When you write effectively, ethics matter.
Every word you write is a decision about what and what not to do. It’s not just a choice of what works best in a sentence; it’s an ethical judgment about what to say.
Ask yourself throughout the process: “Have I told the truth? Have I followed the Golden Rule? (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) Have I accidentally or intentionally copied others’ work?”
The latter, called plagiarism—the act of stealing someone else’s words and presenting them as your own—is the worst sin a writer can commit. It is unethical and can lead to legal consequences. Certainly in academia, plagiarism is a black mark on your record and reputation. It can destroy your credibility, and, depending on your occupation, your ability to work in the future.
Copying and pasting research from a source like Wikipedia (not always accurate) for a school paper is plagiarism and sometimes embarrassing (see For Example, below). Taking riffs from a song and presenting them as your own is plagiarism, as Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams found out with “Blurred Lines.” Swiping a script verbatim from a book, movie, or TV show is plagiarism. And violating an author’s or publisher’s copyright can get you sued. To prevent problems, give credit where credit is due, cite sources, and attribute quotes.
You are allowed limited use of someone else’s work through the Fair Use Doctrine, which is defined by the U.S. Copyright Office as:
… permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. [U.S. law] provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.
What exactly meets the requirements for fair use is muddy; there are no objective standards as to what violates copyright. It’s left up to a court to decide if the law is broken. The office of the general counsel at Harvard, however, gives this guidance:
Copyright does not protect ideas, nor does it protect facts. It protects only the form in which ideas or facts are expressed. For example, you may read a copyrighted paper and appropriate its ideas, or facts it conveys, into your own work without violating the copyright. However, you may not reproduce the actual text of the paper (unless fair use or another exception to copyright protection applies), nor may you evade this prohibition simply by changing some words or thoroughly paraphrasing the content.
Go to the U.S. Copyright Office for more information.
READ YOUR RIGHTS
You, too, should copyright your writing.
This gives you some protection against others swiping your work and presenting it as their own. Although you automatically own the copyright to whatever you create, putting a notice on your piece is a further step to indicate you are serious about retaining your ownership.
Simply put a copyright statement on your work; the standard format is a copyright symbol (generally made by hitting option-g) followed by the year and name of the rights holder, as in © 2022 Your Name Here. When I share drafts with others, I like to put a copyright notice in the footer of a document so that it appears on every page.
For more protection, register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. It costs and takes time, but it’s a further level of safety than simply placing a copyright symbol on your piece.
If someone steals your work, you can notify the violator and ask that it be properly credited to you, or tell the party to cease using it. If your writing is valuable enough and you can’t get the thief to stop, you may have to sue to enforce your rights, which also costs.
(By the way, the above is not legal advice. I am not a lawyer or an expert on copyright. Consult an attorney if you are worried you plagiarized something or if someone took something you wrote and tried to present it as their own.)
When I struggle with a piece, I find that being truthful and authentic (Pro Tip 19)—about what happened, what I or the people I’m writing about thought and felt, and what consequences followed—improves my work. That can be difficult. It’s hard to hone honesty, particularly when you tell tales about yourself (Pro Tip 2), but it can pay off in greater reader engagement.
Ethical, effective writing comes down to what you learned from your parents, guardians, and teachers: Do the right thing.
Answering a question on Quora, former history and social studies teacher Nikki Grayestone offered this example of shameless plagiarism:
A lazy student was meant to write an essay on the Reformation [started by religious scholar Martin Luther], but decided to just Google and copy and paste. Without reading the material first, it would seem. One puzzling passage went straight from talking about Martin Luther’s life in sixteenth century Germany to his death in Memphis in 1968 [that of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.].
That warrants an F.