AI as a Writing Tool

Image by author with Starryai, art generator

Though it may seem this way, I will not turn this blog into an exclusive focus on generative AI and ChatGPT. However, it is hard to argue that generative AI has not exploded into our collective consciousness as a disruptive, game-changing technology. I began this series to explore emerging technologies and ChatGPT, launched just in November 2022, has captured my imagination. This chatbot also seems to fascinate everyone else, too.

John Spencer, a former middle school teacher turned professor with an interest in creativity, wrote a great blog post on AI as a writing tool . In “The Future of Writing in a World of Artificial Intelligence #ChatGPT,” he discusses how generative AI might become an invaluable writing tool. He also addresses how new writing technologies are first met with skepticism, then approached cautiously, and finally fully embraced. So far, the response to ChatGPT and other chatbots follows a curve illustrating how long it takes for people to accept a new technology. This Diffusion of Innovations model deserves its own post.

Spencer starts his post with recounting the warnings of Socrates that using writing at all would harm the ability of people to think clearly, question assertions, and avoid manipulative by clever schemers. Socrates thought people would stop thinking for themselves and reply only on what others wrote. You can find this same argument now in articles on AI chatbots.

Spencer then mentions that using spell checkers, now built into every word processing program and used daily by millions, was cheating. Some skeptics warned that these now-pervasive writing tools, an early and simple form of AI, would degrade the ability of students to spell. When Spencer devised a clever method to test this proposition with his middle school students, he found spell checkers actually improved their ability to spell. This confirms my own experience that after a while, I do learn the correct spelling for words that spell check is perpetually flagging for me.

Then, people believed that using Google and Wikipedia was a form of cheating and that the data found within the search results and entries could be inaccurate. Now, however, we have adapted and realized that these are valuable tools used by adults in their work and that students must learn to use them too. We have learned that we must accept the responsibility to think critically about the information our tools fetch for us.

Can we learn to live with generative AI writing tools? The better question seems to be “how quickly can we learn to use generative AI writing tools wisely to improve our writing?” Tools like ChatGPT can rapidly generate essays that are coherent, well-structured, and grammatically correct. We can now see that these essays appear very similar to those written by humans. In fact, one way used to detect AI generated essays is that their mechanics, like grammar, spelling, and punctuation, are better than the average unaided human.

Humans are still better at bringing nuance and complexity to a written piece, especially when they have specialized knowledge of a topic. Human also can apply critical thinking better, although sometimes reading what some humans post online makes me wonder.

Many current news articles speculate fearfully that humans will give all their writing tasks to chatbots immediately. Some call for ways to seek out and punish chatbot use, especially in education. Others seem delighted at the prospect of being able to outsource all their writing to chatbots. Spencer advocated a blended strategy, a way for all of us, beginning as students to use these new capabilities well and wisely.

He discusses the elements of essay writing and how we might learn to blend our cognitive strengths with the strengths of our current generation of generative AI to produce better, clearer, and insightful writing. Here’s an outline of the approach he developed with a colleague to scaffold the complex art of writing.

· Generating an initial idea: Many writers like me often start with a mind map to generate lots of ideas in a short time and choose from among them. Chatbots can take an initial idea list and expand it.

Once they select an idea, many writers quickly map or list all they know about the topic. A chatbot can help widen that knowledge scan and net more information.

· Doing our research: As I realize I don’t know enough about a particular topic, I do some research, which these days means going to Google, Wikipedia, or some special topic resource. Already for this post, I googled to verify that Socrates had indeed made that astounding warning about writing and to recall that Everett Rogers at Stanford had already developed a technology adoption model. In the future, I may figure out how to use a chatbot to help with this.

· Organizing and outlining our ideas: Once I know what I want to write about and have mapped it, I start a rough draft. This draft will later need re-organizing for logic and clarity. Spencer says that chatbots will help with this. That will be super helpful when I figure out how to make this work.

· Writing the writing: This is the part that the skeptics seem to worry about the most. The people will just ask the chatbot to write the essay for them and then, with little or no review, turn it in as their own work. Why would I do that? If I am trying to learn something or express an idea, then my writing is part of my learning and creative process. Right now, without using AI chatbots, students can download essays from the internet, buy pre-written essays from an extensive selection, or even commission a custom-written essay, often penned by a starving grad student.

· Editing the writing: All writers know that good writing is re-writing and re-vising. If you have a friend who will read and make good comments, like I do, then your finished writing will be better. Beyond spell-checking, many writers now use a grammar checker, like I do. Surely we want students and professionals to revise and improve their work and is the gap between my friend’s comments and my grammar checker’s comments so vast?

I really admire Spencer’s suggestions about a blended strategy approach to adopting AI chatbots into our writing process. I will continue to delve deeper into this essay for ideas. It is sensible and workable, leading to improving not only a particular piece of writing but also improving my writing skills.


The Future of Writing in a World of Artificial Intelligence #ChatGPT

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