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  • Writer's pictureeschuylersmith

Professionalism: A Personal Definition

Thoughts on plagiarism, personal work ethics, and giant broccoli monsters.

I am a professional writer. The reason I’m a writer is that I love the work. The reason I’m a professional is that I can make it work for you.

The Pitfalls of Professional Paranoia

But I didn’t always view it that way. Writers have a tendency to be protective, even secretive about their work. We fear missing out on the credit for our labors. It isn’t much of a problem for chefs or musicians, who must share what they do in order to be recognized. Even other solitary creatives like artists, who can work in a vacuum until the unveiling, are afforded some protection against imitators by their own technique and talent. Indeed, all of these employments I’ve mentioned involve doing highly skilled work that could be, at some stage in the process, ripped off, copied, or taken for granted. Yet the difficulty of their execution often speaks for itself. Copycats seldom succeed twice. Stealing a brilliant song or taking credit for a gourmet meal I didn’t cook isn’t going to advance my career much overall. Any success resulting from such theft is fleeting.

So why are writers so cagey? We are cagey, indeed, so much so that we had to invent a dirty word—plagiarism—to give name to the evil we fear. The thing is that writing well can be a difficult task, and the effort of getting the right words in the right order speaks to this. The rub is that once you know which words work well in what order, it doesn’t take much talent or effort to reproduce the effect (unlike a perfectly seared steak, or a jamming solo). Anyone can take credit for work that isn’t theirs, but writers often feel especially vulnerable.

Copycats, an Education

I was in the second grade when I first ran afoul of plagiarism. Every week we wrote in our journals and shared our work with the class. There were no statutes as to genre or subject, we simply had to come up with something that we could read aloud. So while most kids tended to share what went on in their home life or their last vacation, I started writing stories. That was fine. Then other kids started writing stories. Actually, they started writing mine.

Similarities were vague at first, but the trends were disturbing. Characters emerged with names that rhymed with my own protagonists’. I became (without appreciating it) a tastemaker of genre (would that I could accomplish that feat today). If I wrote a story about a detective cat, there would be an entire pet store of animals solving crimes in his wake. The incident that finally got my goat actually centered on a lizard. He was a knight in armor who fought a broccoli monster at the king’s banquet. Failing with the conventional arms of knife and fork, he did vanquish his foe with yon ketchup. And then in came ye olde copycats. My plagiarists had gotten pretty bold by this point, and when a story followed the next week in which a cat in knight’s armor battled a cookie monster, I decided to take the matter to court.

“Relax,” my second grade teacher told me. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The Upshot

Let no one say that academic standards have grown lax, because I knew in my marrow what a crock they were back then. It bothered me quite a bit at the time, but I’ve learned to let these things go. Right. Anyway, when it comes to writing, ideas are cheap. I’m sure you’ll want to write your own animal-knight’s tale where the hero vanquishes some unsavory foodstuff with a condiment, and ship the whole thing off to a children’s publisher forthwith. The fact is, I’ve come to realize that the industry is crawling with people who think they can do just that, and self-publishing platforms have only made the situation more ridiculous. There is no shortage of self-proclaimed “authors” lurking on freelance platforms waiting to recruit ghostwriters for their surefire book ideas. Good luck with that. Or not.

What Makes a Pro?

Concepts don’t make a professional, consistency does. In a world of imitators, you can’t beat the real thing. It doesn’t matter if you can do something once and get credit for it. That just makes you lucky. It’s making the shot again that makes you a pro.

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