Quality Books and How to Detect Plagiarism When Editing

You can’t edit quality into a book, you can only edit out problems. This is equally true whether you are editing yourself or manuscripts you’ve acquired for publication. If this strikes you as self evident, it’s not always the rule at large trade publishers where acquisitions editors or contract editors are often asked to turn piles of words into quality books. Unless the editor rewrites the book from scratch, the best you can hope for starting with an average manuscript is an average commercial title. Quality books can only be developed from quality manuscripts, and when you start with a quality manuscript, the best way to preserve quality is to do as little editing as possible.

Plagiarism breaks down into two basic categories, one of which is easy for an editor to detect and the other which is practically impossible. The first category of plagiarism, which is tough for an editor to detect, is the type that results from laziness or sloppiness on the part of a knowledgeable and competent author. This is also the type of plagiarism you’re most likely to see in the news, because some very prominent academics and commercial historians suffer from either laziness or sloppiness. The lazy form of plagiarism comes about when authors do too light a rewrite of material that fits in well with their own theme because they’re just too lazy to rethink and reword it in an original manner. The sloppiness form of plagiarism comes about when authors get confused between notes they’ve taken and verbatim quotes, and accidentally uses work they would have happily rewritten or attributed without attribution because they think they wrote it. Since the general quality of the manuscript is excellent and the plagiarized material blends right in, there’s no easy way for an editor to detect it. Self publishers who lean heavily on research, rather than writing books off the top of their heads, can end up being plagiarists without even realizing it.

It’s quite easy for an editor who’s knowledgeable in the subject to detect plagiarism of the second category, which is the wholesale plagiarism of the incompetent author. It’s impossible, barring some form of mental disability, for this type of plagiarism to be an unconscious act, so we can assume you’ll only encounter it when editing manuscripts you’ve acquired for publication. An author who doesn’t know enough about a subject to be writing a book faces the characteristic problem that the plagiarized parts are better written and more accurate than the original bits the author adds to try to glue them together. When you’re reading a manuscript where the author does a fine job for a few paragraphs, then includes some truly inane comments that may even contradict what you’ve just read, then returns to quality writing for a few paragraphs, then repeats the stinkers, it will be pretty obvious. I’ve come across it myself when working as a contract editor, and I’ve seen it repeat in a number of how-to type books.

Returning to the initial theme, you can’t produce quality books through editing unless the editor
rewrites the manuscripts from scratch. If that’s the case, the editor is really acting as the author, so the rule still stands. It all comes down to the old adages about writing what you know and publishing what you know. If you start publishing books in a field where you are entirely dependent on the authors for the expertise, you’ll have no way of knowing whether or not you’re ending up with copyright infringements or quality books until the reviews and lawsuits come in. One of the reasons I stick with self publishing rather than taking up authors on their offers to publish some pretty decent manuscripts is my concern about liability. If I don’t know the topic well enough to have written the book myself, I’ve got no business publishing it. The only way I know how to detect plagiarism in an unfamiliar subject is through checking the best written bits on the Internet to see if they’ve been copied, a string of five or six words usually is best for searching. If I know the topic well enough to write a quality book, I’d be a pretty poor excuse for a self publisher if I hired somebody else to do it.

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