What Writers Need to Know To Be Better Than AI


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What Writers Need to Know To Be Better Than AI

I spent weeks exploring ChatGPT with my creative writing students. Here’s why understanding the limitations and uses of AI is crucial to succeeding as a fiction writer.

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First, the bad news. AI text generators like OpenAI’s ChatGPT can develop clear, straightforward prose in almost any genre (nonfiction, CNF, fiction, poetry, song lyrics, etc…) faster than you can. It’s a powerful tool, and like it or not, it’s already changing the writing landscape.

Still, when it comes to creative writing, AI has serious limitations. The more writers understand these limitations, the more they can enhance the human aspects of writing that AI can’t do.

AI’s biggest limitations for writing fiction

The crucial thing to remember is that AI has no understanding of human emotions or experiences. It only creates the illusion of meaningful prose by replicating patterns it “learns” from other texts. As ChatGPT told me when I asked how it works, “I process natural language input and generate natural language responses using algorithms and vast amounts of data I was trained on.”

In regards to writing fiction, the derivative nature of AI, and the lack of authentic understanding, lead to several limitations. Here are the main ones my students and I noticed:

It’s painfully literal.

Ask it to write a scene where “John cracks jokes like Eddie Murphy, while Jenny is more thoughtful and quotes philosophers,” and it will write lines like this: “John suddenly starts cracking jokes like Eddie Murphy. Jenny is deep in thought, quoting philosophers and talking about the fragility of life.”

It’s extremely formulaic and cliché.

Ask it to write a love poem, and it will churn out a master class on what not to do if you’re interested in fresh, memorable, insightful poetry.

Ask it to write a love poem, and it will churn out a master class on what not to do if you’re interested in fresh, memorable, insightful poetry.

It has a predictable sense of story structure.

AI develops blunt conflicts, quickly resolves them, and ends scenes with contrived hooks. Three times ChatGPT ended a scene with the following sentence: “For now.” (As in, “John and Jenny were happy. For now.”)

It develops zero subtext.

Real people use language to imply, avoid, and deflect, but AI usually creates dialogues where characters say exactly what they’re thinking.

It only creates flat characters.

AI has no understanding of the desires and internal conflicts that make characters interesting, complex, surprising, and round.

It’s hard to get it to develop an interesting voice or style.

At best, AI can churn out superficial imitations of another writer’s style. For example, when asked to revise a passage in the style of Cormac McCarthy, it added in words like “traversed” and “ominous,” but changed little else.

The longer the passage, the less things hold together.

AI tends to be better at short passages, and can’t generate longer stories with complex character arcs and deep narrative drives.

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Overall, its sentences are clear and grammatically correct, while being mind-numbingly one-dimensional with very little depth, nuance, insight, style, emotion, or innovation. Consequently, the fiction AI creates often feels soulless and hollow.

Seven helpful ways to use AI when writing fiction

My students and I found AI text generators have the greatest utility when engaged as tools for checking and modifying passages we’d already created. Here are the seven uses that worked best for us:

1) Providing suggestions for improving a passage you’ve written.

Feed in a passage and ask ChatGPT for suggestions and it will rattle off standard pieces of writing advice connected to specific lines (show don’t tell, include more sensory details, use active verbs, vary sentence structure, etc…). Although the suggestions might be good, we found it’s better to apply them on one’s own as AI tends to make passages duller when it revises them.

2) Shortening a passage.

Need to cut 1,000 words from a story? AI excels at summarizing and will “kill your darlings” with impressive efficiency. One tip: if you want to keep dialogue (or something else), tell it not to cut that. Also, using the “Regenerate response” option a few times can lead to better responses.

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3) Catching tense inconsistencies.

Not only will AI catch tense inconsistencies, it’s pretty good at changing tense in a passage. It can also change the point of view in a passage (for instance, from third to first), but it does so without understanding how changing point of view often involves more than changing pronouns.

4) Formatting dialogue and grammar conventions.

If you don’t like formatting dialogue, or if you struggle with commas, ask it to format a passage for you (although it might not get everything right), or help you with grammar (although it might suck the voice out of a piece).

5) Integrating research.

Say you’re writing a piece of historical fiction. AI can rapidly offer suggestions for integrating historical and geographic details. However, since it’s extremely literal, if you ask it to set a passage in a 14th Century French Village, it will translate the passage to French (touché ChatGPT).

Rather than having AI add in details, we got better results by asking it to list items, occupations, and buildings that would be part of a specific setting, then adding in details we liked ourselves. Note: AI is an infamous liar, so it’s a good idea to double-check the veracity of any information it provides.

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6) Complex world building.

Not only can AI quickly generate a list of rooms you might find in a vampire space castle, it remembers everything it generates and can add things to them (such as adding items and characters to each room). Folks are just beginning to explore how AI can serve as a powerful world building tool for fiction and games, especially when used in combination with AI image generators.

7) Getting unstuck.

If you run into a roadblock in your writing, feeding the passage into an AI text generator might help you see other possibilities. Personally, I didn’t like the versions ChatGPT generated, but seeing bad drafts helped me come up with better ways to approach things.

For best results…

My students and I almost always got more effective results when we wrote original drafts on our own and only used AI as a tool to help us develop ideas, rather than having AI generate a passage that we then attempted to spruce up.

Sci-fi author Ted Chiang has a great take on why this might be. As he put it in a recent New Yorker article: “Your first draft isn’t an unoriginal idea expressed clearly; it’s an original idea expressed poorly, and it is accompanied by your amorphous dissatisfaction, your awareness of the distance between what it says and what you want it to say. That’s what directs you during rewriting, and that’s one of the things lacking when you start with text generated by an A.I.”

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To be better than AI

Consider, for a moment, the difference between hearing a computer read a passage aloud, and hearing a great voice actor perform it. The first might adequately convey information, but it rapidly becomes tedious and isn’t going to replace voice acting anytime soon.

Likewise, I don’t think creative writers are at risk of being replaced by AI text generators, especially if writers focus on doing what AI can’t. In other words:

  • Develop a unique voice & style. Strive to say what only you can say, in the way only you can say it.
  • See subtext as your super-power. Think about the story beneath the story. Rather than having characters speak what they’re thinking, have them use dialogue to imply, avoid, challenge, and jest with each other.
  • Surprise readers with the unexpected. AI is perpetually derivative. To create sentences AI can’t, eliminate clichés and constantly look for new ways to express things.
  • Develop character thoughts and perceptions. AI is pretty terrible at this, since it has no understanding of human consciousness.
  • Explore the psychological complexity of characters. Constantly strive to provide insights into the desires, fears, and conflicts of being human.
  • Structure stories to have deep narrative drives with psychological, personal, and social resonance.

To get a sense of the importance of those last few points, consider that writing isn’t just about creating a product that conveys information. It’s about a process of asking questions, exploring possibilities, and finding new ways to understand and communicate experiences.

Writing isn’t just about creating a product that conveys information. It’s about a process of asking questions, exploring possibilities, and finding new ways to understand and communicate experiences.

Human writers work by reflecting on lived experiences and thinking, “How do I represent this in words?” AI works by gleaning patterns from other’s texts. It has no lived experiences to draw upon, so rather than a description of the real, it’s a simulation of a simulation — a funhouse mirror with no actual connection to what’s being described.

If AI texts flood our noosphere, the long-term impact may be to lead us further from reality, rather than deepening our awareness of what it means to be alive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. AI prose quickly becomes tiresome. The advent of AI text generation gives us a vital opportunity to embrace, accentuate, and support what makes human writing wonderful.


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