Reasons Why Plagiarism is OK when you’re Stuck for Ideas

Sometimes, plagiarism can be OK.  Heard of the term ‘writer’s block’? Yes it’s that moment when you’re completely stuck and the creative juices haven’t merely stopped flowing but have completely congealed, it’s times like this when you need some way of getting things moving again. Being a plagiarist is one way of clearing the blockage.

Yes, yes, I know! Generally speaking, plagiarism is a very bad thing. I’m not suggesting that you go out and copy someone else’s work and try and pass it off as your own. Just so that we’re clear, that kind of blatant plagiarism is very bad!

What is plagiarism?

An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorisation and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

What is OK is to use other people’s work as a springboard for your own thoughts and ideas.

  1. We all stand on the shoulders of giants

When Archimedes cried “Eureka!” in his bath as he understood the principles of volume opposed to weight, he simply worked from known principles to solve a problem. Similarly, when he invented the screw-pump he took existing components and put them together in a new way, solving the problem of how to efficiently raise water from one level to a higher one.

Amazingly, the screw-pump is still in use today. Engineers have used this simple but elegant device as the basis for their own innovations and improvements to solve a variety of new problems from shifting volumes of grains to generating electricity. Some of these applications Archimedes could not have possibly foreseen.

Plagiarism can be OK: A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see further than the giant himself (Robert Burton)
A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see further than the giant himself

In the same way, by taking a few basic ideas from two or three other people and combining them in new ways, we can create something new and unique. A lot of what we do at Clearly Talking is like this. Most of what we teach has been done before in one way or another. What is different is the way that we approach the subject.

  1. Engaging in a dialogue

Going back to dear old Archimedes and his “Eureka!” cry of discovery. This wasn’t a random discovery: he had been asked to solve a tricky problem. A crown had been made for King Hiero II but it was suspected that the goldsmith had substituted some silver, which is less dense but also a lot cheaper.

They already had the means of weighing an object but not for measuring density. As Archimedes lowered himself into his bath he noticed the displacement of water and made the connection. The ratio between the object’s volume and its weight gives its density, a key indicator of purity[1]. Archimedes could correctly determine that the goldsmith had indeed tried to defraud the king by substituting the cheaper but less dense metal.

The point is that it was necessary to engage in a dialogue, initially with King Hiero II to understand the problem, and then to investigate possible solutions, probably by discussion with other learned individuals in and around Syracuse where the account takes place. By discussing the various existing approaches and possible new ones, we can often come up with something that no one has spotted before.

  1. Thinking outside our box

From time to time we all get stuck in our thinking about some particular topic. We become constrained by our own. The solutions we arrive at seem trite, stale or repetitive.

Thanks to the Internet, we have access to such a wealth of information that there really is no need to ever get stuck again. It says in the ‘good book’ that there is nothing new under the sun. In other words someone somewhere is bound to have come up with something that will push or pull you out of the rut.

It doesn’t have to be a radically different perspective. It could just be a word or phrase that you haven’t considered before. A headline or a subheading might give you an idea for your own article. I find this a particularly useful approach when I’m trying to think of a series of articles and topics. I sometimes get tunnel vision and can’t see anything else. However, a quick trawl of the Internet on Google with a few key words and I’ve got some starting points.

  1. Making it your own – with credits 🙂

Always make a subject your own. If you do lean heavily on someone else’s ideas, make sure that you credit them. As an author, it is flattering to be quoted or referenced. Someone quoted something I said ages ago on Facebook this morning: I felt honoured.

Blatant copying and trying to pass that off as your own is very bad. However, using someone else’s thoughts as a springboard for yours is what it’s all about: we can develop a dialogue and stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us.

Want to find out more about creative thinking approaches to unlock your public speaking potential? Drop me a line or come to our monthly Meetup (

Robert Williams
Voice & Speech Coach
Clearly Talking Melbourne
December 2015

[1] Thanks to Wikipedia for the information on Archimedes.