I was riding on the wings of a book launch, when energy and excitement are high, and the invitations for radio interviews, podcasts, and guest blog posts filled the pages of my calendar. I was delighted to have one of the most coveted (can Christians say coveted?) invitations, a guest post on a blog that’s read worldwide. I pulled an excerpt from a chapter in my book, a piece about having confidence in the sovereignty of God, even when you feel overlooked. I submitted to the editors, I got the stamp of approval, and I waited for the day it would go live. These were exciting times, my friends. Exciting times, indeed.
The morning after the post went into the world, I got an email from an author I’ve long loved, one whose writing I have studied and learned from. I was delighted to hear from her, as I’ve long read her words and tucked them into my heart. I found her work years ago, shortly after my husband died, when I was searching everywhere for guidance and any ounce of hope. This author had experienced her own dark valley of grief, and I read her words voraciously, letting her light my path through the valley. She had been a lighthouse for me. She had read my guest post and she wanted to reach out to me… but not for reasons I had hoped.
Tricia: I know what it’s like to find someone else’s words that sound so much like your own thoughts and to use them so much they begin to feel like your own. I know I’ve used other people’s words in this way, so I’m not throwing stones. But your beautiful blog post today had some very familiar-sounding words, and I wonder if you might want to either rewrite them to make them your own or attribute them as a quote?
And then she wrote the text from the blog post, and I gasped aloud and spilled my coffee across the dining room table. Those words were definitely hers. I was very accidentally, but very definitely, guilty of plagiarizing. And I was horrified. As embarrassing as it is, let me tell you what happened so I can perhaps spare you from breaking the Number One Rule of writing. Here’s what happened.
As I devoured her books so many years ago, I had quoted her in my journals, prayed her prayers in my own voice. In my silent hours of crying out to God, I had copied her passages and doodled her quotes, weaving them into my own. After all, she had given me words when I was too sad to find my own. But in my stream of consciousness journaling, I didn’t quote my sources. (Because who footnotes in the privacy of their own journals?) Years later, when it came time to write this new book, I revisited those journals that had chronicled the stages of my journey. I rediscovered words and prayers and ideas and themes, all in my handwriting. And I simply pulled from my journals, and I wrote them into a new manuscript.
Yes, she had found her words in a blog post that could be easily fixed, but the greater concern is that the blog post was an excerpt from a book. And that book was now out in the world. Such things are not as quickly fixed.
I called my agent, Greg, immediately. It happened to be on his birthday. First, I told him happy birthday, then I told him I had accidentally broken the law in a book that was out in the world. I prepared myself to be sued, to lose my credibility, and worst of all, to never write again. It felt unprofessional, and unprofessional is never something I want to be known for. I didn’t want to draw anyone’s integrity into question, certainly not mine, and definitely not my publishers’.
Greg talked me off the ledge, explained that this was an honest mistake that happens sometimes, particularly among pastors who become authors. They gather their resources from all over, they write a sermon, and then their sermons are transcribed to become book chapters, and the original sources get lost in translation. He walked me through a plan: we would write a correction on the blog post, we would make changes in future reprints of the book, and we would make changes in ebooks immediately. This mistake was not, in fact, the very end of the world or even of my career.
We offered our solution to this acclaimed author, and she was gracious in her reply. She said:
Please don’t sweat this. I know I’ve done this. In fact, I think we would both be horrified to see how much I’ve done it without realizing it because I too have been sloppy in noting where I got things. So please don’t beat yourself up. You are forgiven and free, my dear. And may the Lord give me grace to respond as graciously as you have when an error like this is pointed out to me, as I’m sure they one day will be.
She was the epitome of gentleness, forgiveness, and professional compassion. She showed me how we, a community of Christian authors, can support one another’s work and hold each other accountable. I’ve learned some hard lessons about plagiarism, gentle confrontation, grace, and footnoting everything – even in the sacred privacy of my journals.
Take it from me, my fellow writers. Even on cocktail napkins, journal pages, and fleeting scraps of paper, note your sources so you can quote your sources.