July 20, 2016

One of the most frequent excuses for plagiarism is “I mixed up my notes.” That, in effect, was the justification that appeared in an apology today by longtime Trump ghostwriter Meredith McIver.

When her name popped up, I recognized it right away. For months now I have had on my desk a Trump book titled “How to Get Rich.” His last name on the cover is HUGE. On the bottom, barely visible, is “with Meredith McIver.”

Who ya gonna call? Ghostwriter!

When I dipped into this bestseller, my first thought was “This sounds like Trump.” One chapter, for example, is called “Brand Yourself and Toot Your Horn.” It begins:

“I was originally going to call Trump Tower by another name – Tiffany Tower, for the famous jewelry store next door. I asked a friend, “Do you think it should be Trump Tower or Tiffany Tower?” He said, “When you change your name to Tiffany, call it Tiffany Tower.”

The chapter ends, “So don’t be afraid to toot your own horn when you’ve done something worth tooting about. And don’t believe the critics unless they love your work.”

That sounds like Trump, or I should say it sounds like a Trump who speaks in tight coherent sentences. This is no small miracle of writing, so I give McIver props, like her namesake the TV action hero, for building a rocket ship out of toilet paper tubes and twine.

What I am saying is that she is kind of a pro. And I wish my grammar books had sold a fraction of the books she wrote for Trump.

So what are we to make of this in her apology?

In working with Melania Trump on her recent First Lady speech, we discussed many people who inspired her and messages she wanted to share with the American people. A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama. Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant.

What happened is not crystal clear. Melania Trump dictated words to McIver. McIver wrote them down, knowing they were from Mrs. Obama. So why would she check Mrs. Obama’s speeches? To quote the words accurately? To distinguish those words from Melania Trump’s or from other sources? It’s not clear from McIver’s note.

For the record, let me offer praise for the civility of the message. First, it recognizes that something was amiss, not like the cockamamie justifications of Trump partisans. It tells us that Melania Trump admires the First Lady. How nice. In the vicious sewer that is contemporary political discourse, the language of this letter sound like a lost verse from “Amazing Grace.”

But the letter also invites this question: Can inadvertent plagiarism (“No harm was meant”) derive from mixing up your notes and the sources of your content? And are sloppy work habits a reasonable excuse for plagiarism?

Here I will plead guilty to contemporary cynicism: It is possible that McIver is the sacrificial lamb, that she played no real part in the scandal, and that her reward is a continuation of her long service to the Trump family.

Now that I got that out of my system, I find her explanation plausible. Plagiarism by corruption is a more serious literary crime than plagiarism by sloppy work habits. Given the stakes, there remains a stain on the Trump organization. Sure you can write, or edit, or fact-check over the phone. But given the lead time, wouldn’t a responsible organization, ready for the presidency, have gotten Melania Trump’s speech right?

I have written five books in 10 years, and I can tell you a story or two about the mixing up of notes. I am no paragon of fastidious note-taking, compared to many of my journalism colleagues.

But I have learned a couple of tricks:

  • Keep two spiral notebooks: a black one for your own thoughts and ideas, a green one for those of your sources.
  • When you are quoting from books, remove them from your shelves and place them in an orderly stack near your workstation. Underline or highlight the material you intend to quote. Mark the page with a Post-It note.
  • When you proofread your draft, check in the margin any language you have not created yourself. Note the source in the margin.

These seem like baby steps, so please contribute to the learning. What are some of your favorite techniques for not mixing up your notes?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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