Is ChatGPT a threat or a wakeup call to writers?
At the time of this post, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) labor union, representing 11,500 writers, is on strike. One salient fear: ChatGPT.
I was born a writer, a voracious reader of thick books way beyond my maturity level, and my dream was to become a literary novelist.
By 19, addicted to Rushdie, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens, I was cynical, sardonic, and pragmatic.
Naturally, I became a managing editor. Over 11 years before founding 816 New York, I worked for a nautical history publisher, a vanity press, a renowned international history publisher, and an educational publisher. I edited, wrote, and led teams of editors and writers, hoping to better understand how the industry would screw over the average novelist.
I deadened quickly to the buckets of bad-yet-commissioned writing from people who today might be described as “having a platform.” I guided the misguided. I wrote style manuals. I hacked the horrid drivel into some salable, readable format and style. Those working under me credited me; those working alongside me feared me a little.
I stopped writing for me.
I stopped reading for pleasure.
My obsession with reshaping imperfection permeated every aspect of my life.
I bottomed out and quit the industry.
Later on, I faced the task of creating content for my own business: emails, social media, blog posts, and ebooks. Once you decide on your voice, the rest is easy; our audience grew.
Eventually, so I could focus on R&D and client relations, I decided to hire content writing experts who could—yes indeed—churn out almost any blog post… as long as I:
- researched themes and trends,
- restructured the language and paragraph order,
- edited them for consistency with our in-house style, both visual and verbal,
- offered logic and readability notes, and
- fact-checked them.
Despite being well-paid and personally credited for their articles, the posts were formulaic and non-emotive. I encouraged them to use their own voices, to take a position, to push the boundaries of the topic, but they struggled.
When my readership dwindled because they were no longer hearing me and I was spending entirely too much time giving notes, I let each writer go.
These types of content writers are not rare—in fact, you can find them anywhere, from New York City to Manila, across all industries and price points.
How did we think this would turn out? In a media environment driven by data, content creators don’t have to write with passion. They just have to match the keyword phrases that drive engagement and search engine placement.
I know. I’m a data person now.
Writing has been brutalized by industry motivations for as long as I can remember.
So let’s talk about ChatGPT, which is a formulaic tool that presents a threat to, in my opinion, only those subpar creatives (cause #1) who have built the infrastructure we have now, who have hovered on the precipice of mediocrity for quite some time as writers. I would contend that they should’ve been threatened sooner—by better writers—but because the industry standard for content creation is generally quantity over quality (cause #2), it would follow that an AI-powered machine could perform as well as any person in that role, if not better.
Ask ChatGPT what it thinks and it says:
ChatGPT is not inherently a threat to content writers. In fact, it can be seen as a tool that can help content writers to improve their skills and create more compelling content.
ChatGPT can provide content writers with new ideas, suggest better ways to phrase sentences, and even help with research. However, it’s important for content writers to remember that ChatGPT is still a machine, and it can’t replace the creativity and uniqueness of human writing.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, from my experience, many writers don’t want to “improve their skills and create more compelling content.” They’re not getting paid enough to care.
Part of this is inherent to the system itself, where each piece of created content is a drop in the cesspool or, again, one brick in a larger SEO, sales, or campaign strategy wall. As a standalone piece, it likely holds no value beyond vague digital marketing currency: “We publish 6 industry blog posts a month!” or “That’s email #3 in our automated sequence!” It makes someone feel good, but the writer’s benefit is minimal.
That flaw has plagued writers for decades now.
“The creativity and uniqueness of human [anything]” cannot be threatened unless it was always under future threat. As an editor, a writer, a reader, I’ve been harassed for years by lazy conventional standards.
Perhaps insightful writers can find a way to use ChatGPT, rather than fleeing to dark corners of the internet to write terror narratives about its implications. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to weed out and challenge rough talent.
(Personally, I like that you can ask ChatGPT to provide citations for its responses.)
It’s time to sift the writing field and let the true masters shine through.