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Writing tips for the age of A.I.

I’ve read a bunch of stories lately with headlines like this one from the New York Times: “Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach.” The substance of the stories is that artificial intelligence chatbots have become so proficient at writing B+ term papers, and students at surreptitiously contracting the responsibility to the machines, that professors don’t know what to do. One of them is quoted as having his students write first drafts in the classroom so they can’t cheat. There’s even been talk about doing away with essay questions altogether.

This struck close to home because were it not for essay questions I’d probably have flunked out of college. By the way, this column hasn’t been written by a chatbot; the best way you can tell is that it’s not that intelligent or well-researched.

It became clear to me somewhere around my second semester of freshman year that as a reasonably facile writer I could B.S. my way to a “B” just so long as the final exam was in the form of an essay question. On the rare occasions when I recklessly took courses that required the mastery of actual knowledge – Russian, for example -- I was forced, at the end of the semester, to enter elaborate negotiations with my professor over my final grade. Those in Russian 101 successfully concluded with me being awarded a “C” on the condition that I never take Russian again.

A.I. is also unending my plans because I was thinking of reaching out to some high school or college about teaching writing on a part-time basis. I’ve taught in the past and have strong ideas on the subject. But if writing becomes obsolete why bother? If computer algorithms can write better book reports about Moby Dick or Shakespeare’s sonnets what can I possibly add to the conversation?

The problem is that writing is one of those disciplines that defines our humanity. At its best it’s a creative process that lets the world know we exist and helps us find our place in it. I write for myself. Hopefully someone else will want to read what I’ve written but that’s not determinative. Also, I find it hard to believe that while chatbots might be able to compose a college level essay they could have written Robert Caro’s magisterial multi-volume biography of LBJ, Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby.

So with the hope and expectation that our services will be required a little longer I thought I might offer a few tips about writing for those Luddites who aren’t quite ready to throw in the towel and have the urge to express themselves. Of course, why would anyone hire me if I’m about to say everything I would have told bored, distracted, sleep-deprived students in the classroom? You’ve got me there.

These are also tips I wish someone had told me. For starters, writing should be fun. I write to amuse myself. If I’m boring myself nobody else is going to want to read me either. But if I’m entertaining myself there’s a chance they’ll stick with me.

Write about the things you know best. It’s a truism but it also happens to be true. That’s the advice F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his daughter Frances when, as a sophomore at Radcliffe, she sent him something she’d written and asked his opinion. “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, “he replied. “This is especially true when you begin to write. When you have only your emotions to sell.”

In a subsequent letter her told her that the only part of the story worth keeping – talk about tough love – was the part she wanted to throw out because it was so personal, so unique to her own experience, that she couldn’t believe anybody else would be interested. Turns out that’s the part of you that’s original, that nobody else, not even a chatbot, can duplicate.

Putting that on paper, or rather typing it onto a computer screen, let alone making it sing, isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s an act of courage. In that letter to Frances, Fitzgerald remarks that in Oliver Twist it was necessary for Dickens to pour his own “passionate resentment,” as Fitzgerald put it, at being starved and abused that haunted his own childhood. “In This Side of Paradise,” he added, “I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a hemophiliac.”

I always thought that it was misleading to think that what differentiates writers from non-writers is the ability string pretty words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. It’s useful if you can master that skill. But what’s just as important, if not more so, is having the courage of your convictions. When I’m stumped I don’t ask myself what I think about the subject I’m writing about. I ask myself what I feel about it. Only then does productive writing follow.

When it comes to writing it helps if you know yourself. That, I suppose, isn’t something anybody can teach you. It’s also why someone would probably prefer to read us than a bot. Bots don’t bleed. At least not yet.

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