The Future of Writing is Bright

I’ve never been more excited about writing than I am now. I mean right at this very special moment as generative AI climbs the consumer adoption bell curve to early majority territory.

Over the past year, I’ve encountered countless posts (often on LinkedIn) that advise me to “find new ways to incorporate AI into my workflow.” I’ve seen folks recommend that I should feed ChatGPT a few examples of emails I’ve written, and then prompt it to write emails for me. I’m told that AI will do the heavy lifting for me when it comes to document generation and summarization—there’s no shortage of tips and hacks and best practices for generating prompts that will help me get the most out of these burgeoning technologies.

I’m reminded again and again that “AI won’t replace me, but someone using AI will.”

There are lots of things that generative AI can do extremely well, and I certainly avail myself of the available tools when they make sense. I’ve used it to write code, draft project briefs, clean up data, and create cover images for blog posts, among other things. I suppose it makes sense to be someone who uses AI if that’s the career difference-maker. But the reality is that most of the emails that I write require depth of explanation, unique insight into the problem I’m discussing, and a sensitivity to the concerns and queries of everyone who is cc’ed. It would take more time to input the prompt, wait for the response, copy the text into my email draft, and edit the nonsense than it would for me to just write the thing myself. If I need to write something basic, I’d rather create a standardized template that I duplicate and riff on.

I don’t need to ride a motorcycle to my next-door neighbor’s house.

Saying What’s Been Said Before

I recently read a fantastic article from Ryan Law, Director of Content Marketing at Ahrefs, titled “AI Content Is Short-Term Arbitrage, Not Long-Term Strategy.“ The gist is that a generative AI company used their tool to crank out 1,800 articles to boost traffic to their website and in turn tank a competitor’s traffic. And it worked. At least for a little bit. But then Google got wind of it (it’s probably not a good idea to flaunt your escapades on social media), which prompted the search engine giant to perform a manual action that tanked the site’s appearance in search results. The takeaway is that while generative AI can sneeze out gobs of text, it fails miserably at providing real value for the reader. And it’s easy to understand why:

LLMs, like ChatGPT, work through a kind of averaging. Words are chosen based on how often they appear in a similar context in the model’s dataset, generating “new” content based largely on what everyone else has already said. As Britney Muller explains in her guide to LLMs:

“Instead of randomly drawing a word out of a hat, an LLM will focus only on the most probable next words… It’s like a musician reading sheet music, moving through the notes one at a time. The goal is to figure out what the next word is likely to be as the model processes each word in the sentence.”

To borrow a phrase from Britney, AI-generated content represents the literal “average of everything online.” That’s useful for topics where there’s a single, objective answer (“when was Abraham Lincoln born?”), but less useful for any topic that benefits from nuance, or differing perspectives, or firsthand experience.1Ryan Law, “AI Content Is Short-Term Arbitrage, Not Long-Term Strategy,” February 6, 2024, https://ahrefs.com/blog/ai-content-is-short-term-arbitrage/.

In other words, generative AI boils down writing to statistical averages and thus produces writing as inspired as a high-schooler’s essay for a state exam.2I taught high school English once. I know what their writing is like.

Beauty and Meaning in Statistical Improbabilities

One of the most important lessons I learned about creative writing in college is that unexpected word combinations have the narrative effect of nuclear fusion.3The sun gives off its energy in the form of heat and light via nuclear fusion. For more info, check out Fission and Fusion: What is the Difference? from the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

In one of my classes, my professor encouraged the class to bring in articles that we found on the Internet. We read them in class—they were all short pieces clocking in at about 1,000 words or fewer—and then he’d deconstruct the pieces while highlighting their mechanics and evaluating how successfully the author conveyed their point.

If memory serves me right, this was in a class called Writing the Critical Review that focused on teaching us how to write reviews of books, music, movies, and products. One of my classmates brought in an album review (maybe Contra by Vampire Weekend?) in which the author described some musical elements in the album as “orchestral confetti.“ My professor zeroed in on how brilliantly the pairing of those two terms expressed tonal qualities that can’t be truly described verbally but only experienced through listening. There’s the “orchestral” bit, which connotes depth, multi-layered instruments, synchronized movements, classical style, hall-style reverb, motifs, etc.; but then also there’s the “confetti” bit which connotes celebrations of all kinds—weddings, birthdays, graduations—as well as almost chaotic glee and unstructured enthusiasm.

He alluded to “orchestral confetti” several times over the quarter, so much so that when I think of inventive language, I think “orchestral confetti.” And if you happen to listen to Contra, you’ll understand why that’s an apt description.

What are the chances that AI would smash those words together to describe an album?

Humanity and the Heart of Writing

I spend most of my days writing business-y and technical things: status updates on projects, emails advocating for a particular course of action or providing contextual information, and drafting project management documents. And although I refer to some of my emails as “my great American novel,“ the fact is that I usually write tight sentences arranged in focused bullet points to help the recipient get the point as quickly as possible. And although I’m told to use ChatGPT to automate this mundane aspect of routine communication, it seems unbecoming of a communications professional to offload the responsibilities of rhetoric, negotiation, and relationship-building to cold, statistical computation.

There’s nothing quite as evocative as “orchestral confetti” in my usual email.

But when I write on this site, it’s a different story. I have free reign. I can roll up my sleeves, unbutton my collar, and let the wind flow through my hair. And when I’m in need of a reminder of what’s possible with writing, what beauty is achievable through the English language, I like to dip back through some of the heavy hitters in my library: Annie Dillard, David Foster Wallace, Brian Doyle, and others.

I love Dillard with her astonishment over the fecundity of nature; Wallace with his obsessive detail and meticulous sentence structure; Doyle with his poetic acrobatics. For example, consider this from Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on the nature of mystery:

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. The surface of mystery is not smooth, any more than the planet is smooth; not even a single hydrogen atom is smooth, let alone a pine. Nor does it fit together; not even the chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are a perfect match, for, even after the atom of iron replaces the magnesium, long streamers of disparate atoms trail disjointedly from the rims of the molecules’ loops. Freedom cuts both ways. Mystery itself is as fringed and intricate as the shape of the air in time.4Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1st Harper Perennial modern classics ed, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013), 145.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I just about teared up when I came across it while flipping through my underlining in the book.

And then there’s Wallace. Check out this passage in Infinite Jest where he describes recovering addict Don Gately’s relationship with a particular borrowed car:

Part of Don Gately’s live-in Staff job is that he hurtles here and there on selected Ennet House errands. He cooks the communal supper on weekdays, which means he does the House’s weekly shopping, which means that at least a couple times a week he gets to take Pat Montesian’s black 1964 Ford Aventura and drive to the Purity Supreme Market. The Aventura is an antique variant of the Mustang, the sort of car you usually only see waxed and static in car shows with somebody in a bikini pointing at it. Pat’s is functional and mint-reconditioned—her shadowy husband with something like ten years sober being big into cars—with such a wicked nice multilayer paint job that it’s black as the bottomless quality of water at night. It has two different alarm systems and a red metal bar you’re supposed to lock across the steering wheel when you get out. The engine sounds more like a jet engine than a piston engine, plus there’s a scoop poking periscopically from the hood, and for Gately the vehicle’s so terrifically tight and sleek it’s like being strapped into a missile and launched at the site of a domestic errand. He can barely fit in the driver’s seat. The steering wheel is about the size of an old video-arcade game’s steering wheel, and the thin canted six-speed shift is encased in a red leather baglet that smells strongly of leather. The height of the car’s roof compromises Gately’s driving-posture, and his right ham like exceeds the seat and squeezes against the gearshift so that shifting pinches his hip. He does not care. Some of the profoundest spiritual feelings of his sobriety so far are for this car. He’d drive this car if the driver’s seat was just a sharp pointy spike, he told Johnette Foltz.5David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Back Bay 10th anniversary pbk. ed (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 461.

What a description—you can see the car without seeing it. You get a sense of how big Gately is without seeing him, and you can just about see that “wicked nice multilayer paint job” and smell the leather inside. Fictional people walking around like real life, conveying something of real experience. We feel as if we can know Gately because there’s something real and human about the whole thing.

And then for bonus points, here’s Brian Doyle in Mink River describing a doctor who can’t stop smoking:

Despite a sincere and heartfelt desire to quit smoking altogether, for both personal and professional reasons, as a man fully cognizant of the subtle dangers of smoke and tar and nicotine inhaled into the tender pink tissues of the lungs, which are membranes as moist and vulnerable and innocent as the gates of a woman’s desire, the doctor is stuck at twelve, for he is a man of great imagination, and each cigarette during the course of his day has taken on the flavor of the man for whom it is named. For example, his first cigarette of the day, which is called Peter, is the foundation for all else to come, raw and headlong and rough and wonderful, and his fourth cigarette of the day is sweet John, gentle and best-loved, inhaled peacefully right after lunch, and his seventh of the day is Thomas the Doubter, which he usually smokes late in the afternoon, when he is tired and riven with the pain of his patients, and fully aware, painfully aware, uncomfortably aware, that the specific assigned mission of the twelve apostles themselves, the real men who walked the earth long ago, fishermen and tax collectors and laborers and such, prickly and confused and exhilarated, was to cure and cleanse every disease and every illness, and drive out the demons in the minds of men and women and children, and accept no coin for their belts, nor sandals, nor walking sticks, but to be sheep in the midst of wolves. shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.6Brian Doyle, Mink River (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010), 101.

Three different sections from three different authors; one non-fiction and two fiction; one dreamily poetic, another detail-rich, and another an imaginative character sketch—each beautiful in their own way and able to convey something noteworthy, something visceral, something of the undefinable but detectable substance of the real.

Every great writer—every true writer—has something of the essence of lived humanity about them. This is the nuance, differing perspectives, and firsthand experience that Ryan Law mentions. Great writers are people who have seen things and done things, who have loved, who have lost, who are willing to open the inner sanctum of their hearts and minds in hopes of conveying something of worth and meaning and value to someone else. They’ve seen the absurdity and joy and wildness of life, and they’ve done the hard work to try to pour their heart out onto the page to help you see it too.

When I read stuff like that, I’m reminded that language is not just a functional medium for the transference of ideas and information. It’s a medium of yet-unexhausted and unexhaustible creative potential. And when I write, I’m less impressed with the generative capabilities of AI and more fascinated by the potential for writing to generate connection and meaning for the reader, to illuminate new caverns in the soul, and to strike a chord with anyone who might resonate with what I have to say.

Far from devaluing the craft or practice of writing, I think generative AI has highlighted the need for human-generating writing in all of its imprecision and linguistic outliers. Just as there’s a qualitative difference between an expertly-pulled Americano at the bespoke cafe and a mass-produced cup of mildly burnt bayou water at the gas station, I believe there will always be a perceived, felt, and understood difference between AI-generated text and human wordsmithing. The machine cannot feign heart, no matter how sincere it’s hallucinations are.

Cover Image: “Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun – August 31” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • 1
    Ryan Law, “AI Content Is Short-Term Arbitrage, Not Long-Term Strategy,” February 6, 2024, https://ahrefs.com/blog/ai-content-is-short-term-arbitrage/.
  • 2
    I taught high school English once. I know what their writing is like.
  • 3
    The sun gives off its energy in the form of heat and light via nuclear fusion. For more info, check out Fission and Fusion: What is the Difference? from the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • 4
    Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1st Harper Perennial modern classics ed, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013), 145.
  • 5
    David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Back Bay 10th anniversary pbk. ed (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 461.
  • 6
    Brian Doyle, Mink River (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010), 101.
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