Personal editing. Professional results.

What AI ain't

December 29, 2023
Posted by:
Ron Seybold


Classes will teach writers how to prompt a software program. $89 later, there will be hundreds more writers using AI. Prompt writing, and then revisions to prompts. Then AI output revisions, once you get to a certain point, a moment that you choose. It's all writing, revision, and more revision. Why shouldn't you use AI to create a work of art?

Maybe using AI feels right for you. You might sit at a keyboard, or with pen poised over paper, and go blank from time to time. It's a writer's block, and we'll do anything to bust through those and start creating. A few shots of a chatbot's efforts and you'll be on your way.

Too many writers will remain on their way to more chatbot revisions. They expect a software program to revise writing to improve it. Pro WritingAid and Grammarly and Sudowrite don't do enough, this kind of writer says to themselves. They might pass that off to fellow writers, gathering the gumption to keep taking hits off the AI pipe.

There's a deeper problem lurking along the line to finishing a book that you'll try to call your original work. You won't be able to copyright what AI helped you create, unless you've taken detailed notes on how you revised the output to make it your own. Who'd care? Someone beyond the US Copyright Office. Other writers, whose copyrighted creations fed the AI chatbot — they'll care. The professionals will, anyway.

And your own creativity, the words you've fed into the AI chatbot so it can learn your voice? Now the bot's got ahold of your creations and will feed them to other authors. If the other authors are faster and better than you at finishing, publishing, and prompting, in a matter of months your voice can show up in another author's book. Your compensation will be limited to satisfaction that your voice is worthy. It's worthless to you, of course, if you're adding up payments and advances and royalties. Your writing does not sustain you when it gets waylaid.

You may throw back your head and laugh. "Ha-ha, I'd be so pleased to see my work surfacing elsewhere, making art that others can sell or give away so their career thrives." It is funny — and it is sad, because if you're laughing, then writing is a lark, a game, and certainly not serious enough to claim ownership of. No, that writer says, my words are for the world, not just for me. Except this kind of writer insists that everyone's words are for the world.

What AI is: A MacArthur-winning mathematics fellow, Stephen Wolfram, explained AI's methods with a simple table. ChatGPT, he says, "is scanning billions of pages of human-written text, and finding all instances of text, in then seeing what word comes next what fraction of the time.

ChatGPT effectively does something like this, except that it doesn’t look at literal text; it looks for things that in a certain sense “match in meaning.”

Your text has probably been sampled, unless it never got off your laptop. The poor unfortunates who had books in the Smashwords catalog of 2014 had their work hijacked wholesale. A Smashwords back door that researchers used for a study got left ajar. Smashwords has a new owner, and Draft2Digital regrets the thefts. But with millions of people pouring their words into ChatGPT, it won't take such a daring daylight raid anymore to snatch away creativity.

Copyright serves us all: There is another way, one where a creative life benefits from the concept of copyright. The concept was founded on the protection of invention. The greatest creations, the unique work, has a chance of coming into the world in a way that rewards the creators. The protection keeps writers honest. When you scoff at copyright, you snigger at the idea that writing is a talent and a gift and skill to be polished your entire life.

And the writer who's the most at risk? Not the authors of books, such comprehensive works of art and nonfiction. No, the writers who'll lose livelihoods first are the copywriters. Competent professionals with years of success at writing sentences that sell, encourage, and promote. Copywriters who educate us, 200 words at a time. People who write to make life better understood.

If you're a copywriter, you must hope you'll be retired soon if you're just an average one. And if you're a retired copywriter who's now having a good time feeding AI chatbots—well, this would be a good time to examine what kind of respect you've got for your craft and the passions of others.

Still, everybody seems to want this AI short-cut, don’t they? Especially the ones who don’t want to do any heavy lifting in the character development or revision process. When you see what GPT gives you in copy revisions, it might make you gag. My favorite so far is a GPT rewrite that changed “guiding water is tricky” to “water can be deceitful.” The AI misunderstands that water has no human properties, like deceit. Maybe AI imagines a different kind of water — one which wouldn't be useful in any story that’s not supernatural or sci-fi.

Can you imagine how many deceitful water books will appear soon? And with each one unleashed on the internet, more will appear, like Mickey Mouse's water-carrying brooms he concocts in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia. Poor Micky, getting his well overfilled, nearly drowning, until he tries to kill off the brooms with a hatchet. The attempt just makes the splinters turn into more brooms. Only the sorcerer can save him.

What AI ain't

Good-enough writing will satisfy some buyers and readers. There's a tsunami of words on Amazon. You might think that authors — good souls with fine imaginations — could comprehend where the bot-writing can lead. Some only seem to understand the short-cut. For many who lack the drive to improve their skills, writing will be what it always was: a hobby, compensated as if it's an Uber pickup or an DoorDash delivery.

I started my workshop by encouraging people to believe everyone could write. Every person can. The short-cutters ought to consider another hobby.

Resist, if you can, and feed the bots little of your writing. Ask them questions, sure, but check every fact and do not copy what oozes out of the bot's results. It's not intelligence. It's not even artificial. It's the work of others, seized from unprotected websites and sources.

Even if you only write for a hobby, show respect for the work of others. If your use of ChatGPT is like a super encyclopedia, a dictionary, thesaurus, or a search engine on steroids, you're showing honor. It's when you take creativity offered by a bot and call it your own — that's when the disrespect floats to the top of the bowl. Be less subversive than that. Use your own intelligence. If you think writing isn't all that special, then stop doing it. Leave its joyful struggle to the rest of us.

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