AI Reveals the Most Human Parts of Writing

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Still, in many cases, letting a computer impact the direction of a project, rather than craft a few choice sentences, can feel like giving the computer the reins when really, you want to feel in charge. Planning can also be enjoyable. Planning—and I include processes like figuring out plot points, endings, and openings, as well as any kind of activity on a higher level than actually writing—is something many writers consider the tricky, intellectual, and interesting part of their work, a part that feels uniquely human. Figuring out how a poem should end is difficult, but there are some difficult things we enjoy doing. The achievement of landing the end of a scene may only come from struggling to do it yourself.

What about the tricky act of getting words on the page? In cognitive psychology research, this is often called “translating,” because we’re translating amorphous ideas into discrete words. Most writers, or really most people who have to write, know the feeling of a mind gone blank. The average writer trains themselves out of this fear, but no matter how many times you’ve put words on the page, you’re bound to encounter that moment when you don’t know what comes next. This is literally the task most computer systems are trained to do: predict what comes next. 

The role of AI writing systems as drafting buddies is a big departure from how writers typically get help, yet so far it is their biggest selling point and use case. Most writing tools available today will do some drafting for you, either by continuing where you left off or responding to a more specific instruction. SudoWrite, a popular AI writing tool for novelists, does all of these, 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 will complete your paragraph or draft copy based on instructions, and Laika is similar but more focused on fiction and drama. 

These tools are good and getting better; an AI writing system is drawing on more text than any one person can read, and its ability to lean into the unexpected can be perfect for writers looking to make their writing feel more fresh. Computer-generated text has been likened to automatic writing, or a well-read but deranged parrot, giving it abilities almost tangential to those of human writers, perhaps even complementary abilities.

Yet it’s interesting that so many AI writing systems are created to finish our sentence, or predict our next one, because when I’ve talked to writers about what they typically want help with, no one ever talks about asking a person to write for them. This isn’t the way writers typically interact with people when it comes to their work, even though it’s what computers are best at, and are mostly being used for right now. While some writers are eager to get sentences on demand, others are hesitant to let an external entity choose their words. As several writers told me, once something is on the page, it’s just a little bit harder to imagine anything else. This is one reason many writers don’t like to get feedback early on in a project; the work is too delicate, they need to shore up the idea such that others can see its potential. A computer, while not explicitly bringing its own intention, can disrupt the writer’s intention. And other writers simply take pride in sitting down and pumping out a thousand words. It’s like exercise. You need to keep it up, otherwise your skills atrophy.

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