Self-plagiarism is a weird and kind of obscure aspect of the whole plagiarism issue. Which is why I left it off of my last blog on plagiarism in general. I once again urge you to check with the officially stated rules of plagiarism for whatever institution you’re writing for.
Unlike un-cited sources or obvious outside references, self-plagiarism can be hard for even a professional editor to spot. Which is why it’s important for you to be aware of what self-plagiarism is: so you can avoid it.
Each new piece of writing should have its arguments and wording tailored to its particular topic, so that it answers a particular essay prompt. You are being dishonest if you claim that your previously written words, pasted without edits into a new document, reflect your response to a new prompt. And if you copy and paste chunks of an old essay you submitted last year into a new essay for this year (or even if you write the same essay for simultaneous assignments), you’re not just taking a shortcut, you’re actually committing self-plagiarism.
You’ve developed your take on the topic since submitting that old essay, right? This new essay is an opportunity to revisit your old opinions and demonstrate how your perspective has evolved since you formed those opinions. It’s an opportunity to take into account the feedback your instructor gave you, to strengthen weaknesses in your argument and to further explore the bits that piqued your interest enough for you to craft the stronger sections.
If you’re bored with a topic and tempted to copy and paste old (or simultaneous) work, to re-hash opinions and arguments already crafted for another audience, you probably think you’ve exhausted all there is to say on the topic. But fresh contexts always require fresh content. No topic is ever exhausted. It’s always possible to approach a topic from a new perspective.
Even if you haven’t developed a new perspective, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve been faced with the exact same prompt. At the very least, tweak the wording to fit your new prompt.
If you really truly can’t find a new and better way to express the same old opinions you wrote last time, cite yourself. Maybe the act of having to cite yourself will remind you just how silly it is to re-submit the same perspective for more than one assignment.