April 13, 2006

On writing-4: The role of originality

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 in the series.)

So why do people end up sometimes plagiarizing? There are many reasons. Apart from the few who deliberately set out to do it because they are too lazy to do any actual writing of their own and lack any compunction about plagiarizing, I believe most end up doing it out of fear that they expected to say something that is interesting, original, and well written, usually (in the case of classroom assignments) about topics that they have little or no interest in.

This is a highly inflated and unrealistic expectation. I doubt that more than a few college or high school teacher really expect a high level of originality in response to classroom assignments, though that does not mean one should not try to achieve it.

A misplaced emphasis on originality creates unrealistic expectations that can cause insecure writers to plagiarize. I think that students who end up plagiarizing make the mistake of thinking that they must start by coming up with an original idea. Few people (let alone students who usually have very little writing experience) can reach such a high standard of originality. This is why they immediately hit a wall, lose a lot of time trying to get an idea, and in desperation end up plagiarizing by finding others who have said something interesting or relevant and "borrowing" their work. But since they want the reader to think that they have done the writing, they sometimes hide the borrowing by means of the 'pointless paraphrase' I wrote about previously.

Originality in ideas is often something that emerges from the writing and is not prior to the writing. A blindingly original idea may sometimes strike you, but this will be rare even for the most gifted and original writers. Instead, what you will usually find is a kind of incremental originality that emerges naturally out of the act of writing, where you are seemingly doing the mundane task of putting together a clear piece of writing using other people's (cited) ideas. If you are writing about things that interest you, then you will be surprised to find that the very act of writing brings about something original, where you discover new relationships between old ideas.

As an instructor, what I am really looking for in student writing is something that just meets the single criterion of being well written. As for being interesting, all I want is to see that at least the writer is interested in the topic, and the evidence for that takes the form of the writer making the effort to try and convince the reader of the writer's point of view. This seems like a modest goal but if followed can lead to pretty good writing.

In my experience, the most important thing is for writers to be interested enough in the topic that they want to say something about it, so the first condition for good writing is that the writer must care about the topic. The second condition is that the writer cares enough about it to want to make the reader care too. Once these two factors are in place, originality (to a greater or lesser degree) follows almost automatically from them.

It took me a long time to understand this. I had never written much in the earlier stages of my career (apart from scientific papers) because I was waiting for great new ideas to strike me, ideas that never came. But there came a time when I felt that a topic I cared a lot about (the nature of science) was one in which the point of view I held was not being articulated clearly enough by others. I began writing about it, not because I had an original idea, but because I felt a need to synthesize the ideas of many others into a simpler, more clearly articulated, position that I felt was missing from the discussion. In the process of creating that synthesis, some papers and my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs emerged. What turned out to be original (at least slightly) in them was the application of the ideas of certain classical philosophers and historians of science to the contemporary science-religion debate, something that I had not had in mind when I started writing. That feature emerged from the writing.

My second book The Achievement gap in US education: Canaries in the mine followed that same pattern. I was very concerned about what I felt were great misunderstandings about the causes of the achievement gap between black and white students in the US and how to deal with it. I felt that my experience and interests in science and education and politics and learning theory put me in a good position where I could bring ideas from these areas together. I did not have anything really original in mind when I started writing but whatever is original in the book emerged from the act of writing, the attempt to create a synthesis.

The same applies to these blog entries. I write about the things I care about, trying to make my point clear, without seeking to be original. After all, who can come up with original ideas five times per week? But very often I find that I have written things that I had not thought about prior to the writing.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Is there no end to the deception?

One of the amazing things about they current administration is how brazen they are about misleading the public. The latest is that President Bush rushed to declare that "We have found [Iraq's] weapons of mass destruction" in the form of mobile biological weapons laboratories, even while some intelligence investigators were finding that there was nothing to that charge.

The defense being offered by the administration's spokespersons that these negative findings had not reached the president makes no sense. Before making a serious charge, it is the President and his staff's responsibility to check what information is being gathered and processed. To shoot off his mouth when there was no urgency to do so is to be irresponsible at best and deceitful at worst.

Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly is maintaining a list of the more egregious examples of things the administration knew were not true or for which there were serious doubts, but went ahead and declared them as 'facts' anyway, to justify decisions that they had already made about attacking Iraq.

He is up to #8 and there is no reason to think that the list will not keep growing.


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I know that your postings by and large elicit different points of view and subsequent discussion from your readers as opposed to comments of appreciation (that is prevalent in many blogs). But then I could not help letting you know that I immensely enjoyed your series on Writing and the recent one on Atheism and Agnosticism. Thank you for being such an inspiration to us all.

Posted by Arvin on April 13, 2006 12:55 PM

Thanks a lot for your kind words, Arvin!

Posted by Mano Singham on April 17, 2006 12:59 PM