AI can only make books different

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You’d have to be living under a rock to miss the rise of the AI writer. We can’t call software an author, but software can write. Actually, it can rewrite, cleaning up writing in what at first looks like revisions. Today’s AI is delivering something that looks as much like creations as a photo of a rose smells like a flower. What’s the harm in that? Last week, one literary journal had to shut down its story reading early, because AI-generated submissions were clogging the pipes on its editors’ desks.

Someone has to read all of that writing at a journal, or a publishing house, just to decide what’s good enough to print. Once fiction writers skip the steps of creativity, or steps of clarity and economy for nonfiction writers, they can submit a lot. People are talking about making authors take a vow their work didn’t come through an AI robot. That’s a promise that would be easy to make and easier to break.

Revising and editing can be the easiest part of an author’s workload, or the hardest. The objective for Draft Two is never as simple as making something look different, though. Pour first-draft writing into an AI website like Quillbot and you get a second draft. The rewritten piece can read like an echo in a second language, wandering into substituted words all to convince an author the work is getting better.

As editors, we make our marks on books by making decisions. This phrase sounds smoother than that one, or this word is a more vivid and more accurate choice. There’s a moment in the the movie Genius where the legendary editor Max Perkins explains the human touch in editing authors. “As editors we hope we’re doing more than making books different. We work to make them better.”

AI that could learn about a writer’s style, tics and tendencies, their repeated missteps and suggest helpful corrections, would be a powerful tool. It’s something like a battery-powered chainsaw, though. It cuts, and not cleanly, and when you need more horsepower, you need to recharge it with your own revisions.

Still, the promises are floating to the surface this year — along with the warnings that AI writing software, including ChatGPT, is not perfect and may auto-generate offensive content. Content writer Joe Dysart, who charges for $350 per story for blog posts and newsletter articles, explains the AI bargain with the devil. “The more rules you put in place to filter output from an AI writer, the less creativity you’ll be able to enjoy.”

The lit journal Clarkesworld had to shut down its submissions, swamped by AI stories from ChatGPT. Novelist Lincoln Michel says Clarkeworld is just the first. “We’re going to see ChatGPT stories clogging up every magazine and publisher soon. It doesn’t matter if AI writing programs ever get good. They can still ruin things while being bad.”

One wound that’s hard to spot will be the damage to an author’s hope. We open up our notebooks and our laptops and take a deep breath of faith. We know it’s not easy to write well enough to sell a story. Software doesn’t make it easy, either — just easy enough to accept a lower caliber of creativity. Why work so hard, when machine- based writing is good enough? The answer is art and craft, a couple of things AI falls short of producing.

Intelligence from software is a great tool for authors. A clarity checker like Hemingway (free on the Web) does useful analysis. The same can be true for the likes of Autocrit, Lingofy, Pro Writing Aid, or Grammarly. But the piano won’t play itself (unless it’s a player piano stocked with rolls of pre-played music). Writing that sings, because it’s unique and daring, can make an impact that lasts.

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