Today, business writers have a smorgasbord of writing tools to help them with their writing tasks, including many tools and services now powered by advanced AI and machine learning. Some commentators have even suggested these AI-powered writing services will soon make the need for human writers “obsolete.”
But is it really possible for today’s online writing tools to replace human writers in the workplace? We started addressing this question earlier this year, where we pointed out that AI just hasn’t yet reached the point of being able to generate new ideas or insights, discern truth from falsehood, or understand nuance or subtlety. Still, many of these tools have become popular, so it’s worth taking a closer look to understand where they fit into a professional writing process and what their true potential is.
What kinds of tools are available?
- Proofreading tools: Some tools, such as Grammarly, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid, act as proofreaders or copyeditors to improve grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. Sometimes they can even suggest new phrasing to improve readability. This functionality can be hugely helpful in producing crisp, clear, and mistake-free writing.
- Paraphrasers/Rephrasers: Other tools, such as Wordtune, Speedwrite, or QuillBot, completely rewrite text. These tools can help writers fine-tune their writing; for instance, if the text is too long, they may be able to help shorten it. If you can’t find just the right word or phrasing, or if the tone is off, some of the tools will even let you adjust how you want the output to come across to readers.
- Generative AI: These tools propose to do your writing for you. The user simply inputs a short description of what they want to communicate (the “prompt”), and the tool generates the writing. ChatGPT is not only the most famous of these tools but also the engine behind other AI writing tools. For example, the new GrammarlyGO tool was developed using OpenAI’s GPT-3.
What are the limits of these tools?
Here’s the real question: to what extent can these tools replace human labor? In some cases, a lot. Generative AI can easily produce simple, low-value content, for instance. Other tools mean writers can do in minutes what might have taken an hour otherwise. However, all of these tools face notable limitations.
1: They don’t change the need for their users to be able to write.
At heart, a lot of people want these tools to be like verbal calculators. Calculators make it so that non-mathematicians can do even relatively complex math effortlessly. Non-writers want to be able to use these writing tools similarly. However, unlike calculators, whether the output is “good” or “correct” can be much harder to judge.
Good writing is more than grammatically correct sentences. Good writing is well-attuned to its reader; perfectly aligned with the author’s purpose and strategy; and written with a rhythm, flow, and prosody that makes it pleasing to read. If the user doesn’t know how to craft prose like that themselves, how will they know if the tool has done it? To get maximum use out of these tools, and to be able to accurately judge the quality and effectiveness of the output, the user still needs to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of good writing.
2: “Good enough” isn’t always good enough.
AI is genuinely impressive, and AI-powered tools are already in a state to be able to generate immediately usable, low-value content like emails or simple articles. In other words, AI is already picking the low-hanging fruit of the writing world. Many cost-conscious business leaders deem that “good enough.” But is it? A seemingly “good enough” level of quality that’s only just enough to attract an eyeball or two probably isn’t enough to change a mind, close a sale, or impress a discerning reader – and those are the things businesses really need their documents to do.
These tools can play a pivotal role in helping your team develop truly stellar content. Proofreaders can ensure it’s scrupulously correct, paraphrasers can help writers get their wording just right, and generative AI can help fill in the blanks or get the writers started. But none of them are going to get your team from “good enough” to “sealing the deal.” This may change, but for now, the best writing outputs still require both the human and the tool to work in tandem.
3: Copyright remains an open question.
If a business uses an AI tool to generate written content, who owns the copyright – the business or the tool’s owner? Or, since it was generated using AI, can anyone legally claim copyright at all? AI is so new, the legality of its use in producing anything from written documents to video games has yet to be tested. Right now, these remain open questions. The U.S. Copyright Office is actively beginning to issue guidance, however:
- They are still actively engaged in an information-gathering process, so many questions remain unresolved.
- Their determinations have not yet been challenged in court, so it’s not clear if their guidance will stand.
4: Garbage in, garbage out.
One key challenge with these automated writing solutions is that all of them ultimately rely on their users. Even output produced by generative AI like ChatGPT relies on good, well-crafted prompts. More algorithmic tools – those that just apply the rules of good grammar, for example – can improve writing only marginally. In short, if what you’re putting into the tool is lacking, the output will be, too. A better way to think about these tools might be “good input, even better output.” So, we’ll say it again: human users still need to have a strong foundation in good writing themselves.
All of these tools absolutely have a place in the writing process. They can help business writers be more efficient with their time and produce better quality documents than writers might be able to manage on their own. And all of these technologies are under constant development; someday, our arguments in this article will seem quaint. But for today, be wary of tools that promise too much and deliver too little, and understand that, for the moment at least, writing skills still matter.
To make sure your team has the skills to make the most of these kinds of AI tools, contact Hurley Write for more information about what writing programs could make your team more efficient and effective.