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The 20% Solution: How Much Do You Need to Change an Article to Make it Original?

by Moira Allen

Return to The Business of Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Here's a question that came in to the Inquiring Writer recently: How much do you have to change an article to make it "acceptable" for republication? According to the inquirer, someone had suggested that if one changes an article by 20%, it becomes a new article. Speaking as both a writer and an editor, I'd love to know where anyone got the "20%" figure!

First, let's ask an obvious question -- 20% of what? How do you calculate that you've "changed" 20% of your article? Does this simply mean that 20% of the words are different? (I suppose you could do a word count, and decide that if your article were 1000 words long, you could create a new article by simply "changing" 200 of them.) Does it mean that you've added a couple of paragraphs, making your article 20% longer? Does it mean that you simply cut a paragraph or two, making it 20% shorter -- without changing anything else whatsoever?

Hopefully (or "it is to be hoped" to grammatical purists), that little excursion into mathematics shows the folly of attempting to assign any sort of numerical value to what does or does not make an article "new" again. Now let's look at the question from the standpoint of the editor and the reader.

Editors and readers have much the same perspective on an article: Have I read it before? Let's say that you write a piece for Writing-World.com on "how to craft a personal essay." I buy it and publish it. A few weeks later, you send a piece to another writing website titled "Tips on crafting personal essays." Now, a lot of my readers probably visit that other site as well, so here's the question you need to ask: Will those readers feel that they are reading pretty much the same article? It's a question the editor is going to ask, before deciding whether to accept the piece -- because chances are, that editor has already seen your article on my site, or vice versa.

Changing a few words here and there, adding a paragraph, or cutting a paragraph, probably isn't going to change the article sufficiently so that readers will feel that they are getting something new and different with Article B. In fact, you could probably rewrite and rephrase the entire article, changing every single sentence in some way, and readers would still not think they were getting a "new" article.

In the most technical, legal sense, you could probably get away with this, because copyright covers the actual form in which an article is written. If you rewrite an article by rephrasing every line, then technically it may be considered a "new" article -- from a copyright law standpoint. [That's only if it's your own article, by the way; there are still infringement restrictions on doing this to someone else's article!] So if you had a contract with Editor #1 that provided exclusive publishing rights for Article A, and you rewrote every line and sold it to Editor #2, Editor #1 probably couldn't come after you for violating the contract. However, neither Editor #1 nor Editor #2 are going to be terribly happy with you -- and you could end up losing not just one but two markets.

Two other key questions on the legal side are (a) what does your contract with publication #1 say, and (b) what are the requirements of publication #2? If the second publication does not accept reprints, it's probably not going to be thrilled by "retreads" either -- even if your contract with publication #1 permits you to resell the work.

Though the question at hand is not about reprints per se, let's take a quick moment to deal with that issue. If your original contract permits you to resell your article after it has been published (e.g., you own second serial rights), and you can find markets that accept reprints, marketing the exact same article to different publications is perfectly fine. It's an excellent way to make one article pay for itself over and over again.

If you do have the right to sell reprints of a piece, or if you want to rework a piece for different markets, here's one tip: be sure that you are submitting it to markets that do not overlap. This can be very hard to do on the Web, because geography is not an issue online. In the print world, often the best way to find non-overlapping markets is to look for regional publications. For example, while there are several major parenting publications that have a national distribution, there are also dozens of regional publications that are read only within a certain area -- so it's easy to sell the piece to "Boise Babies" and "Tinseltown Tots." But be careful about selling a piece to a national publication and then trying to market it to the regionals, because chances are that both Boise Babies and Tinseltown Tots subscribers also read "American Baby." Another approach is to look for publications with different overall subject matter -- your article on "Ten Natural Treats for Toddlers" could appear in a baby magazine, a cooking magazine, a health magazine, and/or a religious publication, all without being changed at all.

The question at hand, however, is not really about marketing "reprints," but about altering an article sufficiently so that it dodges the legal issue of attempting to resell an article that you may not have the right to resell. Even if you can manage it, even if you can get away with it, that doesn't make it a good idea! A much better approach is to take a single idea and see how many ways you can spin off unique, stand-alone articles. For example, if you're writing a piece on crafting the perfect personal essay, try a straightforward how-to article for one market. Then do a "ten tips on crafting the perfect essay" for another. Incorporate an interview with an essayist for a third. Do a survey of essay markets for a fourth -- and so on. Think about multiple markets when you're doing your research, so that you can gather more material than you need for just one article -- giving you fuel for multiple pieces that, far from conflicting with one another, actually complement one another and enhance your reputation as a writer.

Using this approach sets you up as a writer who appears to have a lot to say about a particular topic. The more you can say about something, the more you will begin to appear as an expert on the topic. If you can produce two or five or ten or twenty articles, all different, on the topic of how to craft personal essays, you'll make far more sales than you would if you kept trying to revamp the same piece. You'll open more doors, reach more markets, gain more readers -- and be well on your way to a book on the same topic.

Otherwise, a writer who simply tries to revamp the same piece over and over again starts to look like a writer who has very little to say. Recycling is good for the environment -- but it's not an effective way to market your material.

Find Out More...

Can I Sell a Previously Published Article? by Moira Allen

Making the Most of Your Inventory, by Dana Cassell

One Article, Many Checks: Selling Reprints, by Kelly James-Enger

Selling Reprints, by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2012 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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