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The AI Rabbit Hole of Writing: A personal journey with AI manuscript review


Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

Writing, we are told by some of the most famous and successful authors, is passion, a necessity, the staff of their lives and something from which they wish to have no escape. Staring into the night sky or taking contemplative walks stirrers the creative juices in them, but none of them will offer a specific formula, and that is as it should be. 

Writing is a highly individual profession and not for the faint of heart. Of course, I should mention that a number of decades ago I went to a meeting where a “poet” had her work displayed in a documentary for mental health professionals. The woman, an African-American, who had a long history of mental illness, was driven to write and her choice was poetry.

How do you write poetry if you are locked in a mental health facility or a supported living environment where you do not have access to materials. Nor is your passion recognized as anything other than flights of fancy brought on by your illness? She, being creative in her own way, found that brown paper bags, carefully unfolded and ironed out, were her paper. 

One small pencil, left by someone on a desk, was the only writing instrument available. What could she have produced if there had been one moment of recognition or empathy for that woman’s wish to be a creative person? We are left to wonder because I am sure she has gone on to her reward.

Writing is also a lonely profession where quiet and freedom from distraction is an absolute must. Thinking about one of the greatest writers of all, J. D. Salinger, I am reminded that each day he left the house and went to write. Where did he go? He went to a concrete block building on his property where he wrote all day long, every day. Manuscript after manuscript was produced, but never published and only now, after his death, is there new consideration by his heirs to publish some of his material.

Technology has now entered the writing scene as never before and it will make great changes in what is produced, how much is produced and how quickly it is distributed to readers. Anyone who wishes to write can write, but that doesn’t ensure the quality and that is where we find the rub. 

Editors who make their services available for thousands of dollars or ghostwriters who do the same, are out there and waiting for neophytes who wish to have a novel published. The result is not all is not what they often wish and I’m not sure that everyone is pleased that their money was well spent. Now, however, comes artificial intelligence and this may be, what they like to say, a game-changer.

News outlets have begun turning over editorial production to their bots programs. For that reason, we see errors in syntax and words used in off-kilter ways. It screams “No humans were involved in producing this product.” 

Is that what anyone who writes wants or does the public expect that automation will take over writing? AI is still dumb but it will get better. An example? I wrote an article and the AI suggested that instead of the word “poor” (as in poor neighborhood), it wanted me to substitute “sick.” The word made no sense in the context of the piece. Poor is not sick and never will be. Poor is poor, but AI didn’t know that. Yes, Grammarly, your program made that disturbing suggestion.

Wanting to test the ability or limits of AI, I submitted a manuscript. I eagerly awaited the resulting multi-page report plus a marked-up copy of my original manuscript. My thoughts? 

Lots of irrelevant stats that do a writer no good. For instance, how would knowing the number of paragraphs or how many times you used “the” in the piece would be helpful? AI doesn’t know what is relevant and what’s just stats. Grammar would be helpful, but I already have a grammar program (Grammarly) and it works fine. Word picks up spelling errors and can take care of that aspect.

Comparing my work to top bestsellers, still, doesn’t help much. William Faulkner wrote sentences that ran on and on and on, so sentence length is useless. AI runs on a rigid algorithm that removes the creative aspect which is seen as “wrong.” Number of paragraphs? Wrong again. Does the number paragraphs add to anything?

Dialog may be interesting or extraneous in a work that is not heavily dependent on people speaking to each other or speaking at all. 

How many words should a “bestseller” novel have in it? I read that 120K is plenty, but the AI suggested 130–300K. Isn’t that like writing “War and Peace” or some other hefty tome? But this one is okay because it simply tells you what the major novelists are writing in terms of length. Not terribly useful, not okay.

And providing a correlation to other works? Wouldn’t that also be formulaic? Is that what creative writing is; formulaic?

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL