Not “Just” a Writer

Recently, I had a friend of mine tell me how lucky I am that I am just a freelance writer.

Yes, she said “just.”

Although my friend meant well in context, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed by her comment, because I’ve heard it many, many times before. At the heart of the sentiment is always the idea that somehow, freelance writers are not serious professionals, that we are simply clickety-clacking away on laptops while sipping expensive coffee in some corner shop somewhere, totally relaxed and content.

The reality of being “just” a freelance writer is that we work hard–and I would dare to say, even harder–than those in more traditional jobs. We have no guarantee of having work the next day most of the time, so we are constantly anxious, constantly searching for the next project that could tide us over until we have to search yet again. It’s not unusual to spend just as much time looking for work as we do actually writing, and even when we find workable projects, the pay isn’t always ideal. So, often, we have to work more hours to make ends meet.

What’s more, being our own bosses isn’t all sunshine and roses. Sure, we can set our own schedules and such for the most part, and that’s great, but there’s no one to catch us. If we get overwhelmed or something goes wrong, we are the ones who have to figure the problem out, no matter how tired or frustrated we are. We spend a lot of time doing administrative work that we cannot bill for, such as handling invoices, updating spreadsheets and tracking tax information. Some of this can be automated, but not all of it can.

In short, the typical freelance writer’s day is very flexible, but as is true for just about everyone who owns their own businesses, it ends up being very long. A lot of the time, we don’t “clock out” after eight hours of work the way “normal” people do, simply because the administrative work and need to look for the next project is in addition to the standard work week that results in pay. Even when we do everything right, we still have the normal demands of household chores and family to handle once the pen is down or the computer is off.

Even if all this didn’t bother me, I’d still be a little upset by being called “just” a freelance writer, because this inevitably cheapens my craft. It perpetuates the idea that, even as major corporations around the world rely on writers to produce their website, general correspondence, marketing and other documentation, our work is not worth a decent, living wage. It implies that companies can push writers to the side, essentially discriminating in ways that would never fly with other workers. If writers do not fight this discrimination, the worth of what they do will always be in question and they will always struggle.

Why You Need to Grasp Plagiarism

Part of the joy of being a writer is being able to come up with something original, new and fresh. After all, it is this creativity and uniqueness that keeps content interesting enough for people to pick up or click on and which is the backbone of developing a loyal readership.

I am strongly implying here that true writing involves much more than putting words to paper. Anyone with basic grammar skills and vocabulary can do that. Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to–that’s the heart of research writing–but the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, you aren’t writing. You’re stealing. More specifically, you’re plagiarizing.

Plagiarism Defined

According to United States copyright laws, plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property, passing it off as your own. People usually think this involves only copying directly or almost word for word, but this is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property, so even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, you are plagiarizing.

Importantly, if you are stating common facts, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.

It’s not that bad to do, right?

Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work, robbing him of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents him from getting the monetary compensation he deserves. You also can look at if from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, you lose credibility as an author. Lowered or no credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.

Then of course there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen his intellectual property, they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.

Preventing the Problem

Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases like, “As reported by,” “[Name of author] stated that,” “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that” and “A [year] study by [authors] found that…” Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, the way to avoid plagiarizing is simply to use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.

More Information

A great online resource about plagiarism is plagiarism.org. This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.

Creativity Versus Salability

Disney has produced some truly wonderful material over its decades of operation. Even so, after hearing and watching film after film, I can’t help but notice that Disney tends not to move away from general plots. For example, in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo dreams about leaving the confines of his church and being free to do bigger and better things. In Aladdin, Aladdin dreams about leaving behind the thief’s life for bigger and better things. In Hercules, Hercules asserts that, even though everyone else has quit or failed before, he will “go the distance”, become a hero and….you guessed it, go on to bigger and better things.

Now, I’m not knocking Disney alone here. A lack of truly new content is a problem just about everywhere writing appears–even reality TV is crafted around roughly the same ideas.

Why?

An easy answer is just that we aren’t very creative anymore, or that we’re just plain lazy. I don’t think this is the entire story, though. I think it very well could be linked more to money. When a producer is putting down millions of dollars to create a script or film, for instance, he wants to reduce his risks on the investment. One way of doing that is falling back on something that has proven itself before.

Any number of plots or characters might stimulate particular emotional responses in an audience. But as writers, we have to find the balance between what is new and what has been branded as salable. That is no easy feat.