Sam Holstein

Why Modern Writers Need to Embrace AI-Assisted Writing

Why Modern Writers Need to Embrace AI-Assisted Writing

There has been much bellyaching recently about how AI-assisted writing will ruin the professional landscape for writers and potentially even destroy the craft itself.

Critics have argued against AI-assisted writing on the grounds that it will diminish the importance of the writing process as an intellectual and creative activity. They believe that relying on AI language generators will compromise the cognitive and social development of writers. Some argue that AI-assisted writing will lead to the death of artistic creation and a mass loss of employment for writers and editors.

Others believe that AI-assisted writing will never be a threat, and further, that it is not even that interesting. They argue that AI-generated content lacks an intangible quality that human writing possesses, a quality that cannot be replicated by any machine no matter how advanced. To these folks, AI-assisted writing is simply a neat trick. Therefore, they think we should ignore AI-assisted writing the way one ignores a passing fad.

As you will read in this article, I think narratives like these are both needless and dangerous — Indeed, as ignorant as the philosophers who claimed, thousands of years ago, that the invention of writing tablets would destroy the ability of students to remember what they’ve learned.

“In fact, [writing on clay tablets] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn [philosophy]: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

 Socrates on Writing, roughly 2,500 years ago

Let me ask you: Do you feel that reading printed text has destroyed your ability to learn and retain information?

In case this pithy anecdote is not enough to convince you, let us dive deep into what AI-assisted writing is and is not, and investigate its possible effects on the economy and workforce.

Understanding How Writing AI Works

AI technology uses a complex mathematical process called deep learning to arrive at its outputs. Deep learning works like this: The AI is fed a vast amount of data, and then given a prompt, such as “Write a paragraph explaining how writing AI work.” The AI scans all the data it was fed and analyzes it for patterns based on the words in the prompt and what words usually follow prompts like that one. Then it comes up with a set of patterns that are most common and returns those to the user.

The writing AI we are hearing so much about these last few months, ChatGPT, is trained on the total content of the internet. The result is an AI tool that can produce fairly high-quality writing with speed and efficiency, especially frequently used predictable content like business material, sales documents, legal letters, and the like, as this is what is most common on the internet today.

It is possible to train a writing AI on different content, such as the complete works of Brandon Sanderson, and get an AI that can write a great epic fantasy novel but a terrible legal letter. (This is highly illegal unless Sanderson himself consents to such a thing). But the writing AI available to us now is trained on the internet, so internet-patterned output is what we get.

What is important to understand is that AI cannot write unguided. Once the AI is trained, it is up to the user to prompt the AI on the particular kinds of patterns they want to produce, including the tone, style, and content. One could tell an AI to write an entire book with only a three-sentence prompt, but like a housing contractor that was told to build a house but not how many rooms to build, it’s unlikely the end result will be of any use to anyone. So it is already obvious on the face of it that there will still be a need for writers, editors, and compositional experts for the next few decades, even if they use AI-assisted writing tools.

This is one of the key points I think most people are missing. I think there are a lot of people logging on to OpenAI, opening ChatGPT for five minutes, typing “Write an essay about global warming,” and feeling a cold wash over their shoulders as they watch it print an essay it would have taken them two hours to write. But there is a big difference between getting ChatGPT to print something, and getting ChatGPT to print something useful.

For example, here is how I, an actual marketing copywriting professional, use ChatGPT every day for work:

  1. I spend an hour or two in meetings soliciting copy requirements
  2. I spend an hour or two using those requirements to create ChatGPT prompts, running several different variants through the system, before landing on some output that is useful to me
  3. I spend another half hour to an hour transferring that output to the destination, be that the website, sales materials, or internal documentation. Then I spend another half hour polishing it using tools like Grammarly and my own human judgment.
  4. I spend another hour reviewing this copy with the stakeholders
  5. I repeat this cycle as many times as needed to arrive at a final result my stakeholders are happy with.

The primary value of AI in my workflow is to save me laborious hours in the drafting phase — but it can only do this because I am an educated professional who knows what kind of draft I need. ChatGPT can produce better marketing documents than someone who doesn’t know how to write, but it can’t beat professional writers on any measure. Period.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to fear. ChatGPT is a long way off from replacing me, a highly trained compositional expert with a wide set of digital marketing skills ranging from campaign management to web development, but there are many rank-and-file copywriters who can be replaced by ChatGPT right now.

And I am not ignorant enough to think I will be safe for long, which is why I’m working on integrating AI-assisted writing into my skillset and quadrupling my output potential instead of complaining about how AI-assisted writing is cheating.

Embracing AI-Assisted Writing: My Ideas, My Words, My Responsibility

Some critics claim that if one uses AI to write content then it wasn’t truly written by the writer, it was written by the AI. Some people even think it should become a standard for us to disclose “written using ChatGPT” the same way we might need to disclose a co-author.

I don’t think this is appropriate for one key reason: ChatGPT didn’t help me develop anything I write. All it does is return word patterns. Those word patterns are meaningful to me as a human, but ChatGPT knows no meaning in what it prints other than that these words represent links in a chain of words that are likely to appear next to each other on the internet. Without me using my higher-order reasoning skills to craft a prompt to ChatGPT to tell it what kind of words to pattern-chain together, it does nothing. Human-like artificial intelligence is on its way, but ChatGPT ain’t it.

As Professor John Villasenor says in the Scientific American,

“Learning to write without AI does indeed promote focused, disciplined thinking. But learning to successfully combine unassisted and AI-assisted writing to create truly good essays also requires these qualities.”

At the end of the day, writing isn’t about pattern-matching words together. That may be the province of students writing formulaic essays in the classroom, but not of professional writers in the real world.

And the consequences match the reality. It is my work, and my responsibility. If I turn in a deliverable that is plagiarised, I’m the one who gets in trouble. If I write an article with fake news, I can’t pass the buck. In the real world, the one where AI-assisted writing is here and not going away, this is how the game is played.

Villasenor says it best:

“I am helping my students to prepare for a future in which AI is simply another technology tool as opposed to a novelty [by allowing them to use AI for classwork]. I am also telling them that they are solely and fully responsible for the writing they turn in bearing their name. If it’s factually inaccurate, that’s on them. If it’s badly organized, that’s on them. If it’s stylistically or logically inconsistent, that’s on them. If it’s partially plagiarized, that means that they have committed plagiarism.”

On the topic of educational practices…

Should AI be Banned In Education and Other Settings?

The use of artificial intelligence in education has been a topic of much debate recently. Critics believe that AI tools like chatbots should be banned in educational settings, citing concerns about the impact on writing skills and the potential for cheating. The Association of Writing Across the Curriculum (AWAC) recently released a statement that says:

“Writing to learn is an intellectual activity that is crucial to the cognitive and social development of learners and writers. This vital activity cannot be replaced by AI language generators.”

The first thing I notice about this proposal is how hilariously impractical it is. In a few short years, AI-writing tools will be so advanced that the idea of being able to catch AI-generated text with a plagiarism checker will be a fantasy. I know people will try to create these tools anyway, but I am telling you, they are getting into an arms race they cannot win.

Additionally, banning AI in education will not serve its intended purpose, as students will use it outside of educational settings anyway. The technology is already widely available and its use will only become more mainstream as time goes on. The only thing banning AI-writing tools in education will accomplish is producing graduates who are unprepared for the real world, where AI-writing tools will soon become ubiquitous.

The whole conundrum reminds me of my mathematics education. When I was coming up (and indeed, even today), calculation tools like WolframAlpha were already widely available for free, but students K through undergrad were only allowed the use of basic calculators. The entire calculator manufacturing industry only exists to produce them for the educational industrial complex these days. It seems obvious to me that I would have been better served by a mathematics education that focused on theory and application using modern computerized tools like WolframAlpha instead of teaching me to hunch over a punch-button calculator like it was still the 1960s. But I was consigned to the antiquated machine, and as a result, made it all the way through an undergraduate engineering degree without learning a damn thing about mathematics that couldn’t be done by Wolfram Alpha in three and a half seconds.¹

If educators move en masse to ban AI-assisted writing, they will achieve the same results in writing that my education achieved in mathematics — graduating students who can use methods of by-hand calculation that were dated before they even entered school, but have no idea how to use higher-level thinking theoretical skills in the application of real-world problems. Even Villasenor agrees:²

“When I was a middle and high school student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was told that professional success required good “penmanship” and the ability to perform long division by hand. By the time I entered the professional workforce in the late 1980s, technology advances had rendered those skills obsolete.”

Some educators express concern that students will use AI-assisted writing to slack off, merely writing the minimum viable prompt to an AI and letting it do the work. I do absolutely think that will happen — but the thing is, this represents a failure of the educational system, not a failure of the technology.

My complaint about mathematics education was that I was tasked with memorizing multiplication tables instead of being educated as to what kind of problems mathematics could help me solve in the real world. Educators now face a similar conundrum with writing. Currently, writing assignments are given out in the form of a prompt and a rubric, and students are often furnished with templates. There is no need for a student to think deeply about what they are writing when they are given such formulaic assignments, so of course an AI like ChatGPT can produce satisfactory work with little to no guidance.

What would truly be of value is an assignment that challenges students to think critically in the construction of their end product. Instead of tasking students with a five-paragraph essay summarizing the civil war, ask a student to write — in whatever format feels most natural to them — an essay asserting an argument of their choosing about a historical event. Or assign them a persuasive essay on any topic of their choosing, and grade them on how persuasive the essay is. These assignments are much closer to real-world writing assignments, where we must write proposals persuading our boss of strategic moves for our organization, or letters to partners with the goal of making them feel understood and loved.

But judging by the US educational system’s record, it’s unlikely this will happen. After all, they haven’t even fixed mathematics assignments. My bet is that the educational system will simply waste the next fifteen years on fruitless endeavors like attempting to ban AI-assisted writing, costing the taxpayer billions of dollars and hampering the education of millions of people in the progress.

A note to anyone under the age of 20: Don’t let them fuck you over. Get familiar with AI-assisted writing and how it can help you with coursework, resume construction, and whatever else you may need it for, as soon as possible. This is the only shot you have of not getting left behind as you progress in your career.

Unpacking the Impact of AI on the Writing Industry

For us professional writers, who graduated a long time ago, we need a solid understanding of how these technologies will affect our career field. Because they most certainly will. Writers who cry about how AI-assisted writing is cheating and stick their heads in the sand are the same writers who will find themselves out of work ten years from now.

The dot-com bubble is an instructive historical example. The net job creation and loss from the dot-com bubble shook out to about even, but many different types of high- and low-level jobs were destroyed, and just as many were created.

And most worryingly, it was nearly impossible to predict what kind of jobs those would be before it happened.

There are some low-level jobs that are obviously on the way out:

  1. Front-line customer service workers in a variety of industries, those whose job is simply to route visitors to the correct knowledge base article
  2. Entry-level copywriters, those who charge 5c to 10c a word
  3. Business analysts, those whose job is summarizing and displaying reports
  4. Script kiddies, those who write low-level small programs
  5. Legal assistants, those who write non-templated but regularized documents
  6. Administrative assistants, those who answer phones and emails

If you are in one of these lines of work, I recommend you start learning how to use compositional AI as soon as possible.

For the rest of us, we know there will be a major upheaval in the next ten years, but we have no way of predicting what that upheaval will be. The best weapons we have for staying valuable moving forward are landscape awareness and continuing education.

As a way to kick us off, here are some ways writers can stay ahead of the curve:

  1. Embrace AI-assisted writing: By incorporating AI-assisted writing tools into their workflow, writers can streamline their writing process and create more content in less time.
  2. Develop critical thinking skills: While AI can help with the mechanics of writing, it cannot replace the need for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. By developing these skills, writers can remain in high demand.
  3. Stay up-to-date with technology: As new AI-powered writing tools are developed, writers will need to stay informed and adapt to new technologies to remain competitive.
  4. Focus on niche areas: As AI becomes more capable of handling generic writing tasks, writers may need to focus on niche areas that require a human touch, such as writing about complex topics or creating emotionally charged content.
  5. Diversify their skills: Writers can stay relevant by diversifying their skills and becoming proficient in other areas, such as content marketing, social media management, or data analysis.
  6. Embrace collaboration: By collaborating with other writers and experts in different fields, writers can bring new perspectives to their work and create content that is both innovative and informed.

Most importantly, we need to stay flexible with respect to our changing professional landscape. No amount of skill training will help someone who remains ideologically committed to a professional paradigm that is on the way out. Staying open-minded about what it means to be a writer and what kind of writers we can be is the best way for us to carve a path forward.

In Conclusion: Did I Use ChatGPT to Write This Article?

I did use ChatGPT to write some explanatory paragraphs in this article, but about 80% of the content came straight from my fingertips on the keyboard. ChatGPT was trained on internet content, most of which is bloated marketing material, not my personal nonfiction narrative style, so it is a fantastic aid in my day job as a marketing copywriter but of limited helpfulness in crafting witty polemic prose.

But this won’t remain my arrangement for long.

I expect within the year, it will be possible for me to license my own instance of ChatGPT to train on my own work. This will not only massively increase my blogging productivity, but also dramatically improve my work, as I will be able to train my ChatGPT instance on only the best of my published work. I will even be able to do writing exercises just to give my ChatGPT instance training data, a luxury that is currently too time-consuming for me to practice by hand. The end result will be a shadow-me that is not only exponentially faster at writing than I am, but better as well.

This ChatGPT instance will, in terms of technical ability, become the writer I have always aspired to be, in one-one-thousandth of the time it would take me.

And behind the keyboard will be the real me, Sam Holstein, directing the Sam-Holstein-AI with my ideas, my themes, and my insights, to produce work that is more illuminating and insightful for readers than I was ever able to when typing by hand.

My readers will not care that I used AI. It will not even cross their minds. They will only care that I have changed their lives.

Tell me how that’s a bad thing.

Footnotes

1: I later rectified this problem by reading about theory of mathematics and statistics as an adult. It is patently offensive that I paid over $50,000 for a degree from a fairly prestigious engineering school, and had to correct that failed education with $25 books from Barnes & Noble.

2: I recognize I’m quoting Villasenor a lot, but he is on fire.