One of the questions I get asked the most as an American living in Europe is that of my opinion on the presidential candidates. (Before we continue, I promise I am going to link this to writing etiquette. 😉 ) Personally I hate getting involved in politics, so this year I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the headache-inducing posts I’m reading on my main news source (Facebook—I know, I know). One thing that I did have to do a mental face-palm over was the First Lady speech copy-and-paste fiasco at the RNC. Like I said before, I prefer not to get involved, but there was such an Internet-wide uproar that it was impossible to ignore. So regardless of whether or not you agree that Melania Trump’s speech was in fact plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s, the point is that a whole lot of people do believe so, and it’s obvious how much that can impact someone’s credibility in the long term (even though she’s not the one running for president, but is representing someone who is).
Of course we all know that plagiarism is frowned upon; it is, after all, the theft of someone else’s product. But what is plagiarism, exactly? It actually goes much deeper than ctrl c + ctrl v. Of course, there are 7 billion people on earth, and chances are that more than one of us has the same idea or innovation about something that we want to express through writing, whether it be for work, school, or just because. It can also be the case that someone else had an idea that you read or heard about and you want to expand on that idea or educate others about it. It can be difficult sometimes to determine the appropriate way to relay someone else’s ideas through your own words. Obviously, word-for- word copying is stealing, plain and simple. We KNOW that. But we have all been there at some point, most likely in those high school years: you have a 2,000 word paper that you have been putting off for months, and now it’s 10pm and you have two hours to electronically submit it and you’ve still got 600 words to go. You’re scrambling through all of your research and throw something together quickly. Last step: run it through CopyScape, email to professor, done! But then, upon clicking that submit button, access denied. You think to yourself, “Why is it not getting cleared for plagiarism? I didn’t copy anything!” This may very well be true that you didn’t actually copy anything. But if you take a sentence someone else has written and change the words around to make it sound original, unfortunately that doesn’t pass the test.
Now let’s go back to the RNC speech. We’ve all seen the countless videos, read the comparison posts. Although many points from Melania’s speech weren’t verbatim from Michelle’s, it’s still considered plagiarism. Now keep in mind that there is a possibility that Melania did in fact believe she was being authentic and simply doesn’t possess the writing skills to honestly relay her own ideas (we each have our own talents, right?), which we’ll visit in a minute. But before we get to that, I’ve compiled my own comparison list from the two speeches and also added my own examples of how it would have been appropriate to pull inspiration from Michelle’s speech without the use of word theft:
Michelle Obama: Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect…
Melania Trump: From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect…
I would have said: I was brought up as a child with a set of ethics to harmoniously live with our fellow human beings. Some things my parents taught me were to have the motivation to achieve your life goals, stand by any promises you make, and give your fellow persons the same treatment that you wish to receive from them.
See what I did there? There is no shame in referencing the First Lady’s speech for inspiration for your own; that is, after all, what research is! But with just some sentence structure and vocabulary choices, you can make the huge difference between just copying someone’s idea as opposed to using it as a baseline to expand your own opinions upon. Now with the next one I’m going to do something a little tricky, and bear with me because I’m aware that this would never happen in real life given the context, but like I said earlier, let’s ignore the politics:
Michelle Obama: …Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Melania Trump: [My parents] taught and showed me morals in their daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to many generations to follow because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
I would have said: [My parents] taught and showed me morals in their daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. As our First Lady Michelle Obama has said in the past, we need to pass those lessons on to many generations to follow because we want our children in this nation to know that as long as they have big dreams and are prepared to do the necessary work to achieve them, anything is possible.
As stated above, I know that would never actually happen, but taken out of context, this is completely acceptable. Research is, after all, studying what others have learned or said about your topic of interest, and using those ideas to come up with and express your own. If you are really struggling to creatively convey those ideas in your own words, then you can also do what I did in the previous quote, and actually reference your inspiration without using direct quotations. This way you can still credit your source while putting your own spin on it.
So now you can identify the fine line between what does and doesn’t qualify as plagiarism. Writing speeches (or anything up for review for that matter) doesn’t have to be so daunting! Just be creative as much as possible with your own ideas, and remember that it’s fine to pull inspiration from others, as long as you credit your source. Then you will have formed a genuine, original, and honest piece of writing that has a long-lasting effect on your own credibility, especially if you plan on running for president, or at least being part of one’s campaign. 😉