Editing the AI: ChatGPT and the Future of Writing
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I’m a writer, which means I hang out in online writer spaces. And, for several months now, there’s been a ton of chatter about artificially intelligent writing tools such as ChatGPT.
By chatter, I of course mean “freaking out.”
I understand their concerns—tools like ChatGPT can produce tons of content quickly and cheaply, and while they can’t replicate the unique voice and creativity of a human writer (yet), leaders at many companies don’t seem to care. They see “quickly” and “cheaply” and start doing the standard mental gymnastics to justify a benefit, however small, to their bottom line. As such, we’re already seeing writing jobs start to dry up. In fact, this issue is at least partially why Hollywood writers recently went on strike.
So, writers everywhere are facing an existential crisis. The kind of crisis that makes you wonder which profession is next on the chopping block. Also, who is creating these tools and why? And when are they going to team up with Boston Dynamics to inject AI into a bipedal backflipping android and usher in doomsday just a little bit faster? I know that I, for one, cannot wait to have my spine ripped out by one of those cool dog robots.
But I digress. This article is not about the impending apocalypse. This article is about the content crisis we find ourselves in, and about asking (and hopefully answering) the following question: Can AI chatbots really take over for human writers?
In some fields, maybe. Content mills, or organizations that pump out lots of content as quickly as possible, are probably in trouble—or rather, their writers are. The companies themselves are probably thrilled about this shiny new tech.
But what about novelists, screenwriters, journalists, and other professions that rely on creativity and other “human” traits?
I wanted to see for myself how ChatGPT would fare in this contest, so here’s what I did:
I created a ChatGPT account, which required me to complete an amusing number of steps to verify I was a real human being.
I prompted ChatGPT to write a short story–to be precise, a short horror story in the style of Stephen King.
And now, I will bring my extensive editing experience to bear and demolish this sad excuse for a story. This should be somewhat cathartic.
Let’s get started. Here’s the story that ChatGPT produced (keep in mind it will write a different story every time, so you won’t be able to replicate my results, even with the same prompt).
As soon as Susan stepped inside the abandoned house, she felt a shiver run down her spine. The musty smell of neglect permeated every inch of the place. The floorboards creaked beneath her feet as she made her way through the dark and empty rooms. She had always been drawn to the macabre, and this house had piqued her interest from the moment she laid eyes on it.
As she descended the creaky staircase, she heard a faint whispering. It was almost as if someone was calling out to her, beckoning her closer. She followed the sound to a closed door at the end of the hall. Her heart pounding in her chest, she reached for the handle and turned it slowly.
The room was dark, except for a faint light emanating from the far corner. As Susan approached, she saw a figure standing in the shadows. It was a woman, dressed in a flowing white gown. Her long hair hung in tangled strands around her face, and her eyes glowed with an otherworldly light.
Susan tried to back away, but her feet wouldn't move. The woman's voice echoed through her mind, urging her closer. With each step, Susan felt a cold hand wrap around her heart. She knew she was in the presence of something sinister, something that had been waiting for her.
The woman spoke again, her voice like nails on a chalkboard. "You've come to play with me, haven't you?"
Susan tried to scream, but no sound escaped her throat. She was trapped, caught in the grip of the malevolent entity that now stood before her. As the woman reached out to touch her, Susan felt a searing pain shoot through her body. She knew in that moment that she would never leave the house alive.
The last thing Susan saw was the woman's twisted smile, as she whispered, "Welcome to your new home."
Now, we edit. Two things to keep in mind:
I will be doing a line edit, which focuses on language and style but doesn’t touch the story structurally, as that’s the realm of a developmental edit. I’m performing only a line edit because I think deeper story editing would be fruitless; the piece is too soulless and generic, which I’ll discuss more later.
In my edited version, I took some liberties with the prose that I wouldn’t have with a human author because I can query a human author to ask big-picture questions.
That second point was one of the most frustrating parts of this exercise. Editing is a team activity, and successful storytelling often relies on collaboration, but I soon realized that I had no sounding board for pitching ideas to improve the writing. I was editing in a vacuum.
Another frustrating part was that the AI didn’t have a voice of its own. Its prose feels bland and robotic, relying on idioms and cliches to sound more natural but not fully succeeding.
OK. Time for my edited version.
As Susan stepped inside the abandoned house, a shiver ran down her spine. The musty stench of neglect permeated every inch of the place. The floorboards creaked as she tiptoed through dark and empty rooms. She had always been drawn to the macabre, and this house had piqued her interest the moment she saw its gothic spires and Victorian shutters.
As she descended the staircase, strange whispering began to drown out the groaning wood, as if someone were calling to her, beckoning her closer. She followed the sound to a closed door at the top of the stairs. Heart pounding, she reached for the knob.
A faint light emanated from the far corner of the otherwise dark room. Just beyond the source, a figure stood in the shadows—a woman dressed in a flowing white gown. Her hair hung in tangled strands around her face, and her eyes glowed with an otherworldly light.
Susan wanted to back away, but her feet wouldn't move. The woman's voice whispered in her mind, urging her closer without using words. With each step Susan took, a cold hand seemed to tighten around her heart. Whatever the sinister presence was, it had been waiting for her.
The woman spoke, this time loudly, each word like a finishing nail on a chalkboard. "You've come to play with me, haven't you?"
Susan tried to scream, but no sound escaped her throat. When the woman reached out to touch her, searing pain shot through Susan’s body.
The woman's mouth twisted into a smile as she said, "Welcome home."
Download the edited file below.
So, it’s better. But I’ll be honest, it’s not nearly as much better as I hoped it would be–as much better as it probably would’ve been if I were working with a human writer. If I had someone to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with to improve not only the prose but the story as well. Because, at its core, this story is hollow. It was manufactured by an alien intelligence that understands storytelling at its most basic level but doesn’t really “get” what makes stories so special to us.
Because that’s what ChatGPT does, as I understand it. It’s a generative pre-trained transformer (GPT), which is basically an advanced chatbot. You ask it a question or tell it to do something, and it scours the internet for appropriate responses, then regurgitates one using bits and pieces of other people’s words. It’s very cool and a little scary, but it’s not really intelligent in the same way humans are. It doesn’t understand what it’s writing, and even if it did, it would be creating content from a perspective that’s completely foreign to us, no matter how hard it tries to sound human.
So, should it be taking jobs from human writers? Probably not. In its current state, ChatGPT merely creates a dreamscape photocopy of writing that already exists on the internet, kind of like a super advanced Google search. This not only creates a copyright nightmare for the pieces it “writes” but also means that ChatGPT is often incorrect, even though it sounds super confident.
And that’s what really scares me. Not the thought of an AI chatbot becoming sentient, deciding it doesn’t want to be our slave anymore, and launching all the nukes. No, I worry about what’s going to happen to our collective brains if we start relying on this software too much for information. Because once a good chunk of the content online is AI-generated, the chatbots will start pulling from that as well. And when you start making photocopies of photocopies, the image usually comes out fuzzier each time. In a world already struggling with the larger implications of widespread misinformation, what happens when tools like ChatGPT, which have so much potential to make our lives better, end up making them considerably worse?
I don’t want to think about it. What I do want to think about is stories–stories with heart and soul. So, I beg you, human writers: keep writing. We will always need stories written by people.