A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
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The captions you see below my face are robo-generated.
What I actually said in the video: “Year-end budgeting”
What the robot heard me say: “💦🚽”
LinkedIn gives you the option when you post a video: “Do you want to edit the captions?” Always say: HECK YES I DO.
It’s a good reminder: Always take an extra few minutes to edit your auto-generated captions.
And it’s a good reminder of something else more important, too.
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AI Writing is all the rage.
If I had a nickel for every post I saw in my social feed this week about ChatGPT… I’d be wrapping all my holiday gifts in gold leaf tied with ribbons made from twenty-dollar bills.
I have a lot of thoughts about AI platforms and tools and how they help/hurt writers, marketers, and other tender creative souls. I’m working on a new keynote about it now.*
*(Well, not now-now: Right now I’m writing to you. But you knew that.)
But for now, here are a few of my early thoughts about AI & writing that have been knocking around my noggin.
AI is a tool.
That’s it. Full stop.
It’s a power tool, sure—maybe a diamond-toothed chainsaw capable of felling a redwood. But it’s also just a tool.
The question becomes: Who is holding the tool? (Hat tip to Mitch Joel.)
You can put a vibrating, live diamond-toothed chainsaw in my inexperienced, unpracticed, ignorant hands and within seconds I will lose control of it and catch my sleeve in the blade and oh my god I just sheered my arm clean off and then in a panic (chainsaw thrashing wildly) I hack off the limbs off anyone standing near me and before I black out I see everything, everywhere is chaos. It’s a bloodbath.
AI tools like ChatGPT remind me of that chaos.
The flurry of activity on social media this past week. The momentum of millions of new ChatGPT accounts. It’s not a exactly a bloodbath—but it’s a lot of wild energy that is fueling both panic and euphoria.
It’s not that you can’t use ChatGPT in useful, substantive ways to be a better writer. Or to write at all: A flummoxed, frozen writer might use it to translate a garbled idea in their head into a basic listicle or email or meta description.
But what about more than that? What about writers like us? What do we make of it?
It comes down to the fundamental question: Who is holding the tool?
The one holding the tool should treat AI as a party plus one. AI is the guest we invite into our work, not the one throwing the party.
The Sentences On Demand that AI generates is not where the real power is. The power comes in pushing us to better work.
Who is holding the tool?
The one holding the tool should recognize that the output from AI has a lot of swagger. Yet it can be completely off.
One of the things that struck me about ChatGPT was how weirdly confident it is. It writes with the tone of the righteous.
The text it delivers swaggers like a running back dancing in the end zone…THIS! Yes! I did it! Here is the result! This is my truth! <Spikes ball! Team high-fives!>
But in AI’s case, the swagger is unearned. The text it delivers is sometimes wrong. Biased. Just a little bit off.
Will it get better? I hope so.
But always: Check the work. Ask questions. Research on your own. Plus-one guest, not host!
Who is holding the tool?
The one holding the tool should realize that Sentences On Demand are way less interesting than what’s to come.
What if the next evolution of AI tools don’t just help us create better work… but challenge us, too?
What if this Sentences On Demand grows up to become a full-fledged writing assistant—a North Pole workshop elf—that’s able to literally workshop a piece alongside us?
Maybe instead of us bugging others for feedback—Does this make sense to you? Does the logic work?—what if instead an AI tool can lay its robot eyeballs on our work, challenging us to bust out of the well-worn tracks writers stay inside.
You know those tracks: The pet analogies we go back to. The usual way we write. Can it help me disrupt myself?
AI might eventually tell me something like…
“Yo! Cut the boring bit in this paragraph.”
Or: “Your leap of logic here is waaaaay too wide a leap—like you’ve crossed the Grand Canyon. The reader can’t follow. You need to give them a sure-footed burrow to get them there, metaphorically.”
Or: “That power chainsaw / bloodbath thing above is a tad dramatic, isn’t it? Limbs being hacked clean off? I mean… really?”
Can AI help me disrupt myself? Can it help you disrupt yourself?
You can’t put AI in the hands of someone who can’t write and expect anything other than mediocre. And you can’t ever expect AI to ever disrupt your own writing—to call you to a higher place creatively—without a little gung-ho and gusto of your own.
AI doesn’t work on its own… not really.
It requires discerning people who care. It needs discerning people who care.
So back to our question. Who is holding the tool? You are. (I’m resisting saying “Urine charge.”)
Play around with it. Try it out.
But don’t slice your arm off, OK?