My Post-AI Writing

I was asked in a DM conversation whether I use AI for writing, and I said no, it would be like going for a walk in my car. The only people who seem to directly use AI for writing are people who don’t write for pleasure, but have to write a lot of functional, business-like things that are too varied for boilerplate templates. The sort of writing that might require intelligence or expertise, but which doesn’t offer much pleasure or creative challenge to the writer. It’s an instrumental sort of writing.

Which is not to say AIs can’t do creative writing. I’m only saying that people who enjoy creative writing purely or mostly for the process itself have no real use for AI assistance. To a lesser extent this seems true of coding as well. A lot of the use I’ve seen is for the tedious bits. And as with writing, that’s not to say AIs can’t do creative coding requiring insight. But people who code for fun probably have less use for it, though I suspect “copiloting” is likely more fun with code than writing.

The more the ends matter more than the means, the more AI is helpful. If you like flying a plane, a copilot just cuts in on your time at the controls. If you’re just trying to fly somewhere, you’re happy to let the copilot fly. For me the “ends” of writing barely matter at all. It’s all about the means.

Can AIs enhance creative satisfaction of exercising the means? I imagine so. I can imagine an assistant that I explain my goals to, and it acts like an improv partner, perhaps writing every other sentence. I suspect ChatGPT can already do this well. But that’s a different creative process I’d have to learn to derive satisfaction from, like learning to go rowing as a substitute for going on walks.

But AI has had an indirect positive and enjoyable effect on my writing: It has made me lower my craftsmanship standards, which were never very high to begin with. This is one reason I’m writing a lot more this year. The causal chain from AI is subtle, and AI is not the whole explanation for changes in my writing, so let me try to unpack the part that is.

Writing for me has always been about thinking things through for myself. Thinking with a passive recording medium in a feedback loop. At some point I realized others enjoyed watching me do this, and I enjoyed the validation to some degree as well, but this second outer feedback loop came later and has always been something of an optional extra. This is why I only polish and refine beyond my own thinking needs to the extent looping in an audience is a secondary goal. The third feedback loop of validation from gatekeepers of traditional publishing (which used to be the second loop before you could get to readers) is so alien to my psyche, I’m mildly shocked I’ve done even the very limited amount I have. Not counting academic writing, this amounts to like 3-4 magazine essays and 5-6 republished things. I’d guess less than 25,000 words of the couple of million I’ve written publicly. If I’d lived in a pre-internet era, I suspect I’d only have written private journals and letters to friends.

This means when I do things that seem audience-pleasing, it’s because I enjoy them too. I occasionally enjoy wordplay, memes, pastiche, and lyrical writing, so you readers get treated to my attempts too. Not all writerly pleasures coincide with readerly pleasures. Thinking up purely expository examples for an argument I’ve stated in general terms is way less fun than getting them served to me as a reader. They have some thinking value for testing a general argument you are not entirely confident of, but the more confident you are of the general idea, the more thinking up examples is just a reader-serving chore.

More generally, I mostly don’t care about the aesthetics of writing, which are almost entirely for the benefit of readers. This includes the aesthetics of brevity and structure (the architecture as opposed to the brick-by-brick part). Sometimes I enjoy the challenge of maximal tightening, compressing, re-ordering for better flow, shortening, and simplifying. Mostly I don’t. I prefer the scenic route through my thoughts. Once it’s ordered and tightened enough that I understand what I’m saying, doing more for you feels like work. So I don’t do it. So what’s a through-line idea for me might be a word-salad for you.

There are types of writing where the aesthetics are a load-bearing part of the thinking though, and therefore enjoyable. For example where the shifting moods through the piece are integral to the thinking. Or clockwork style pieces where very precise language is necessary for the thinking to work out at all. Or where you’re juggling rarefied abstractions and risk vacuous fragility if you aren’t somewhat rigorous and disciplined about it. In these cases, writing veers towards the poetic or mathematical, and the aesthetics aspect (including the aesthetics of brevity and structure) is fun. Otherwise the aesthetic aspect just feels like tedious cosmetic finishing. Like using good-enough handwriting to be readable by others when writing on paper. I do it to a minimum degree.

And now I’ve lowered that minimum degree. Why?

Because part of me is now unconsciously convinced that if cosmetic finishing is needed at all, I could just put the thing through an AI.

Or better still, you could do it for yourself.

Think I’m too verbose? Ask an AI to summarize. Think I use unnecessary big words? Ask an AI to simplify. I’m being too abstract for you? Ask an AI to explain with examples. I’m being too metaphoric? Ask an AI to restate in abstract, logical arguments.

AI allows me to retreat to industrial intermediate production. To being a OEM vendor of words. Some assembly required. Which I now trust you to do with AI help even if you have no aptitude for verbal refinement and finishing processes. Or even if you don’t even speak English. I genuinely don’t care whether you read me in the “original” or through an AI, or in English or Chinese, anymore than I care whether you listen to my podcast appearances at 1x or 2x speed. I have no real attachment to the specifics of how my writing eventually arrives at your doorstep. I’m going to be half misunderstood anyway, so you might as well do half the work. Or we can both do 10% each and let AI do the middle 80%.

The one case where I do take on the finishing work is, unsurprisingly, when I’m being paid for it. This includes Substack of course (it’s interesting that some readers have remarked that I’m doing some of my “best work” on Substack — no, it’s just marginally more polished). I don’t use AI to finish this stuff because my “finishing” tastes when I do bother to do it are rather finicky, and so far I’ve been too lazy to teach an AI my style (I’ll eventually get around to it; it’s easy and cheap enough now).

But I’m mainly thinking of my consulting notes. These are very precisely written for specific people, and are generally about very highly context dependent and specialized matters. And I’m paid a lot more for it than for my public writing. I don’t see AI helping with this stuff anytime soon. It requires more than a writing copilot. It needs a relationship copilot.

For completeness, I should talk about my fiction attempts, where of course I have much less experience and no pieces above a B- if I’m being generous. Here I can see myself using AI if it gets good enough. Fiction requires a lot of skilled but not particularly satisfying-to-me aspects that feel like grinder work. Mostly I try to write fiction in a style that simply avoids those parts. For example, character work and dialogue bore me, but I enjoy plotting and world-building. So I often write in ways with few to zero characters and no dialogue. But sometimes a story can’t be executed that way. I’d like AIs to help with that.

But even here, I think I’d prefer an industrial intermediate approach where I write an incomplete version of my story that you can then “skin” to your liking. For example, I really don’t care about cultural milieus much. If I write a generic action adventure story, I’ll be more than happy for you to “compile” it to say a Chinese warlord or Wild West milieu according to your tastes. Sometimes an element I care about will constrain the milieu (my last story had to be set in Turkey to work for me, even if you didn’t get the rather obscure joke that required it).

Stepping back, I think this overall, largely indirect, effect on my writing is just the first stage of my adaptation to a world of post-AI human language. Thinking about language as an industrial intermediate product for AI-powered reading feels like the first step in a journey of procedural abstraction that will take decades, like the evolution of painting after photography. Some aspects of writing already feel kinda surreal, cubist or abstract expressionist. Text already experimented with those modes a century ago, but back then, it was mostly speculative tracking of visual arts. Now text has its own camera moment making “photorealism” pointless. Refinement writing — the photorealism part — is now about a reader photographing a scene created by a writer, from a particular angle.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

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