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  • Robert Farago

AI Can Make You a Better Writer

It's a blessing, not a curse

I use Google Bard to write these posts. No, I don’t prompt AI to write for me. Much. But some.

Especially when it comes to matters of fact. A dodgy endeavor given that Bard told me Joe Biden was in the car crash that killed his wife and baby daughter. He wasn’t.

What’s more (or less), AI isn’t a particularly good writer.

For one thing, AI uses the Oxford comma – a comma before the word “and” in a list. It’s an inelegant abomination. Punctuation should reflect how words are spoken. (Not every writer, reader and educator shares that view. So there.)

For another, AI isn’t as economical, as precise a writer as it should be.

Having worshipped at the shrine of Hemingway since The Old Man and the Sea, precision is all. I view every word I write as a Marine: it was born to die.

My goal: use a few words as possible.

If a word doesn’t serve a purpose, if there’s a better way to organize a sentence to use fewer words, I’m highlighting, deleting and re-arranging without a moment’s hesitation.

Constantly. The Substack email in your inbox isn’t the final copy. Even after I press play, I’m correcting typos (of course), removing paragraphs and changing words and sentences. I update more than Microsoft.

OK, a demonstration of how Bard isn’t the be-all end-all of good writing, without worrying about hallucinations (Bard’s, not yours or mine).

My prompt: was Hemingway the most economical writer? Bard’s reply…

Based on my search, Hemingway is often regarded as one of the most economical writers in literature. His writing style is known for being concise and straightforward, using short sentences and avoiding unnecessary words. In fact, his "esthetic of simplicity" is considered to be his greatest contribution to literature.

My re-write:

Hemingway terminated unnecessary words with extreme prejudice. Arguably his greatest contribution to literature, his “aesthetic of simplicity” was concise and straightforward.

Bard used 49 words to answer my prompt. I used 21. Bard’s answer uses three sentences. I used two, vibing on Hemingway’s “aesthetic of simplicity.”

You could forgive Bard’s waffling – “often regarded,” “one of the most” and “considered to be” – as AI’s attempt to be fair. I don’t. Qualifiers have their place, but good writing is authoritative by default.

Good writing is interesting. Confrontational. Culturally relevant. Amusing. Something.

Don’t get me wrong. Bard, Chat GTP and other AI chatbot outputs are an excellent starting point for people who don’t like to write, don’t have the time to write or, let’s face it, lazy AF.

To avoid the AI blahs, you can ask Bard to rewrite a sentence for concision or write material in a particular style. Here’s Bard answering the same prompt in the style of horror writer Steven King.

Well, let me tell you something, friend. Hemingway was one heck of an economical writer. That man knew how to get to the point and cut the fluff. His writing style was concise, straightforward, and downright effective. He didn't waste any time on unnecessary words or flowery language. In fact, his "aesthetic of simplicity" is considered by many to be his greatest contribution to literature. So, was Hemingway the most economical writer? I'd say he's definitely up there in the ranks. But at the end of the day, it's all a matter of opinion, ain't it?

Ain’t it? Heck? Does that sound like Steven King to you?

To be fair, it’s miles better than the first response, especially with the addition of the phrase “flowery language.”

But now Bard’s up to 77 words, the answer repeats the question for no particular reason and we’re dying for a paragraph break (see: How To Write A Blog Post).

Here’s something useful: Bard can use your writing style. Here’s its response in the style of Robert Farago:

Hemingway's writing style was as economical as a Toyota Prius. He was the master of the short, sharp sentence, with no word left unturned. Hemingway's "aesthetic of simplicity" is the literary equivalent of a minimalist sculpture. But let's not get carried away here. Was Hemingway the most economical writer? That's like asking if a Glock is the best handgun. It's all subjective, baby. But one thing's for sure: Hemingway's writing was lean, mean, and effective.

Baby? Again, it’s verbose (71 words), needs a paragraph break or two and repeats the question.

Still, props for metaphoring three times – riffing on my background as a car and gun blogger – and using my oft repeated expression “One thing’s for sure.”

Excluding the mother fucking Oxford comma, Bard-as-RF’s last sentence would have made a lean, mean and effective first sentence.

Problem: Bard’s large language model scraped nearly two million of my words into its large language model (without paying a dime for copyright).

I highly doubt Bard’s pilfered enough data from your average and mostly anonymous junior marketing maven to get a result mimicking his or her style.

Circling back, Bard has proven invaluable for gathering information to make or back up a point.

Yes, I can and do use Wikipedia and search for intel on authoritative websites. Bard is a hundred times faster. Inherently suspicious, worth fact checking, but ridiculously efficient. For example…

My last post AI Will Kill Us All! started with insight into AI-enabled elevators. To make it so (Star Trek fans), I asked Bard what a smart elevator can do, then re-wrote parts of the result. In my defense, heavily.

Is that cheating? Hell no. It’s the same as before, only better. The downside? AI makes it too easy to generate material.

If you compare the email of the last post with its online version, you’ll see that I killed an entire section and a couple of paragraphs. I was verbose in my own Hemingway kinda way.

Which is why I’m going to end this post here, with a simple piece of advice.

If you want to be a better writer, the above, of course. But go ahead and use AI. More importantly, use yourself. Your experiences, opinions, humor and passion.

Helpful hint: if you’re not having fun, if the result isn’t you on some profound level, you’re doing something wrong.

Your own words may not be “as good” as AI’s, but they’re yours. No matter how advanced AI becomes, it can never be you. Or so we’re led to believe.

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