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Plagiarism 101

Although professors frequently decry the act of plagiarism, they often fail to give students a clear sense of how this fatal misstep can be avoided.  This miscommunication happens, not because faculty members are purposely trying to create barriers to student success, but rather, because of widely held misconceptions about what students actually understand about the writing process. This is to say, that professors often wrongly assume that students already have a comprehensive understanding of what types of writing practices they should pursue and avoid.

In their efforts to clear up some of the common misunderstandings surrounding the use of the term, the Council of Writing Program Administrators seems to complicate the issue even more. In their terms, plagiarism occurs when, “a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source.”  Unfortunately, though this definition might work for certain students, there is little definitive consensus when it comes to the use of the terms like deliberate or common knowledge, and when trying to figure out what it ultimately means to acknowledge a source.  That is, this definition seems to confuse and complicate more than it helps.

Though there is still much disagreement about how we might most effectively define plagiarism, there is little dispute about the steps that students can take to avoid such problems:

First, when compiling research, try to keep a detailed list of material that you have consulted. Make sure that you record all relevant information you will need to create a Works Cited page (author, date, title, publisher, year, etc.), so that you won’t have to look up these resources minutes before submitting your paper. Considering that, in our experience, students tend to rush this part of the assignment this preliminary step will help you avoid omitting important information.

When it comes to actually importing source material into your own document, make sure that you are paying specific attention to the way that you use this information.  Anytime you find yourself copying another person’s material word-for-word, quote this information, place a parenthetical (internal) citation after that sentence, and include it in the list of citations that you feature at the end of your document. Further, make sure that you are using the appropriate format (MLA or APA) when citing, so there is no confusion about where you got the material from.

More often than not, you should try to put the information that you are referencing in your own terms (Please keep in mind that you will still need to cite this information using the steps that we mention above).  If you chose to paraphrase, make sure that the words that you use accurately reflect what the author you are referencing is trying to convey. Otherwise, you could be grossly misrepresenting the work of other writers.

Finally, remember that, as with most features of writing, there is a dramatic curve when it comes to learning about the effective use of resource material. If you are struggling and think that you may risk plagiarizing in your text, consult an expert. Make an appointment at the Writing Center or talk with your Professor directly.

Help Your Tutor Help You!

Thinking about scheduling an appointment at the Writing Center? Nervous or confused about the process? Below, you will find a list of four suggestions designed to help you get the most out of your tutoring experience:

1. Try to be comprehensive - Make sure you come to the Writing Center completely prepared. That is, try to bring as much material that you think will be relevant to the tutoring session as possible, such as early drafts of papers or personal correspondence with professors. This material will help us quickly figure out which issues to address first and will give us a clear sense of what mistakes you may have been making in earlier drafts.

2. Show up on time – It is hard to get the most from a tutoring session that you fail to attend. Considering that only fifty minutes (at most!) are available to each student, it is imperative that you show up early and are ready to devote your undivided attention to the process.

3. Make a list of questions/concerns - To help give your tutor a better sense of where to start, it might be helpful for you to create a list of questions or concerns that you have about a particular assignment. Remember, the less time the tutor spends trying to decipher what you need, the more time you will have to carefully scrutinize your work.

4. Treat tutors and writing center staff with respect - Writing can be a frustrating experience. We understand this. While you are in the Writing Center, we encourage you to remain attentive and speak respectfully. Turn off your cell phone and take some notes. It is in our best interest to make sure that you succeed as a writer. Show the staff respect and you will benefit immensely.

Keeping it Short…

When it comes to writing applications for graduate school or letters to potential employers, students are often surprised to find that much of what they’ve learned about the writing process ceases to apply. That is, personal statements, resumes, business letters, and other preliminary forms of formal communication require students to master (or at least fake) a genre of writing that is a far cry from the lengthy research papers they’ve written throughout their college career.  Though this type of writing has its place, students must learn to prioritize different elements and, ultimately, to consider the demands of a different audience–busy business professionals. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly.

Experience shows that, in the case of personal statements, most students struggle with the prospect of condensing a lifetime worth of personal and professional experience into a page or two of information.  Employers and school administrators further complicate this issue by asking questions that are frequently cumbersome and, considering the spatial limitations that they enforce, seem impossible to answer comprehensively. The sooner a student realizes that this is the case, the easier their work will be.

Unfortunately, owing to little experience with this genre of writing, the tendency is for students to try to condense as much information as they can into the page that they have been afforded. In trying to write about everything, it seems that we fail to write anything at all. Realizing that this type of writing presents a serious (and stressful) challenge to writers of every ilk, we’ve come up with five pointers to help with the process:

1. Feature the important stuff first – In writing class most of us were taught to save the bigger and more substantial points for later in the paper. Though this is good advice generally, as it gives us more space to elaborate larger issues, this is hardly the case when it comes to a personal statement. Put yourself in the shoes of the faculty responsible for evaluating all of the many statements that arrive at their school. In a perfect world, faculty would read over each statement carefully, scrutinizing every detail while paying particular attention to the intricacies and subtle flourishes of language that we celebrate as readers and writers. In the real world, admission committees are overburdened. Stacks of personal statements pile higher and higher. The clock begins ticking, and committee members struggle to find a way of reading through all of the papers in a reasonable amount of time. What this means is that those responsible for granting admission, spend very little time with each document. If you leave your most crucial insights to the second page of your personal statement, you can be assured that this information will receive very little (if any!) attention.

2. Keep the heroics to a minimum – Odds are, your mother thinks you are the greatest person currently walking this earth. But, you can believe that a mother’s pride doesn’t always translate very nicely in the case of personal statements. Just because you can think of seven different situations wherein you saved another person’s life or had a profound and paradigm shifting realization, doesn’t mean you should include them all. Stick with a few instances that demonstrate your greatest skills or qualities and spend your time detailing these.

3. Nobody likes a bragger – Although it is important that you show some pride in your work and that you play up your good qualities, avoid going overboard. One can be assured that in a batch of 500 medical school applicants, nearly 450 students will write about having saved a life (or two!). This type of narrative gets old real quick. Alternatively, consider detailing a less obvious and more believable event. This will give you the chance to demonstrate that you’ve thought long and hard about your reasons for entering the program and that you can reflect on this decision by talking about basic life experiences.

4. Write for your crowd – Try to include some information about the school to which you are applying. This will show the admission committee that you’ve taken the time to write a statement with their school in mind. Remember, we like to read about our own successes in as much as you like detailing yours.

5. Keep it short – In the case of personal statements, brevity is key. Nothing is worse than a statement that exceeds the suggested length. Read through early drafts carefully, eliminating  unnecessarily wordy sections. Believe us, readers will thoroughly appreciate this attention to detail.

Writing a Business Letter

Properly formatting a Business Letter can be trying, to say the very least. To help, we’ve created a list of six simple steps that will guide you through the process:

1. Write out the date you completed the letter (ex: August 6, 2010) two inches from the top of the first page. Generally, you should left justify this information but, depending on the format you are using, you might also align this information at the center of the page using the tab key.

2. Immediately below the date, provide the Sender’s Address (optional – include only the street address, city and zip code) as well as the Inside Address (use the sender’s formal title followed by the full postal address). For women, if you are unsure of their relationship status, use the title Ms.

3. The Salutation immediately follows the Inside Address. Left-justify and follow by a colon in all cases. If you are unsure of the recipient’s gender or title, write a nonsexist salutation such as, “To Whom it May Concern.”

4. The Body of your paper should start four spaces below the salutation. Left justify and single-space each paragraph. Leave a single space between each paragraph.

5. Begin the Closing one space after the last body paragraph. Capitalize the first word only and place a comma after the salutation. Skip four spaces (leaving room for the Sender’s signature) and print out the Sender’s name.

6. If you have any Enclosures to include, skip a space and type them out below the closing. Simply list the name of each element that you are including in the envelope.

Video Tutorials

The Wayne State Writing Center is in the process of creating a number of video tutorials that will be available here in the coming weeks. In an effort to produce helpful material on a variety of subjects, we’ve decided to get the creative juices flowing with a contest. We would like to encourage students, professors, and others to get involved in the process by creating videos that we might use to teach students different skills.

Are you particularly good at writing, creating Powerpoint presentations, or using research databases like Project Muse? Do you have experience that others might find helpful? Here’s your chance to demonstrate your skills. Create a brief tutorial (no longer than 3 minutes) that highlights your talent.  Upload this content to Youtube or Vimeo and post the link as a comment below. We will feature the three best videos on both of the Writing Center’s two main websites, and will use them to explain difficult concepts in tutoring sessions.

This is your chance to show us what you’ve learned.

Locating Useful Resources

Writer’s often find the task of locating useful resource material challenging, to say the very least.  With veritable libraries of information available to students online, questions arise (a) as to the validity of internet source material, and (b) as to the the best method for approaching the task of locating “academic” sources.  This task is made exceedingly difficulty by the nature of online archives, which can often be burdensome and poorly organized; making one’s experience while trying to find relevant information tedious, difficult, and time-consuming.  In an effort to address some of the more basic problems we see students facing at the Wayne State Writing Center, we’ve created the following brief overview of research tips, followed by a short list of links to valuable archives:

Finding What You Need:

Before you actually start perusing online archives, it seems important that you have a clear sense of what you are trying to locate and how you will use that information in the context of your work.  This is to say, that although we often stumble upon useful sources, the task of conducting research becomes easier and more productive when we have a clear understanding of (a) what types of sources we plan on using (i.e. journal articles, books, magazines, periodicals, dissertation material), (b) what themes, topics, or issues direct our work, and (c) what kind of information we need to locate (i.e. statistics, ethnographic studies, critical theory, etc.).  In fact, an important part of planning to write a paper, is developing a better understanding of what materials will benefit that paper most.  This is, as will become clear below, a matter of understanding that the first resources that we find are not always the best resources, and that finding material that fits appropriately is a matter of careful and attentive consideration.  Before you get started searching online, try to respond to the issues addressed above.

Finding “Academic” Sources:

Once you have a clear sense of what you are looking for, you can begin thinking about how to locate information.  Although many of us are familiar with search engines like Google, Bing, and our libraries’ basic book catalogues, many lack a working knowledge of other useful archives.  When it comes to academic work, although Google may begin to lead you in the right direction, search pages are often crowded with material that is considered less than academic and that can be a major impediment to the expediency or efficiency of the search process.  For useful alternatives to more mainstream search engines, University libraries provide a variety of journal and article databases that are, for the most part, completed devoted to academic research and publishing.  This means that searches in these databases turn out more helpful or useful information, effectively filtering non-academic material.

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