Real Copywriters Don’t Copy Writers
There is an alarming episode of This American Life that recounts a middle school experience of author Michael Lewis. He got in trouble with a seventh-grade teacher for copying the description on the back of a novel and calling it a book report. He had no idea plagiarism was a thing. He figured it was a waste of time and effort to think up something to say when someone out there had already thought something up—as the story says, “why reinvent the wheel?” That is, why create content when the basic gist of the content already exists?
But those of us whose business it is to create marketing content should know not only what plagiarism is, but also that it is not listed anywhere in the copywriter’s little book of content best practices. We are, after all, copywriters, not copycats. (Even though cats do and always will kick our content creating butts for total number of impressions on the web.)
Plagiarism is serious and can get you at best embarrassed and at worst sued, depending on who recognizes it and decides to do anything about it. To help us recognize when we’re nearing the territory of getting busted for content-stealing, here are some writing tips and examples to help steer you clear of danger.
You may be able to use someone else’s content, but only if you cite it properly. Or, you can convey the idea of something you’ve read, but without using the same words at all.
I was driving down to Big Sur yesterday and I totally thought, Blue, you look so pretty west of the One. Sparkle light with yellow icing, just a mirror for the sun! I thought that because I am very poetic.
One particularly evocative passage from the Red Hot Chili Peppers that shows their appreciation for nature is, “Blue you sit so pretty west of the One. Sparkle light with yellow icing, just a mirror for the sun.”
That one’s not plagiarism because it clearly identifies the source and uses quotation marks. Another way to not steal is to paraphrase—take the general idea but rewrite the content in your own creative way.
The ocean looks so nice when you’re driving down Highway 1. The water sparkles and there’s a bright yellow line where the water reflects the sun.
Admittedly not as poetic; but it isn’t ripping anyone off.
What if your copywriting uses 100% original sentences, but is based on someone else’s ideas? Is that plagiarism? Maybe. The law recognizes a concept of parallel thought. It is perfectly possible that more than one writer muses that geniuses are not always child prodigies, but rather discover their gifts late in life. Maybe you know some of these clever characters who flourish late in life and it made you reflect on the world’s fascination with youthful genius. But if you just read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article delving into this idea, and you want to write about it too, best to be safe and mention it. You can then go on to expand on the idea and add your own insights.
In a recent New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell points out that while child prodigies are fascinating, geniuses can discover themselves later in life too. I’ve met some of these people myself and would like to tell you’re their stories.
Don’t plagiarize even if you don’t expect your audience to catch on. Marketers and copywriters know they can’t get away with using the content of prominent thought leaders, like Hubspot or Marketo because eventually readers will catch on. Great brands have a striking style or distinguishing traits that attract audiences. Customers and clients want unique and different, and it's amazing how quickly a reader can sense that you aren't being original. Don't test it. Do you and be brave enough to have a distinct point of view and commentary on what's happening around you.
It goes beyond just getting busted by your audience, it is also in direct violation of the Inbound content philosophy, which states that you shouldn’t have duplicate copy floating out on the interwebs. Google might catch on and there’s potential for SEO ranking repercussions.
Google states: “Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar. If content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic it can result in a poor user experience. Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information.
If you’re a copywriter, write. You’re only a content creation expert if you’re creating original content. The best copywriters are those that have a point of view and communicate from a place of knowledge, opinion and personality.
So do as the Red Hot Chili Peppers say, and “Choose not the life of imitation.”