License to Borrow

Posted On July 20, 2010

   Plagiarism is a nasty word in the writing world. We all probably heard about it in Middle School and High School when our English teachers threatened us with failing grades if we copied directly from a source. There were rules about changing seven words in a paragraph, and then it wasn’t plagiarism. That was in the day when term papers were bought and sold as casually as a soda or pack of gum at the corner market. With the widespread use of the Internet, sites and companies popped up offering to verify the originality of a research paper. Once a report was scanned, the company would highlight the exact phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that came from a source. If the student didn’t give credit in the bibliography (remember the old days of footnotes?) or reference page, their grade suffered. And if large passages were copied directly from a major journal or literary source, the student would fail the course, and in the case of a college class, be expelled from school. I’m thinking the writer that was copied probably thought one of two things: 1) “Great! I wrote something that someone thought was worthwhile enough to copy!”, or 2) “Any way to get that kid to do jail time? Stealing is stealing.”

   I’ve been taking on online class about making money by marketing articles online. The most important rule for those who host blogs, web sites, ezines, and webzines is that the material be original. If a travel site wants to buy your first rights for an article you wrote about staying at the beach in San Diego, that article better not appear anywhere else on the web. And there’s no lying about it either, as search engines will find you and kick you permanently off the Internet. So, if you’re a freelance writer who submits articles to various sites on the web, I imagine that you have a world of experience in lots of areas and have more expertise to share than people to listen to you (hence you write articles that will reach a wider audience), and you probably never run out of words. Kudos to you, and please leave me your web site or blog in the comment section below, because I’d love to know how other writers continue to create original and informative pieces. I plan to submit a few articles. After all, this experiment called life encourages us to tap into new and invigorating people, places, and ideas.

   If originality and unique creativity are king, then why the title of this post? Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that ended differently than you thought, or hoped? How many times have you walked out of the theater saying, “Gee, I could have written a better ending”? And have you? The first thing art teachers or English teachers or creativity coaches suggest to students is to read the poetry that you like by as many poets as possible, read everything you can in the genre in which you’re interested in writing, study the painters or sculptors or dancers or musicians that emulate the medium you’re curious about exploring. We become interested in a particular style for numerous reasons and often attempt to stretch the creative idea of the artist(s) we enjoy, which means we borrow their passion as a jumping off point, but by adding our own flair we make it ours. No plagiarism.

   Our muse is always searching for methods with which to communicate to us. There are writers that I enjoy because of their storylines, their characters, the unpredictability in the outcome, the details, the action, and even their sentence structure. I liked them so much that when I stopped ignoring the pictures and conversations and dialogue that appeared in my mind, and I began to write them down, the stories that emerged were in the same genre. All the elements of the stories were different. What I borrowed was their enthusiastic energy, their passion to tell, what I thought, was a good story. Written through the lenses of my experience, the originality is there, but with flavors of other authors. That’s probably why advertisers suggest, “Like Dan Brown? Then you’ll love ________”. There is just enough to link from one to the other. Some readers will strongly disagree with the advertiser, but others will be glad that they found another author that they enjoy reading.

   Think about the artist(s) that influenced you to pick up the pen, the paintbrush, the guitar. Did you try to copy them at first and then added your own touch? Have you taken a different direction and created your own subgenre, your own style? Do you perhaps have a student who follows you, a fan who wanted you to listen to a song they’d written or a poem that they asked you to read because something you had written sparked an idea in them? I invite you to go back to the artist that first offered a unique perspective that you had never thought of before. Read or listen to or study some of their early work and discern if there is a common thread from their first piece to their most recent. Do you know the artist personally? If not, write them a letter or a song or paint a picture depicting your interpretation of their journey. You don’t have to mail the letter or CD or canvas to the person. This is your exploration. Want to take it even further? Look at the evolution of your own creativity. What is your common element? Where have you deviated, and what caused it? Did you like the results?

   The above exercise will offer you an opportunity to look closely at one of your influences. If you’re feeling particularly brave, it could also give you the space to examine where you started, and where you’re headed. It is easy to look at someone else and form an opinion, a judgement. When viewing ourselves, it’s often too easy to pick apart whatever we see. That is not the purpose of this activity. Instead, I suggest you approach it as objectively as you did your influential artist. If not, you could end up scrapping every creative project. But handled with kindness, my guess is that you’ll see growth, maturity, a refining style, a feeling of comfort. Don’t be surprised if your discovery leads you onto another path, or reinvigorates your passion for your medium. As with anything else I offer in this blog, there is no right or wrong. I hope only to inspire you to be in joy and allow your creativity to fill you and come through you. If you’d like to read the prologue and the first two chapters of my novels and observe how I’ve grown, and the essentials that I continue to include, visit my web site If you see something you’d like to read more thoroughly, I have a special offer on my books through September 6, 2010.

Written by Michele Venne

Writer of immersive and intriguing stories.

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    • michelevenne

      Okay, so maybe it seems like rocket science to those of us who are “old school”. I’ll check out your suggestion. Thanks.

  1. link

    ok how is this supposedto mean?

    • michelevenne

      I wrote that you can use the influence of artists that you like in your own work. If you enjoy reading mysteries, and decide to write your own, you may borrow starting off with the crime, as your favorite author does. Or, if you play guitar, and your favorite guitarist is known for playing with a lot of distortion, then you would use that example as a starting point for your own piece. Not copying, but rather influenced.


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