quotes you’re incorporating.
Avoiding plagiarism is important for both ethical and professional reasons. Fortunately, once you know how to reference, cite, and expand on material, it’s also easy to avoid. When in doubt, run your content through a plagiarism checker that will do the detective work for you before it ever becomes a problem.