Copycats, Plagiarism and the Writer’s Voice

Look at that vile little Middle Class child copying that upstanding, bowtie-wearing young Upper Class gentleman.

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because my shoulders aren’t broad enough to shield my laptop screen from those behind me in Starbucks.

Plagiarism is a curious beast. Something of a taboo in the publishing business, exactly what does and doesn’t constitute as copy-catting can be surprisingly vague.

I think most writers, myself included, have been forced to pause at least once and wonder ‘is this too close to that other work I read last month?’ There is nothing sinister in this – in order to flourish, all writers must be great readers. They improve their own craft through absorbing, both consciously and subconsciously, the writing styles and techniques of those who have come before. This is especially important when it comes to a writer’s unique ‘voice.’ The voice, we are told, is special to every writer and develops in a stately, unhurried fashion. It is not, however, something without pedigree. All voices are to a large extent conglomerations of the voices of other writers, given unique flavour when combined. As an example, I like to say my writing is the bastard child of historical fiction grandfather Bernard Cornwell and sci-fi master Dan Abnett. People sometimes say my work is a lot like theirs stylistically, and this is no coincidence – I grew up voraciously consuming their writing. Their genetic code is imprinted on my own style.

I think we’d all agree, however, that the development of the voice in harmony with those who came before does not construe plagiarism. We have in our heads the idea of plagiarism as something more pernicious. It is the parody of talent through the direct copying of another’s work. At University it is a constant spectre – we are told the departments possess extremely advanced plagiarism detection software through which all our essays and dissertations are run. We sign numerous forms declaring we have not in any way plagiarised or stolen anyone else’s work. We are told again and again to cite, cite, cite! But in my four years at University I’ve only ever heard a single story of someone being hauled in for plagiarism. Knowing some of the, ahem, characters we have at Uni and the dubious means they have of writing 3,000 words the night before a deadline, this makes me wonder whether Edinburgh really does possess this secret, masterful anti-plagiarism tech.

Or perhaps they simply struggle to define what is and what isn’t copying.

There’s a revealing myth among writers. It claims that there have only ever been a few purely original works ever written (the number varies from four to eight). All others have taken from these Ancestor Works in some small way or another. Nothing is without precedent, because everything has been done before. The best we can hope to do is avoid cliche and add a new spin. This seems truer than ever today, what with the rash of remakes, sequels and prequels to well-established works.

Not that this should daunt us or in any way inhibit the creative drive that makes us writers. All it means is that we shouldn’t feel too bad when inspired to write by someone else’s work. Supposedly they all did it, Shakespeare, Dickens, the lot. Nobody can prove that they plagiarised, because they didn’t – they simply took inspiration from others. And ultimately, what greater compliment could a writer receive? Inspiration is the root of creativity, and to bring it out in in others is something we should all aspire to.

Just don’t copy them word for word!

And now for a fun game of “is he a cyberterrorist or an NSA agent!”


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