4 Skills Creative Writers Need to Combat AI
Honestly, I’m getting so tired of hearing about AI writing platforms that I almost didn’t write this post. Entire books, scholarly articles, marketing campaigns, and even sermons are being written using ChatGPT. Last week, there was a particularly demoralizing discussion about whether screenplays composed using AI should be considered for the Academy Awards.
Ugh. As if this world isn’t technology-dependent enough as it is.
But it’s not all bad. I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues in the internet writing space talk about how to use AI in your writing projects legitimately, and I agree that there are ways that it makes life convenient in some areas.
When I worked in marketing full-time, we used the software to brainstorm bullet points and language for copywriting. I never used the output from the program word for word, but not having to sit at my desk drumming up product benefits made me more productive. I could take the best of the program’s ideas and adapt them to fit the client’s goals.
By themselves, the results weren’t great. They didn’t fit the brand voice, and some of their descriptions of the products were pretty generic. But frequently, something popped out that snapped other campaign pieces into place.
There are even AI programs out there that can help writers brainstorm ideas for stories.
The point is that while there are many options for appropriately using AI, certain skills will become more vital as it grows more innovative and popular. Adapting to developing technology is nothing new for writers. Sooner or later, we’ll probably all have to consider how AI fits into our process or even the industry in general.
However, our ability to do so depends on how well we can step up certain areas and elements of the writing process.
Here are five skills you need to be prepared to level up as AI grows in creative communities.
Editing and Proofreading
AI technology for editing and proofreading is as old as that annoying animated paper clip from Microsoft Word circa 1999. But now that dude has been forced into retirement, and we have Grammarly and other programs that can magically point out errors in your writing and adjust your wording to make it sound more confident and friendlier.
Here’s the problem, though: Grammarly gets it wrong. Spellcheck gets it wrong. There is no substitute for solid knowledge and study of the English language, which is why it is essential that you master how good writing works on the sentence level.
Go to Amazon right now and get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the grammatical bible for the publishing industry. The thing is the size of a doorstop, but it contains everything you need to know about the deep grammatical questions of the universe as well as other stylistic and tonal elements you need to master.
There are a lot of other great resources and tips for self-editing, and I discuss those in this blog post. But you need a style manual, and you need to study it. I wish I had a better answer for you than buying a three-inch-thick book, but honestly, it’s the best thing you can do right now so you can tell when Grammarly is inevitably wrong.
When I taught college, I was an expert at detecting plagiarism. Most of my career in this field happened before plagiarism-checking software was developed, so all I had to go on was intuition and Google.
But nine times out of 10, when I thought something sounded a little off in my students’ essays, I was usually right.
They did so much writing in class and as homework that I knew what their “writing voices” sounded like.” Therefore, when one of them handed in an essay that included complex sentence structure and multi-syllable words that even I had to look up, I wasn’t surprised when I popped one of those sentences into a Google search and saw where it originated.
AI doesn’t do voice well, which is a big problem. Think about the artistry that goes into writing excellent dialogue or the narrative voices that are so compelling that we’re still reading and being influenced by the books that feature them.
You can’t make something like Jane Austen or J.D. Salinger on a computer. AI can’t make your voice, either.
The way you develop voice in your writing is by paying attention. Listen to how people communicate. Observe them in restaurants or the grocery store or the mall. Flannery O’Connor famously said that the writer should never be ashamed of staring, but I’m sure she’d agree that you should never be ashamed of eavesdropping, either.
Knowing When to Break the Rules
I’m generally skeptical of any books or tutorials that offer some formula for plot development. They’ve just never helped me. I’ve always felt like they get in the way of my ability to see where the story ends up.
But there are specific tenets of creative writing that need to be followed simply because they’re how stories work. For example, if your character doesn’t experience change on some level, your story isn’t going to be relatable or believable. If the storyline is just flat with no real fluctuations in action or emotion, your reader is going to be bored.
And before you launch into some counter-argument about Waiting for Godot or Seinfeld, let me say that both texts feature drama and change even though they may not seem to on the surface. The characters may not change, but the audience does because we realize just how similar we and our real lives are to the often-absurdist actions of the characters.
If they haven’t already, I’m sure someone will find a way to program AI with the Dramatic Unities or Freytag’s Pyramid. But without human insight and ingenuity, those facts of how good stories work mean nothing.
Until you imbue your story with the realities of human interaction and relationships, the concrete details of the world your characters inhabit, and the empathy that lets readers connect emotionally with them, your plot is just a list of events.
Improvement & Study of Craft
AI can get smarter. We’re seeing it happen right now. But writers can also get smarter, making it of the utmost importance that we pursue excellence in our work through the study of craft.
When I was in my MFA program, people talked about “craft” all the time, and it became one of those buzzwords that are used so often that the meaning becomes obscured. After almost seventeen years of writing professionally or teaching writing, I understand that it just refers to the skills you have at your disposal to be good at what you do.
I watched a lot of PBS when I was sick at home as a kid. After the traditional kids’ program ended around noon or one in the afternoon, the educational programming started. One of those shows was called The Art Chest. In each episode, Mr. Mihuta, a Bob Ross wannabe who never quite got there, opened up a cool wooden treasure box containing all the supplies you would need to make the day’s craft.
By the end of the twenty-minute program, you would have a clay pot, a butterfly, a popsicle stick house, or something else neat.
Craft is like the Art Chest. Every time you learn something new, you get to put something else in your box. The more tools you have in your box, the more you’ll be able to discern which ones your story needs.
AI doesn’t have an Art Chest. It doesn’t have a toolbox of any kind.
So, start educating yourself. Read great books about craft by writers who will take apart stories and show you how they work. Read books by authors you like and apply those principles to what they are doing.
Compared to that, AI writers are just amateurs.
Want to Learn More About Developing Your Writing Craft?
Check out my Ultimate Writing Project workbooks.
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If you’re a nonfiction or fiction writer, click here to grab a workbook.
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