When you're submitting lots of assignments, or when you don't fully understand a topic, or when you don't want to spend the time doing comprehensive research, it's tempting to just copy a snippet of what someone else has said and claim that as your own work. It's tempting, but don't do it. As tempting as it is to take a short-cut, this is plagiarism.
Plagiarism is a pretty serious issue - it can even threaten political careers, as anyone following the news recently will know. If an assignment you submit contains plagiarised content the minimum consequence is usually that you fail that assignment, but in some circumstances people have failed to graduate, or even lost their jobs for submitting work that is not their own. Plagiarism is not worth it.
Here are three simple, practical steps you can include in your writing process that not only help avoid falling into the trap of plagiarism but also improve your writing overall.
Write Bullet Points
When researching a topic you're going to read other people's work, and you're going to take notes. A mistake a lot of people make when doing this research is to copy and paste whole passages from these sources and use them as research notes. Then when they sit down to write the assignment their notes are full of other people's words. It's hard to rephrase things in your own words when your notes are a jumble of other people's writing.
A much better way to take notes is as brief bullet points. And I mean *brief*, not even whole sentences. Try to get your notes down to the bare minimum amount of writing. This is actually beneficial for your learning, and helpful in revision, because it forces you to focus on the essentials, but it also all but ensures that your final copy won't be copy and pasted from the sources you referenced. When you expand from your notes you will have to generate original sentences because your notes are so minimal.
You may want to include a reference as well, so that you can go back and check the source. This helps you to build up your bibliography and your inline citations.
This approach also makes it very easy to reorganise your research notes into a writing plan, which brings us to...
Plan Your Writing
Whether you are writing an essay, or a report, or a research assignment, always have a writing plan. It makes your writing clearer and better organised, but it helps to avoid plagiarism.
Plagiarism isn't just about the words you use. If you take the structure of someone else's writing, keeping the same points and organisation, and simply rephrase it, that's plagiarism. And it's really easy to slip into the trap of using someone else's structure if you've just read their writing, and you straight away start writing yourself. You're probably going to organise your points and your thoughts in the same way as they did.
A great way to avoid this is to take your research notes and arrange them into logical sections based on the argument you want to make. The process of organising your points will result in a better assignment, but it also means the structure of your writing will be original, and yours.
This will also give you a great chance to bring together all the different sources you have read, which is why you should...
Leave Time for Research
If you only use one source for your research, your chances of plagiarising it increase simply because your knowledge is drawn exclusively from one source. The main reason people skimp on their research is because they don't leave sufficient time for it. In many cases research could be seen as a whole task unto itself. It's not just a part of the writing process.
In fact it's often a good idea to do your research, taking short bullet point notes, and then take a break to do something else before returning to organise those points into a writing plan. This gives you time to think over the research you've done and approach your notes with fresh eyes, evaluating the evidence you've gathered, spotting any gaps in your argument, and then coming up with an approach that suits the argument you want to make, rather than just reflecting the most recent research you've read.
These are three practical steps you can take to avoid falling into the trap of plagiarism in your writing. And as an added bonus these steps will also improve your writing. So avoid the temptation to take short-cuts and instead allow time for proper research, condense your research notes into brief bullet points, and organise your notes into a writing plan before you start work on your next assignment.