Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing with Integrity: A Guest Post By Alexis Jenny

I've been a writer my entire life. But I've been a member of the "writer community" in cyberspace for around a year. Something I have come to learn and appreciate is that everybody is so supportive.

- There are agents who have blogs where they dispense advice; some even offer to look at query letters and critique them.
- Likewise, all of the authors I've "met" really encourage and support others.

It's great and a very sharp contrast to my perception of the Cleveland music scene, circa 1990 -- which I tried to break into -- whereby bands seemed to feel they were competing against each other. Perhaps that was just me; but it really felt that way.

So it is in this spirit of support that I would like to share something from Alexis's blog. Alexis was very kind and posted an entry of mine the other week. I offered to return the favor.

So without further ado...

Writing with Integrity Pt. 2: Plagiarism & Libel 
When I was in college, there was a huge emphasis on the consequences of plagiarism. And I don’t mean, “If you steal someone’s essay, you’ll get reported for cheating and you’ll fail the class.”

No. If you got caught plagiarizing, you were expelled. Period.

It didn’t matter if you claimed it was accidental. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t verbatim. If you took something and didn’t cite it properly, you were done.

I loved that.

When I was a teenager, I joined an online writing community where I posted my melodramatic poetry. It was always appearing in other places by people who’d steal it. It wasn’t even that good, but having it stolen made me feel vulnerable and outraged. I can’t imagine how much worse I would have felt had someone plagiarized an entire novel of mine. But the fact is that most unscrupulous people don’t plagiarize whole works. They steal little bits. They’re sneaky like that.

But little bits can matter a lot. If someone steals your character names and the basic premise of your story, that can really kill your original work. Even if the thief’s prose is original, the ideas are stolen.

As an editor, this drives me crazy. Receiving plagiarized submissions is utterly offensive to me. I’d like not to have to Google everyone’s stories. I’d like people, in general, to be more ethical. In short, I’d like to be able to expel people from the universal writing community if they’re caught plagiarizing.

Another problem is libel. As writers, we often base our stories off personal experiences and our characters off real people. But this isn’t acceptable when you purposely create a fictional character to perfectly mimic someone you despise so you can harm their reputation through your writing. Um, duh.

Are these really such fine lines? Is this not common sense?

Sometimes I have to wonder.

About Alexis:

I'm a freelance writer living in western Pennsylvania with my husband and son. I'm also a content and acquisitions editor for Grit City Publications, a revolutionary group that publishes serial fiction and abstract art in a new medium called emotobooks. In my spare time, I read, cook, occasionally practice yoga, and almost always obsess over the AMC series, "The Walking Dead." I also like tea.

You can contact me by visiting my blog, Bunny Ears & Bat Wings: Discovery Through Writing, where you'll find excerpts of my writing life, bits of writing advice, and book reviews.


  1. Thanks for being such a great host, Michael!

  2. I agree. Everybody starts by imitating, but working through somebody else's style to find your own is very different from taking plots and characters.

    That being said, I think homage can have value. Dr. House and his friend Wilson are supposed to make you think of Holmes and Watson. I've done that myself, using character names that suggest TV shows or movies I like.

    The difference is that people paying homage want you to notice, and thieves obviously don't.

    1. Wow! House and Wilson as Holmes and Watson...I never realized that. Though I don't use character names from shows / movies per se when I write, I always do have an image of someone -- be it a friend or a character -- to help give the character a "voice."