February 8, 2023

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AI reveals the most human parts of writing

Still, in many cases, letting a computer dictate the direction of a project rather than crafting a few choice phrases when you really want to feel in charge can feel like letting the computer take the reins. Planning can be fun too. Planning — and I include processes like figuring out plot points, endings and openings, and any kind of activity at a higher level than actual writing — is something that many writers consider the tricky, intellectual, and interesting part of their job, a part , which feels uniquely human. Figuring out how a poem should end is difficult, but there are some difficult things we love to do. The achievement of getting to the end of a scene can only be achieved by struggling to do it yourself.

What about the tricky act of getting words onto the page? In cognitive psychology research, this is often referred to as “translating” because we translate amorphous ideas into discrete words. Most writers, or really most people who have to write, know the feeling of an empty head. The average writer trains themselves out of this fear, but no matter how many times you’ve written words on the page, you’ll have that moment where you don’t know what’s coming next. This is literally the job most computer systems are trained for: predicting what’s coming next.

The role of AI writing systems as fellow writers is a big departure from how writers typically get help, but so far this is their biggest selling point and use case. Most writing tools available today do some drafting for you, either picking up where you left off or responding to a more specific instruction. SudoWrite, a popular AI writing tool for novelists, does all of this, with options to “write” where you left off, “describe” a highlighted noun, or “brainstorm” ideas based on a situation you describe. Systems like Jasper.ai or Lex complete your paragraph or draft text based on instructions, and Laika is similar but focuses more on fiction and drama.

These tools are good and getting better; An AI writing system draws on more text than a person can read, and its ability to embrace the unexpected can be perfect for writers looking to freshen up their writing. Computer-generated text has been likened to automatic writing or a well-read but deranged parrot, giving it abilities almost equal to, perhaps even complementary to, those of human writers.

Still, it’s interesting that so many AI writing systems have been designed to finish our sentence or predict our next one, because when I’ve spoken to writers about what they typically need help with, nobody ever talks about asking a person to write for her. This is not the way writers typically interact with humans when it comes to their work, although this is what computers do best and are currently the primary use for. While some authors strive to get sentences on demand, others are reluctant to leave their words to an outside entity. As several authors have told me, once something is on the page it’s a little harder to imagine anything else. This is one of the reasons many authors don’t like getting feedback early on in a project; The work is too delicate, they need to support the idea in a way that others can see its potential. A computer, while not explicitly contributing its own intent, can interfere with the author’s intent. And other writers just take pride in sitting down and saying a thousand words. It’s like exercise. You have to keep at it or your skills will atrophy.