We are at the dawn of the AI-generated text age. How can writers use these new tools?
Should Writers Use AI Tools?
AI has been in the news in recent weeks, since the release of several AI text generation tools that have shown both the benefits and pitfalls of using this sort of program. AI can write coherent prose, yet sometimes it produces results that are clearly false. Even so, as long as care is taken to check their output, these tools can provide factual information that can be helpful to anyone doing research.
Should writers use these tools? What do they offer?
Welcome to ChatGPT
You may never have heard of AI, or at least ChatGPT, until a few weeks ago, when OpenAI released a beta version of their chatbot. Shortly after this, Microsoft announced that they had invested heavily in OpenAI, and released a version of this tool in the company’s Bing search engine. There are several AI chatbot tools, mostly based on GPT–3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3), which is a generative AI tool. This means that, unlike altering something that already exists - such as photo editing tools that can upscale low-resolution images, or remove items in the background of a photo - it can generate new content, based on prompts or questions input by humans.
ChatGPT is essentially a text repository that uses complex algorithms to create human-sounding texts. Most of its content comes from websites, newspapers, and other online texts, which means that it contains both good and bad content; it has crawled the newspaper and magazine websites, but also blogs and forums that contain hate speech. It has lots of of books in its repository, both fiction and non-fiction.
How can writers use AI?
AI tools can be a boon for writers. Used as research tools, they can save a lot of time. In fact, I’ve been using Microsoft’s Bing implementation of ChatGPT to help me write articles about technology, including this one. I don’t use texts written by ChatGPT, but I do use it for research. I often need to find many examples of something, and when I do a standard Google search I have to open lots of tabs and scan many articles to find what I’m looking for. With ChatGPT, I can get a bullet list of results that saves me a lot of time. These results have footnotes with links to websites where they were found, so if I need more information or to fact-check them by looking at the quality of the source, I can follow them up.
I asked ChatGPT to give me some ideas for an article on how writers can use AI:
These bullet points are all great ideas, and can help when you’re planning an article - or a section on your character's special interest, for instance. This sort of search is very different from what you get in a normal web search.
For example, if I were to ask Google for some “new fantasy authors” I get a list of websites whose titles contain “new fantasy author.” These key search terms help me zero in on websites that have published articles designed to answer that question. If I ask Bing’s ChatGPT the same thing, I get a different type of answer.
In addition to a few names, I get a prompt asking if I prefer one of two genres. Instead of clicking through and reading a number of articles, I can hone in on what I want. This is one of the advantages of this type of search. On Google, each search is discrete; with ChatGPT, searches can be refined in context.
You can also use AI to summarize articles; in Bing, I just type “summarize” and paste a link. You can also use AI to check grammar; use QuillBot to do a quick check of a text, or an entire chapter. And you can use AI tools to help you brainstorm, revise your work, or give you plot ideas. Rytr has a wide range of options, from blog articles to song lyrics.
I feel like writing a mystery novel, but I don’t have any ideas. So I asked ChatGPT to come up with one.
A prosecutor, who is devoid of purpose, investigates the murder of a famous novelist, who was found dead in his study with a bullet wound in his chest. The only clue is a cryptic note written by the victim before he died. The prosecutor teams up with a bachelor, who is a neat freak, and discovers that the novelist had many enemies among his family, friends and rivals. As they dig deeper into the case, they uncover a web of secrets, lies and betrayal that leads them to a shocking revelation.
Hmm… “devoid of purpose,” and “a bachelor, who is a neat freak;” these sound a bit contrived. But I could go with it.
Plots aren’t actually that complicated to come up with; it’s how you write the stories that bring them to a resolution that matter. “Young man gets revenge for the murder of his father.” That’s an elevator pitch for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But going from the pitch to the final story is a very long journey.
But I could definitely work with the plot above, or at least with its basic framework. I then asked for a character description of the prosecutor, and, among the four paragraphs was this:
He is divorced and has no children. He lives alone in a small apartment that he rarely cleans or decorates. He spends most of his free time watching TV or reading books. He has few friends and no hobbies.
When I then asked, “what is a good name for this character?,” it replied with a list of common male names in South Korea.
This is what, in AI, is called a hallucination. The AI bot replies to something with a response which, while fully grammatical, doesn’t make sense in the context. In this case, there’s nothing to indicate that the story takes place in a given country, so it decided to choose South Korea.
Can AI write novels?
I asked Bing’s ChatGPT if AI can write novels. It replied:
AI can write stories and novels with the help of machine-learning algorithms that learn from data on the internet. However, some experts say that AI-written books often lack creativity and can contain errors. AI writing software is still in its infancy and it may not be able to generate compelling and engaging plots by itself.
At least the AI is honest. There have already been hundreds of AI-written or co-written novels made available on Amazon, and one science-fiction magazine has stopped accepting submissions because it has received so much AI dreck. There’s no doubt that this trend will continue.
All writers know how much work it is to write a novel; many writers sign up for NaNoWriMo each November to focus on writing for thirty days, because they need that intensive work period. But wouldn’t it be easier if you could write a novel in a few hours using AI? That’s cheating. Right?
What if there was an AI tool that could help write a novel based on a detailed outline and character sketches? If you were to take AI-generated text and edit it to have your voice, would that be cheating?
I think most writers would frown on doing this, but there are certainly many who will take advantage of these tools. Sudowrite, for example, can write entire stories in a variety of styles, help you rewrite your own drafts, and generate descriptions based on words or phrases. It's possible you might want to use this when you’re short of ideas and need some more descriptive language. I asked Sudowrite to provide sensory descriptions based on “Walking happily along the beach.” Here are some of the results:
The waves break against the shore, the constant whistle of the wind and the shrieking of seagulls overhead.
The warm sand beneath my feet, the salty tang of the sea spray, the slippery moisture of seaweed and the rough textured sandstone.
The tangy sea air, the salty scent of old fish, the woody smell of driftwood drying in the sun, the crisp smell of a crackling bonfire.
Going further, Toolsaday generates stories based on prompts. (It also creates copy for Facebook or Google ads, writes Instagram captions, and composes emails; this is where AI will be widely used in the future.) But its stories read like pulp fiction:
Ethan’s father was a detective, and a very good one at that. His last case was of an elusive criminal called The Viper, who had been evading the police for years. But, his luck ran out when Ethan’s dad got on his trail. The Viper knew he couldn’t outrun the detective and so he killed him. Ethan swore to avenge his father’s murder and spent every waking hour in search of clues so he could track down The Viper.
But the humanity…
When I spoke with veteran audiobook narrator Simon Vance about the burgeoning trend of using AI voices for audiobooks, he told me that AI narration lacks humanity. The same is true of AI-written fiction. But, as ChatGPT told me, “AI writing software is still in its infancy.” We are seeing a sudden explosion in AI writing software, and this will revolutionize the world of business, perhaps as much as the photocopier did many decades ago. A great deal of work time is spent composing emails, writing reports, and preparing presentations. All of this will be streamlined by AI, especially as Microsoft is going to bring ChatGTP to its Office 365 apps. Other companies will follow, and very soon we will wonder how we did without AI in the office.
Around 2,500 years ago, Socrates complained that new technology - writing - would be harmful. In Phaedrus, he said, “It will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: 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.” Will this new technology be harmful because it does so much for us?
As far as fiction writing is concerned, I think there’s no need to fear...yet. However, it’s possible that, in the future, an author could write one novel, then have an AI tool create a model from that to reproduce their style in subsequent novels, leaving them free to spend lots of time on the beach sipping drinks with little umbrellas. And I’m sure that a publisher would keep using that writing model long after their death…
For more on using ChatGPT in writing, see William Gallagher’s video Writing and Not Writing with ChatGPT.
Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.