Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Copyscape Obsession

…and another sign of deterioration in the writing-for-hire business, besides the low pay scale: the preoccupation with plagiarism and the detection thereof. 

There’s a template every lowball job offeror follows when attempting to hire a writer: “Must be 100% original; must pass Copyscape.” Occasionally an overachiever will attempt to make it his or her own, adding emphasis like “Plagiarism will be reported to the proper authorities,” whoever they are.

In short, the writer is presumed guilty until proved innocent by a software program. That’s an insult to an entire industry population – something that wouldn’t be tolerated in another business or profession outside the CIA. Ask your doctor for proof none of his/her patients has died. Say you'll be back after you've checked The International Journal of Healthcare Improvement’s study on “Identification of Doctors At Risk of Recurrent Complaints.” 

But beyond that -- how is it possible to do what Copyscape is supposed to do? You can scan in the entire Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, the Harvard Business Review back to 1492 or whatever, and the contents of the Library of Congress, but can you capture everything that’s ever been copyrighted and published? Every arcane book. magazine, report, and pamphlet?

I’ve thought about setting up a challenge to the system: I'd write something original and submit it along with something copied from an obscure publication, and see if the software can tell which is which. If one of you Copyscape fans is listening, let me know.

And by the way, Copyscape is accompanied by its own Law of Unintended Consequences. A friend’s thesis was redlined back to her as plagiarized when someone purloined most of it and published it first.

Call me naïve, but I have a suggestion for buyers writing up job specs: save the lecture, and eliminate the implicit insult, bloviating about plagiarism. Pay professional rates, so a writer can afford to invest the time to be original.

You’d be surprised, some of the reaction I’ve received to that.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Rethinking "Genre"

I did a post a while back addressing “genre.”  I wrote it in the context of submitting my novel to agents; deciding on which genre the novel belonged in baffled me. 

I thought in some cases the whole idea of genre was pretentious, particularly when I asked an expert to differentiate the several kinds of fiction I had seen listed (commercial, mainstream, literary) and never got a specific answer. To this day I don’t know if my novel fits any of them. The last refuge seems to be something called “cross-genre,” which I suppose is where novels that don’t fit anywhere else go to die.  

However – thinking about it suddenly threw a new kind of light on the other subject I keep flogging in this blog: “content,” the descent of writing into.

A Zen question: does a cry in the wilderness make any sound?

I have several times, while shouting at the trees, suggested that we, the writing community, reverse engineer content back into its components. People used to write news, or instruction, or  humor, or biography, or opinion, or political analysis; writers reviewed books; composed essays; sold product…

Whoa! That begins to sound like genre. It also begins to sound like maybe some of that stuff might be worth something. You could argue whether humor should bring a higher or lower price than straight information, for example; but they’d both be worth more than the penny-a-word they fetch today as “content.” 

The buying world tries to tell you “Content is King,” The reality is “Content is Kommodity.” Look; If the governing specification is X number of words (which it usually is), how is that any different from buying X pounds of liverwurst? “Whadda ya mean, eight dollars a pound? I can get it for three. No rat hairs in yours? So what?”  We’re all alike to the content buyers.

We ought to take arms against this sea of content, but sadly, I don’t expect anyone to join me at the barricades. It’s been this way too long, and everyone seems to have come to terms with the situation. Except me.