First read part 1.
An editor from READ had just asked me why a humorous history piece in the latest issue of Nickelodeon magazine was so similar (in her opinion) to one I wrote for the latest issue of READ.
I was the one who told them about the Nickelodeon piece. I thought it was already obvious that I had no idea how it had come about.
At that time, I was all about e-mail. But because tone in print can easily be misread, I called her.
I said I understood her suspicion because she didn’t know me, not personally. Yet, I said, I was as surprised as they were to see the Nickelodeon piece—again, only because of the timing, not because I felt the idea was original. (Execution, of course, is where originality can enter into it.)
I explained that I’d worked hard to establish a good reputation as a writer and would not self-plagiarize (or plagiarize, for that matter). I emphasized that I greatly valued my relationships with both READ and Nickelodeon and would not consciously jeopardize either one. I reiterated that the compare and contrast format was not unprecedented. And I said that any two writers independently comparing Homer and Homer Simpson would likely have some overlap. There are only so many key qualities to distill.
I also pointed out that Nickelodeon gave a byline to every feature written by a freelancer. My byline was on other pieces in that very issue, but there was no byline on the Homer piece, which meant it was written in-house. I provided the name of my Nickelodeon editor so the READ editor could contact her directly for verification. I concluded by stating that I hoped to continue to write for READ.
Fifteen minutes later, I got her response. She apologized if she’d insulted me. She explained that she had to ask about such a coincidence because, as I’d said, she didn’t know me. But she now understood that such comparisons had been done before. And she said they’d been thrilled with my work thus far so don’t worry about it. (She didn't contact Nickelodeon.)
I continued to write for READ, and still do when I can. But I also continue to worry, not specifically with respect to READ but simply as a freelance writer.
In any such case, the only thing freelance writers have to back us up is our word. We, of course, make our living from words and I’d like to think that words can be enough. But sometimes words are not as thick of a shield as we might like.