September 13th, 2021

Copycat's Anatomy #2

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Written by Rebecca van Laer

Note: At Copycat, we’re always in the process of creating new professional development resources for working and aspiring copywriters. The below blog post is adapted from our in-house manual on all things copy-related, Copycat’s Anatomy. 

Understanding Plagiarism & Planning Your Outline


As a copywriter, you know that you can’t incorporate phrases, sentences, or paragraphs from another source without accurately attributing and citing them.

But it’s normal to have other questions, like:

  • Is it okay to use my words across two articles?
  • Can I copy technical specs or definitions from elsewhere on the client’s site?

And, if you’re struggling to understand a particular topic or outline your article, you might also wonder:

  • Can I borrow the structure of another piece as long as my language is different?

Spoiler alert—the answers to these questions are no, no, and no. But today, we’re here to offer an in-depth explanation of the reasons behind this imperative and provide you with resources to write wholly original outlines that outshine competing links.

Ready for Copycat's Anatomy #2? 

The Problem With Plagiarism in Copy


Your copy might not appear in peer-reviewed journals, but at Copycat, we uphold academic standards of plagiarism and citation.

Why?

  • If one of our blogs contains content that appears elsewhere on the web, Google can flag the company for spam and hinder their entire content strategy (or in some cases, the entire company's website). This is obviously a nightmare scenario.

  • Tempted to use ‘your’ words for two different clients? Remember, you’re a contractor providing a service. If you give Pepsi and Coke the same copy, you’ve made a serious mistake. Cue the scary music.

  • This goes for duplicate content across the company’s own blog posts, too. That means you can’t use the same outro for two blogs in the same batch. Please, don’t go down that dark path!

Needless to say, word-for-word plagiarism is unacceptable.

Wondering how many words you can borrow?

While common phrases that appear millions of times in search results are unavoidable, strings of 3+ words pulled from a competing article are enough to give our editorial team pause. We don’t want to spend our time comparing your copy against Google results, so please, put borrowed phrases between quotation marks (and footnote them).

Or, even better, use your own words.

Beyond Word-for-Word Plagiarism


Okay, so you can’t copy-and-paste. Problem solved, right?

Unfortunately, we once must again say no.

Beyond word-for-word plagiarism, there are a few other kinds of pernicious borrowing that call your integrity into question. These include:

  • Patch Writing – Patch writing is the process of pasting sources into a document with the intention of tweaking the grammar and syntax to (narrowly) avoid word-for-word plagiarism. Patch writing is never a good approach to writing articles for Copycat, as these adapted passages can easily trigger the same spam filters as word-for-word plagiarism. If you’re not putting concepts in your own words, you’re doing it wrong.

  • Structural Plagiarism – Structural plagiarism is an even slyer use of web sources. Usually, it involves taking the structure of another article and filling it with similar information (albeit using different diction and syntax). 

To that end, any of the below can be considered as structural plagiarism. 

  • A bulleted list of items in the same order as a competitor presented them (even if the titles have been tweaked).

  • A progression of headings or subheadings in same order as a source, whether a scientific article or an SEO blog (yes, even if the syntax is different).

  • A paragraph section that presents information, examples, and definitions in the same order as another source.

While structural plagiarism may not show up in search engines, it’s just as serious as other forms of plagiarism (at least from our perspective). It makes content feel stale, run-of-the-mill, and worst of all, low-effort.

Long story short? Every article you write should be unique from every other source on the web. That means it should have:

  • Different overarching organization
  • Different paragraph structure
  • Different bullet structure
  • Different syntax
  • Different word choice

Okay... But How?! Outlining.


Patchwriting and borrowing are never the secret behind an outstanding piece of copy.

Instead, the key is honing your outlining process to harness your intuition, showcase your creativity, and create your own rubric for a logical progression.

If you’ve never used an outline before—well, congratulations! You’ve gotten this far, and you’re clearly doing something right when it comes to organizing your thoughts and splashing words on the page.

For most of us mortals, outlines are a necessary step of the writing process, especially when approaching an unfamiliar topic.

But there’s a dirty little secret to the trade of copywriting—you don’t need to write your entire outline before you start your article. Instead, try out these tips and tricks for outlining:

#1 Outlining and brainstorming can go hand in hand. Before you even start researching, try brainstorming in the form of an outline, adding H2s, H3s, and bullet points as you go. Make notes on what you might need to research.

#2 Outline in progressive stages. Ever created a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious outline to end all outlines, so long that it got you 60% of the way to your final word count?

    How much of that outline did you actually end up filling in?

    We thought so.

Rather than planning out the entire article in advance, consider aiming to outline one-half or one-third of the article. As you begin to fill it in, you’ll start to spark new ideas. Go ahead and add them to the outline as they pop up!

#3 As you research, fill in your outline. Found a great definition you want to use or rephrase? Plop it into the outline and highlight it in yellow (to remind yourself not to plagiarize). Realize there’s a definition or question you need to explore more in-depth? Add it as an H3.

#4 Reverse outline to check for logic and redundancies. Reading through your H2s and H3s should tell a progressive story. Look at them from a birds-eye view after completing your first draft of the article. If you notice that two are actually on the same topic, there may be an opportunity to combine the sections. If there’s a definition in the penultimate section that would actually clarify the entire article, it might work better as your first heading after the intro.

Copywriting, Demystified


At Copycat, we love to say that copywriting is both an art and a science. But there’s one element that should never be part of your lab setup—plagiarism.

In contrast, writing a stellar outline can serve as the scaffold for your own creative flourishes.

We’re here to pull back the curtain on the most effective strategies for copywriting. Are you losing your footing in your writing process? Writing pieces that seem to fizzle rather than flame?

Keep your eyes peeled for our monthly Copycat’s Anatomy posts, or email hr@copycatcopywriters.com to subscribe to our writer newsletter where we send out monthly tips and tricks to help elevate your craft.

Sources: 

Xavier University. Patch writing. https://libguides.xavier.edu/c.php?g=1004286&p=7487594

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