(Really…) By Tom Demerly.
The cycling press has seen some pointed allegations of plagiarism recently, especially in equipment reviews. Most notably the online publication Bikerumor.com has come under criticism for potential plagiarism of gear reviews from noted editors like James Huang of cyclingnews.com.
In cycling media it’s pretty easy to flush out who the original authors are and who the copycats are. You look at content and publication dates. When things are worded closely it may be a coincidence or it may be strict adherence to journalistic format. You can only say so much that is unique about a guy riding around a track for an hour.
But when things are worded identically and formatted in exactly the same order that smacks of quick and dirty cutting and pasting: that’s plagiarism.
Luckily, most writers in the cycling industry are terrible and have no training or even a grasp of English usage. You wouldn’t want to copy their work, let alone read it. So it goes un-copied. And unread.
I’m lucky. My early journalism, media and English teachers hammered me with the rules for original content. Every one of my journalism and media teachers worked in active news and feature publication before they taught. One of them, Mr. Russ Gibb, revolutionized media by popularizing subscriber television. These are the guys I learned from; Mr. Bartell, Mr. Korinek, Mr. Gibb. Later I had editors who were both smarter and better writers than me. That helped, and I learned from them too.
Like libel, plagiarism can be difficult to prove. Part of the reason is that a formally trained journalist writes in a format taught to all journalists. It’s the common “Inverted Pyramid” that starts with a lead, contains a “who, what, where, when…” and ends with a conclusion. Feature content is a little less structured but generally starts with a “hook” to draw readers in, something fast and catchy to hold them and then terse, tight copy to tell the story.
That’s how it should be.
The biggest temptation for journalists to cheat the system came when word processing software gave them “cut and paste” capability. It became easier to cut and past with a few keystrokes, do a quick rewrite and call it your own. Before that, and I am proud to say I wrote in this era, we used typewriters with no “CTRL C” capability. We actually had to think.
Any journalist or creative writer will tell you there are only so many stories, so many plots. That’s a fact. Depending on where you learned to write you ascribe to the knowledge that there are somewhere between 7 and 20 storylines in all of human communication. That’s it. Everything written is some variation on those formats. The problem isn’t when someone tells the same story, even in the same order or similar voice. The problem is when someone steals someone’s hard work through a quick cut and paste and then calls it there own, then sells it (and ad space around it) and benefits from it.
I recently wrote a feature about an endurance athlete who did a long distance open water swim. It was a luxurious article to write, something I could really get into since I knew the characters and genuinely admire them. I took my time with it. Fawned over it. Spent too much time on it by the measure of any barking editor hanging over a copywriter like a Damocles deadline.
Two days after I wrote that story a local feature writer knocked off my article nearly word-for-word including verbatim quotes that came from questions I had written, and asked. They stole my “slant” on the topic. I earned that journalistic intimacy over time because of my familiarity with the topic. Those were the things I brought to the table with this story, and another writer pulled them off my table, put it on their own and said, “Look at this story!”
What can I do? Nothing. Nor do I have the rancor to do anything. Instead it makes me want to be more original, more stylized, more unique and more professional in my writing. It makes me want to hone my craft to a degree that, when people read my stuff, they know it is me. And when they read something similar, they say, “This sounds like something Demerly would write.”
The ultimate praise for a writer and author is to have a “style” attributed to them. You hear literary comparisons that say, “This is like Hemmingway” or, an ultimate complement like “Reads like a Tom Clancy novel.” Through style, voice, innovation and commercial success some writers have built their own “brand”, a style so unique they own it, no matter who borrows it.
Until a writer achieves that level of uniqueness and originality it kind of all boils down to “who, where, when and what”. And the best way to rise above the in-actionable (even when accurate) accusations of plagiarism is to simply elevate your writing above it, so no one can steal it.