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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ctrl-C / Ctrl-V writers...

The other day I was a little rough on Lee Gomes' Wall Street Journal article about the online content writing business. I'm comfortable with those remarks. However, there was one issue he raised that I think deserves some additional comment and attention.

Gomes, if you remember (and if you don't, you can access the article here), was approached to do a "rewrite" of some content. Further investigation revealed that the buyer really wanted nothing more than a slightly tweaked version of existing material. Basically, he was asked to plagiarize.

Unfortunately, this practice is not entirely uncommon. The problem, however, is not just a "seedy buyer" issue. There are plenty of writers who are playing the same corrupt game. To be honest, what Gomes was asked to do is probably a bit more effort than what many writers expend.

Plagiarized material is something of an epidemic, and current efforts to police the practice seem to be less than efficacious. I can immediately think of at least four clients in the last four months that have come to me looking for content after getting burned by a "writer" whose primary technique was the use of cut and paste. I doubt there is a single large-scale content buyer out there who hasn't had at least one freelancer try to slip some misappropriated material by them.

I really don't get many job offers for faux "rewrites," personally. I think that's because I make my stance on plagiarism pretty clear and because I emphasize that anything I provide to a buyer will be 100% original. However, as Gomes' experience or even a quick look at the freelance boards evidence, there are plenty of buyers looking for something just good enough to get past Copyscaping.

There are a lot of writers who will say buyers who are on the receiving end of plagiarized junk are "getting what they pay for." They maintain that any buyer who isn't willing to pay a high premium for content services should anticipate getting screwed by Ctrl-C / Ctrl-V writers. The argument is somewhat compelling. Odds are that if you pay a writer a good chunk of change for content you are less likely to receive a cut and paste job. That might be one good way for buyers to protect themselves from unscrupulous writers.

However, I don't think that's the end of the story. I believe that one should receive and end product that matches their expectations, regardless of the agreed upon price. No one should "expect" to fall victim to plagiarized content under any circumstances. Writers agree to provide a specified product at a specified price. They should uphold their end of the bargain. Period. There are good content writers who are willing to work at very competitive rates who do not resort to Ctrl-V / Ctrl-C.

Of course, they don't always do that. So, how can a buyer protect themselves, aside from spending more than they might really need to spend? I have a few ideas... First, buyers should never pay too much up-front. It's not unreasonable for a writer to request a percentage in advance (after all those of us on this end do get taken by the occasional unscrupulous buyer), but one should never be overextended prior to seeing an end product. A smaller up-front payment can reduce plagiarism problems considerably and also offers a form of insurance against a wholesale rip-off.

Second, buyers should insist on a guarantee of originality. I personally offer a 300% money back guarantee if anyone runs into a misappropriation issue. I can do that because I know that every word I produce will be completely unique. Any writer who balks at the idea of offering some sort of assurance from the get-go should raise an eyebrow.

There are some writers who feel that being questioned about originality, plagiarism, etc. is somehow insulting. I have even witnessed one individual encouraging writers to avoid projects in which the buyer makes that demand (they feel originality demands are an indicator of potential low payment). Understanding the frequency with which buyers encounter problems, I feel that writers should be proud to answer in the affirmative when asked if their output will be wholly original.

Third, buyers should be ready and willing to quiz potential writers about past work, knowledge of the online writing terrain, time in the business, etc. Content is important to one's success and the buying process should be handled like any other important business investment.

Fourth, buyers should follow through with originality checks. They should use Copyscape and Google randomly selected phrases, etc. Even though the first three steps can weed out many atrocious providers, it always makes sense to check a writer's work.

Not all writers rely on cutting and pasting to produce content. Most do not. There are enough bad apples, however, to justify a close examination of the barrel by buyers. There are good content writers who are willing to work at very competitive rates who do not resort to Ctrl-V / Ctrl-C. The trick is finding them.

Writers have an easy time protecting themselves from plagiarism situations. When asked to do a "rewrite" of materials for which the buyer obviously does not hold rights or to engage in any other ethically questionable acts, they need only decline. Seedy work can translate into a few easy bucks for a writer, but anyone trying to make a living in the content world should realize that inappropriate behavior does more harm than good in the long run. It vilifies the industry, drives prices down as buyers attempt to recoup losses on rotten projects and reifies the sentiment held by many that it's all just part of the online game. It doesn’t have to be.