The first paper I ever wrote was about the digestive system. I think I was about 9 years old. I didn’t quite understand that “writing a paper” meant using my own words. I checked out a library book and copied its contents word for word. I even traced the book’s cute illustrations in the margins of my notebook paper.
To this day I remember all the organs of the digestive system, so maybe copying helped me learn the topic. I copied so many poems and Bible verses in my notebook, way before I wrote my first personal journal entry. I think I would have liked being a monk whose job is to transcribe texts.
By the time I was in high school I knew plagiarism was wrong. When it came to school papers however, I struggled to come up with my own words organically. So I developed a sneaky little system for writing assignments. Let’s say I was writing a book report about The Grapes of Wrath.
First I’d read the book. Then I’d Google it, because what the heck did I just read? This would lead me down a trail of Wikipedia articles. Any snippet that caught my eye, I’d copy and paste into a document.
Once I rearranged the chunks of copied text until they merged into something sensible, I would reword everything by looking up synonyms for all the big words. Finally I would sprinkle in a few choice quotations from the book itself.
Flawless, right? I cruised along with this method until my senior year of high school.
That year, my education was a variety pack. Homeschool mostly, plus some classes at a community college. (Now I’m back at that same community college getting my ECE certificate while Sung does the firefighter program)
I was also able to enroll in a literature class at the university in our town. I was excited to take this class because reading was my strongest subject. The professor was nice enough to let me join the class and I was eager to impress him.
Our textbook was a three-volume anthology and I would lug all three volumes to each lecture and arrange them on my desk. I diligently raised my hand for maximum participation. Looking back, I must have been insufferable to the actual college students who were not nearly as eager as I was for 8am group discussions.
For our final paper, I procrastinated out of nervousness. We’d had all semester, but there I was, the night before the due date, still trying to unscramble my thesis. Scraps from all over the internet were jumbled together in an unwieldy document.
I frantically typed on my phone as I hid under my bed covers, because it was way past my bedtime. By 4am my paper seemed to be untangled and reworded enough. I genuinely felt good as I submitted it through the online portal. Oh, how oblivious I was.
A week after the class ended, I was in the car with my family on the way to church. An email notification popped up on my phone. It was from my professor. No subject, no body text, just one attachment: a PDF of the student code of ethics.
My heart sank to my feet. I wasn’t quite sure what the email meant, but I knew something was very wrong.
Yep, my sloppiness had caught up to me. The professor had caught my plagiarism. He gave me a D in the class instead of an F because, “you’re still in high school, but let this be a lesson to you.” I was mortified. I almost wished he had failed me, because that’s what I deserved.
From that day forward, I said goodbye to my copy and paste method and my thesaurus overuse. It had been comforting to mimic others because I was insecure about my own writing ability. However, I was far more paranoid about plagiarizing again. I realized I won’t run the risk of stealing other people’s words if I never duplicate them in the first place.
So that’s the story of how I learned to always use my own words, even when I don’t feel like they’re as good as the words of others.
Guess what: it’s okay to be a bad writer, as long as you’re bad in your own original way.🙂