Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hey, That's My Idea!

Plagiarism is a big deal, and it has become further complicated by the pervasiveness of apparently everything on the Internet. Not only are courtrooms full of plagiarism cases, but so are classrooms. My wife, a language arts teacher in a middle school, spends considerable time warning her sixth-grade students on the ramifications of plagiarism and coaches them on the techniques for avoiding it. High school and college teachers have also told me that plagiarism is on the rise, thanks to the ease with which students can cut and paste original materials from reliable websites.

I have an interesting story of my own about plagiarism. Once I received a phone call in my New Jersey home from a University of Colorado English professor. The following conversation occurred.

Professor: Are you the Philip Vassallo who authored the article "Beware the Seven Deadly Sins of Tone" for the journal ETC.?

Phil: Yes.

Professor: Does it begin like this: More than ever, people from a wide range of industries comment on tone issues cropping up in the writing of their teammates, managers, subordinates, clients, or vendors. When writers “sound” inappropriately critical, comical, chimerical, or cantankerous, their readers immediately sense the tone problem and begin building emotional barriers between themselves and the content the writers intend to deliver. For most on-the-job situations the context matters as much as the content; therefore, the
writers’ style (how they say something) is as important as the message (what they say).

Phil: Yes.

Professor: Just as I thought.

Phil: Why do you ask?

Professor: For an assigned class essay, one of my students lifted this and other entire paragraphs of your article verbatim without attributing your article as a source.

Phil: Oh. That's too bad.

Professor: And she's an English major, no less, who expects to graduate after this semester.

Phil: What will you do?

Professor: Move to have her expelled from the university.

Phil: Wow! That seems harsh for a dumb mistake.

Professor: Her only dumb mistake is that she thought she wouldn't be caught. But her choice to plagiarize was conscious, calculated, and criminal.

Phil: Don't you think just failing her for the course is punishment enough?

Professor: Not for such a blatant disregard of scholarly protocol and copyright law.

I managed to convince the professor that a course failure resulting in a graduation postponement and a make-up summer course was punishment suiting the crime, but today I'm inclined to agree with her immediate reaction. Obtaining quality information online about virtually any topic is so easy these days, so teachers have a right to demand from their students a creative interpretation of those sources.

The problem, of course, is that the availability of sources on the Internet makes creativity doubly challenging for inexperienced writers. For this reason, I recommend that students review the best practices for avoiding plagiarism on

My book The Art of E-mail Writing is on sale at Amazon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dealing with Rejection

When I ran a writers' group in the Sayreville Public Library many years ago, the fear of rejection was the most common worry I heard from members. No one seemed half as concerned about the quality of their story or, for that matter, receiving constructive criticism.

I suppose this fear of rejection is understandable. Beginning writers cannot fathom how all those hours of unleashing their talent, those moments of loosing their innermost secrets, and those eternities of extricating their very soul could result in such a thoughtless, heartless "No thanks."

Becoming a serious writer, however, means getting accustomed to rejection. The most famous authors the world over have had far more than their fair share of manuscript rejections, as this article by the Gotham Writers' Workshop so clearly shows. The first three tips in the article—laugh at your rejections, learn from your rejections, and always have a new project in the works—have composed my mantra for a quarter-century.

Just as the sages have proclaimed, “Better to have lost love than never to have loved or been loved,” wise writers would agree that it is better to have a manuscript rejected than not to have written one at all.

My book How to Write Fast Under Pressure is on sale through AMACOM Books.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ray Bradbury on Writing

Ray Bradbury, one of the most prolific writers in literary history, knows heaps about the the creative writing process and the writer's craft. Now 90 years old, Bradbury still remains an active author. On YouTube, he speaks engagingly and profoundly about his early influences and not giving up as a writer. Aspiring writers should check in with these and many other Bradbury interviews.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Tweeting about Inspiration

Keep an eye on my Twitter updates to see a list of artists, musicians, composers, film directors, poets, dramatists, screenwriters, essayists, novelists, and public speakers who have inspired me throughout my life. All of the arts have an impact on the creative process, so I hope you'll think of your own artistic inspirations. (I've already posted the artists, musicians, and composers, and the other seven categories will follow.) I provide links to these influential contributors to our minds and culture, so you can judge for yourself whether you too would find them inspirational.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Try Virtual Training!

Sometimes the best way to do research is to be the subject of your own research—and I'm pleased to say that I like the results.

Tomorrow I will end a four-week virtual writing class for the American Management Association. It ran on Tuesday afternoons for three hours using an AdobeConnect platform. We had people tuning in from coast to coast and as far away as Greece. The technology makes for engaging lectures, robust class participation, and relevant writing and editing activities. This is the third training organization for which I've done an online training program over the past decade, so I have seen quite an evolution in the quality of real-time instruction available to learners.

I wholeheartedly endorse this program to anyone not willing or able to invest the time and money involved in traveling to a training center for such a course. Feel free to check in if you have questions about this virtual training class.

You can purchase any of my books on sale at Amazon.