3 Types of Editing That Artificial Intelligence Can’t Do (Yet)
What exactly can writers do that computers can’t?
Not long ago, this question seemed like a question creative professionals would never have to deal with. Sure, those spreadsheet spinning suckers in accounting would be replaced, but a machine could never match the spark and spontaneity of writing, right?
The answer to that question has changed in recent years.
It got scary for us keyboard warriors when a technology called GPT-2 came along. After consuming the first line of 1984 or Pride and Prejudice, the machine spit out semi-nonsensical (but completely readable) paragraphs.
The new version - GPT-3 - raised the stakes a couple of months ago. GPT-3 stunned a psychologist by answering a question in a way that the psychologist would "definitely say."
Still, just because a computer can sound like a human doesn't mean it can sound like all humans. If a person ordered you, me, Donald Trump and GPT-3 to write a tweet about climate control, those results would be vastly different. As of today, robots do not create. They mimic.
More to the point, the act of defining and refining an idea is not done through the kind of first-draft vomit writing that computers do, but through the editing that takes place after the fact. Editing, meaningful editing, is still in our power.
Although spellchecking is better than its ever been, the need for content editing has never been higher. Here are three ways the modern writer can improve her work in ways that artificial intelligence can't.
1. Redundancy editing
There is really nothing wrong with using the word "really." But if you really lean into the work, the repetition will really wear on your audience. They won't really know why, but soon, they'll begin to get really bored and go do something else, like watch paint dry. That will be really fun compared to your redundant writing.
Grammarly won't find anything wrong with the above paragraph. Humans will. They might not know what is wrong, but they will stop reading quickly. Though the example above is extreme, it's not uncommon for a writer to keep coming back to the same word. This is typically not a sign of poor vocabulary, just poor editing.
Redundant writing drives away readers because a word's meaning diminishes each time it is used. As the novelty wears off, so too does its effect. You can thank neural adaptation for that.
The nuance of language allows you to be nuanced in your writing. Each word has power and a past passed down from generation to generation. English is a small miracle. Latin and French and Dutch and Sanskrit and countless other influences were all thrown into a pot and - bam! - English emerged. Incredible.
When you see the same word cropping up over and over, take the opportunity to be more accurate. Is your topic "exciting," or is it simply "interesting?" Is it "promising" or does it have "potential?" Was the man "happy" or "joyful?"
The point, after all, is to say exactly what you mean. There are roughly a million words in the English language. When you find yourself using the same 12, challenge yourself. Pick another one. Consider it a gift to your reader.
2. Cliché editing
A cliché is an overused phrase. It's usually a metaphor or a simile. On one hand, a cliché can be a useful way to recycle a series of words that serve a certain function. On the other hand, if you read between the lines, you'll find many writers put all their eggs in the cliché basket, and lose the chance for originality and impact. This is a tale as old as time.
You know clichés. In fact, you probably know them so well that you've forgotten their original meaning.
"You can't judge a book by its cover." (Not a phrase about books)
"Look before you leap." (Not a phrase about jumping)
"Bury the hatchet" (Not a phrase about weapons)
Clichés aren't bad per se. They are often usually just first draft shortcuts that often leak into the second and third drafts. Most often, clichés are used because we simply have no time to think of a proper replacement. There are stories to file, books to write, and posts to publish.
Clichés have a lifecycle, just like anything else. Saying someone was "cancelled" was strange and evocative in 2020. Now, the phrase is more common and familiar. Advising a person to "burn their boats" might drive new self-help readers to action, but those of us who are familiar with this analogy will likely yawn.
How does a writer weed out these word weasels? Here's linguistics professor Edwin L. Battistella:
"As we proofread, we should give any piece of writing a cliché-check, noting phrases that seem overly familiar and deciding if we really need them or if there is perhaps a better way to express the thought. If we decide to keep an idea, we might come up with a better, fresher way to say it."
What does that look like in practice? That's where the fun (and agony) of being a writer comes in. "The last straw" or "the end of my rope" might become "the final domino." Tried and true passages like "you can't judge a book by its cover" could be "a logo does not make the brand." You might even want to turn a common phrase to add a bit of flair and humor. "All's well that ends well" may transform into a snarky "all's well that ends with a big pile of money."
A fair warning: go too far down this cliché rabbit hole, and you may drive yourself crazy. If you find yourself spinning in circles for hours, use the cliché and call it a day. Published work with a few clichés is much better than unpublished work with none.
3. Parallel structure editing
Saying a sentence has parallel structure is the proper way of saying "this sentence feels right." Take the following sentence, written by my wonderful friend @Minnow Park
"We have to risk failure, embarrassment, and not getting it quite right."
Do you understand what Minnow is trying to say here? Yes. Of course you do. But can it be sharper? Yes.
Parallel structure offenses most often take place with items in a series. Consider the following:
“Minnow ran, jumped, and started happily dancing down the hall when he published his first essay.”
Again, you understand what this sentence is trying to say, but it doesn't feel quite right. If you read it aloud, the last action would fall, not flow, off your tongue. If you were to write the sentence again with parallel structure, it would look like this:
"Minnow ran, jumped, and danced down the hall when he published his first essay."
“Ran,” “Jumped” and “Danced” are all single-word past tense verbs. (As a bonus, they also have 1 syllable each). The structure is parallel.
You can use any part of speech with parallel structure. As a matter of fact, Minnow did it correctly in another post he wrote. Gaze upon the beauty of these three clean gerunds in a row:
“That quiet trust in ourselves can feel a lifetime away depending on how much brainwashing, suppressing, or shaming was done to you.”
Thinking back to the original sentence, how can we make the structure parallel? Is there a single-word noun that means "not getting it quite right?" Probably there are a few. Here's the one I came up with:
“We have to risk failure, embarrassment, and imperfection.”
It's worth addressing how long, exactly, we have before artificial intelligence can replace the writing professional. The truth? Nobody really knows.
Here's journalist Cade Metz in the New York Times:
"Some [AI researchers] believe that if you give neural networks enough time and data or computerized simulations of the world, eventually they’ll reach human intelligence. And others think that’s just ridiculous, at least in the foreseeable future."
Fascinating as it is, GPT-3 still has significant issues (like a habit of bias and hatred). With this technology being quite expensive to build, it's not exactly inevitable that Silicon Valley will be pumping out those guys from iRobot any time soon.
In the near future, we'll likely end up with better versions of what we have now - little assistants to help take away the more dull parts of writing: spell checking, grammar, and research summaries.
Connecting the dots, and making that connection clear, is still the writer's responsibility.
At least, for now.