I know ChatGPT can write. I’ve played with it with varying degrees of success. I’ve watched in awe as it magically types the answer to your question at a fast walking pace. It doesn’t procrastinate, like I do. It doesn’t get distracted and start looking something else up in the middle of writing. Or stop for a cup of tea. But still, ChatGPT will never be a better writer than you.
It doesn’t change its mind about the right order to say things in. Or think of a better word or phrase and edit to get the new better bit in. There’s no jiggling of words to find a more pleasing rhythm. No rewriting to make it feel warmer, or pacier, or funnier or more direct.
"Chat GPT is a show off. "
No wrangling of sentences to try and simplify something that’s not clear. No messing with the punctuation to make a paragraph flow. No editing to hit the word count, because it’s written exactly to the right number first time round. Chat GPT is a show off.
There’s absolutely no doubt in Chat GPTs mind about the answer, it just jogs on unwaveringly towards its confident conclusion. Beginning, middle, end, wham bam thank you mam. So the process is impressive. The results, well, I’m not so sure. What it’s written is probably factually okay, although the more I read about the accuracy of GPT the less sure I am of its all seeing rightness. And it’s structured in a nice simple way. But it all’s just a bit meh. Flat. It doesn’t taste quite right.
Chat GPT copy doesn’t taste quite right
There’s a parallel here with food. I could nip into the supermarket on the way home and pick up the very cheapest of cheap frozen lasagnes, and I could heat it up in the microwave, and be eating lasagne within 5 minutes of getting home. Like ChatGPT, my frozen lasagne would be a quick response to the question ‘feed me’. It would look like lasagna. Hopefully. That’s the basic requirement. There would be layers of pasta, there would be some kind of filling, there would be a cheese sauce on top. Probably a bit pale and anaemic, more of a white gloop than a rich creamy tangy sauce, but hey, it’s quick and I’m hungry.
If I’m lucky it might taste a bit like lasagna, but it definitely wouldn’t taste as good as if I stopped at an Italian restaurant and ordered lasagna, or even if I made the lasagna myself. I’m going to stop saying lasagna now. It sounds weird. I sound weird. That’s another thing ChatGPT lacks. Self doubt. Even more important than the fact it only looks like a pale imitation of a proper lasagna – I’ve said it again – and only kind of tastes like lasagna – and again – is the fact that nutritionally speaking, it’s not very good for you.
And that’s where the parallel gets more relevant. Because I don’t think that Chat GPTs production line content which looks like writing, is structured like writing, and tastes a bit like writing, is very good for you either.
Writing is good for you
I know I’m in the minority, although maybe not in this room, but I really love writing. I appreciate that this is a privileged position. I studied English literature at University and got to read loads of books in the days before student loans. I don’t find writing difficult. I’m not dyslexic. I can spot a typo at 20 paces. I think I have quite an intuitive response to the effects that words have on people, And I’m not sure how much of this is taught, or like Maybelline, and how much I was born with it. But if you are a writer too, I wonder if you’re thinking, like me, why would you want ChatGPT to do your writing for you? I mean, really? The writing is the good bit! There’s a lot of other parts of work or running your own business that aren’t as fun. Worrying about not having enough clients, demanding clients, sending invoices, chasing invoices, too many meetings, networking events – none of those are much fun for me. But give me a couple of clear hours and something to write, and that’s a good day. Writing gives me a chance to focus, to think clearly and to be creative – and that makes me feel good.
"Writing gives me a chance to focus, to think clearly and to be creative - and that makes me feel good. "
I guess what I’m saying is look at what you lose if you handover the writing process to AI. What happens If you outsource your creativity to ChatGPT? Because I think every bit of the process is important. Good writing isn’t just a magic trick of typing fast. It’s the culmination of all the stages that went before it. It’s coming up with the idea, it’s the research, it’s the messy first draft when you think you just don’t know enough and it’s all a big jumble. It’s the sifting, the reordering, the rewriting, it’s the beautiful edit where you slash words and the shape and the meaning start to glow.
Your brain loves writing
It’s the things you notice in the world while you’re writing – the patterns, the coincidences, the resonances. Because when you’re writing your brain is working on it even when you’re not sitting at your computer. Get stuck into writing something good and you’ll see the world through a new lens for a while. Writing wakes you up. Makes your brain fire on all cylinders. Memories come tumbling out of the cupboard in your mind and new connections are forged. Scraps of conversation with friends are felt louder and deeper and all these influences find their way into your draft. Good writers are curious and they listen. Writing isn’t just tapping out the required number of words in a formulaic pattern, writing is creative thinking. Good writing is good thinking. And why would you want to outsource that? Writing isn’t just the end product, it’s a hugely valuable process too.
"Memories come tumbling out of the cupboard in your mind and new connections are forged."
Let’s dig a bit deeper.What happens when you write? You pick up a pencil or sit in from a keyboard and you move your fingers. You draw a connection between yourself and the page. You connect with your own subconscious, you find patterns, you make connections, you work things out. It’s a powerful process, maybe even more powerful than you might realise.
Writing for wellbeing
You can use writing as a formula to boost your own well-being. Test it. Write down three good things that happened today. And do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow. Keep going. Call it a gratitude diary, if you like, but you don’t have to call it that, if gratitude gives you the ick. My lovely friend Kate rails against the word gratitude. What am I supposed to write?! I’m grateful for flowers! I’m grateful for animals! I can’t write that! Call it what you like, but get into the pattern of writing down three good things a day and your mind will start to shift. New neural pathways will form. Your brain will be on alert to look for the three good things, and the more you look for good things, the more good things you will find. You will become the kind of person that good things happen to. You’ll write yourself into a better place, and so why on earth would you want to outsource all that goodness to ChatGPT?
"Your brain loves writing. It helps you to make sense of the world, to order your thoughts, and to communicate with yourself and with other people."
Chat GPT can never be you
I get that Chat GPT can certainly write faster than you. Maybe more effectively than you. But what it can’t do, and that’s a very big BUT indeed, is be you. It isn’t human. Chat GPT has never fallen in love or been broken hearted or lost a job or tried to run a business or got drunk or broken its favourite mug or laid in the long grass on a warm Spring day staring up at the sky thinking about the meaning of life. And it’s sharing these human experiences that connect us with each other.
Your real human experiences – big life changing ones and everyday mundane ones – are what make you you. And it’s human qualities, like vulnerability and empathy and humour, that help our writing to connect with our readers.
"Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something not even our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, can do"
I think that writing is a very human response to the world. We’ve been doing it since before we had language. Cave paintings contain human’s earliest writing. There is evidence in caves in France that 40,000 years ago our ancestors were using dots and lines as code to communicate information about the world around them. Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something no other animal, not even our closest cousins the chimpanzees, can do. It is arguably also the foundation for our advanced, global culture.
And part of me wonders that if we lose the connection with those primitive, hand drawn marks, what else do we sacrifice? I heard Margaret Atwood being interviewed recently. She writes her novels by hand to begin with, before typing them into a computer. She said that in some parts of America children are no longer being taught how to write by hand, rather they’re going straight to the keyboard. Presumably so they can go straight to Chat GPT who will write whatever they need to write for them. And so there will come a time when a generation of people will no longer be able to read Margaret Atwood’s handwritten drafts. Those marks on the paper that capture her ideas unfolding will become as incomprehensible and strange as marks on a cave wall are to us. And I might be being over dramatic, (it wouldn’t be the first time) but there’s something chilling to me about future girls no longer being able to understand the early drafts of a HandMaids Tale.
So much of the writing process do we really want to give up? Is asking ChatGPT to write the bits of content that we don’t want to write just the start? How long before we ask it to do more? How long before we stop teaching people to write by hand at all?
I guess at the heart of my response to this is that I love writing. Both the process for me as a writer, and the results of other people’s writing, as a reader. The kind of writing that I value most is original, and honest, and beautiful, and funny. That’s what connects with me, and I’d hate to take steps that led to the loss of that. ChatGPT is a tool, and it has many uses, but don’t stop writing!