I’ve been bombarded lately with online ads informing me that I could produce blog posts and emails ten times faster if only I enlisted the help of artificial intelligence. That caught my eye, as you can imagine. Writing these Tuesday letters puts a pretty big dent in my Mondays. Why should I do all this work when a robot could do it for me? So I got myself a trial subscription to Jasper AI Writing Assistant. I thought you might be interested in what I learned.
I don’t understand how AI works, but the gist is something like this: the programmers at Jasper made their robot read approximately 10% of the Internet, which was more than enough to give it a good idea of how people typically express themselves in a very wide variety of circumstances. Also, I think, the programmers taught the robot how to use Google and Wikipedia. So with a surprisingly small amount of input from a user, Jasper can produce paragraphs that look a lot like something a human being might write.
Since passive voice is an evergreen topic in my line of work, I asked Jasper to write me a paragraph on the subject. Jasper only asks for three inputs. Here were mine:
- What is your paragraph about? Why it is better to write in active voice, all things being equal.
- Keywords to include: Passive voice, active voice, clarity
- Tone of voice: Informative
Here’s the paragraph Jasper wrote on the basis of that input:
In passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. In other words, passive voice is when someone else is doing the thing to you. For example: “The ball was caught by John.” Active voice is when the subject is doing the verb. So, in active voice, it would be: “John caught the ball.” People often use passive voice because it can make writing sound nicer. It can make things seem to have happened to the person rather than them having done it themselves. For example, if you accidentally hit someone with a stick, passive voice would be: “The man was hit on the head with a stick.” It sounds better than active voice, which would be: “I hit the man on the head with a stick.” However, passive voice can make writing sound indirect and vague. It can also make sentences longer and more complicated. For these reasons, it is usually better to write in active voice, all things being equal.
In one sense, I’m impressed with this writing. If I were presented with this paragraph, it wouldn’t occur to me to wonder if a robot had written it. It reads like something written by a human being, albeit a human being in the tenth grade who is trying to summarize notes from an English class that met after lunch. When it states facts, they aren’t wrong, though neither are they especially helpful or explanatory. They don’t give the reader anything she couldn’t have gotten from a quick Google search.
When the robot strays from the realm of facts into the realm of opinion and interpretation, we get that odd and vague sentence, “People often use passive voice because it can make writing sound nicer.” Hmm…I’m not sure who requires the help of artificial intelligence to write a sentence like that. In the robot’s defense, however, the sentence is odd and vague in a way that doesn’t seem robotic so much as the work of a human being who doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Things get pretty fuzzy there in the middle, especially when we’re informed that “The man was hit on the head with a stick” sounds better than “I hit the man on the head wiht a stick.” But, like a tenth-grader starting awake in class, the robot finds the thread again the last three sentences of the paragraph.
I asked the robot to try again, but in a “witty” tone of voice instead of an “informative” one. Here’s what I got:
There’s nothing passive about passive voice. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Passive voice is active voice’s lazy cousin who sits around all day doing nothing (which, ironically, is what passive voice sounds like). While active voice is direct and to the point, passive voice meanders and is ambiguous. It’s no wonder that clarity is the casualty of passive voice. So next time you’re tempted to use passive voice, ask yourself: do I really want my writing to sound like it was written by a sloth? The answer, of course, is no. So embrace your inner activist and use active voice instead. Your readers will thank you for it.
It’s not fair to ask a robot to be witty; I realize that now. Still, I’m fascinated by the way Jasper has a form of wittiness but denies its power, if I may borrow from the Apostle Paul. “There’s nothing passive about the passive voice.” That sounds exactly like a witticism. Too bad the rest of the paragraph is predicated on the idea that passive voice is passive. That parenthetical remark—”which, ironically, is what passive voice sounds like) “—also sounds like a witticism, but I don’t have a good idea of what it means or why it’s ironic. That clause “embrace your inner activist” is formulaic too, though I find it nearly funny. One suspects the robot knows dozens of formulae for witticisms, even if it doesn’t always know what to do with them.
Next I asked the robot for some paragraphs on “How to get motivated to write,” another perennial topic for composers of weekly writing advice. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that every time I asked for a new paragraph, I got a new combination of three of the following writing tips:
- Just sit down in your chair and start writing.
- Get up from your chair and walk around or go to the movies; no sense trying to force it.
- Set daily goals to say focused on on-track.
- Join a writer’s group.
- Remember that motivation ebbs and flows, so don’t get discouraged.
None of that is bad writing advice. But the mix-and-match nature of the paragraphs is a reminder that there’s no point of view here. The robot has no opinion, no experience regarding what works and what doesn’t work. It has search results—the same search results you have access to.
I realized that the robot wasn’t going to be a lot of help on my Tuesday letter. But maybe it could write my autobiography for me. Here were my inputs:
- What is your paragraph about? Growing up in Warner Robins, Ga.
- Keywords to include: Warner Robins, growing up, eighties
- Tone of voice: Nostalgic
Here’s what the robot gave me:
Warner Robins is a small city in central Georgia that was founded in the 1940s as a military town. I grew up here in the 1980s, and Warner Robins was a great place to be a kid. There were always lots of other kids around to play with, and the community had a real sense of cohesion. Everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. I have fond memories of days spent exploring the woods around our neighborhood, catching fireflies in the summer evenings, and sledding down the hills in the winter. Warner Robins may not be the biggest or most exciting city, but it will always have a special place in my heart.
Much of that information is accurate. The facts in that opening sentence are spot-on (thanks, Wikipedia!). And Warner Robins was a great place to be a kid; I thought so, anyway. As it turns out, I did catch fireflies in the summer! (How did the robot know?) Sledding? Not so much. We rarely saw so much as a dusting of snow in Warner Robins. Now that I think of it, we didn’t even see many hills. But that’s an honest mistake on the robot’s part and easily fixed.
Next I asked the robot for a new paragraph on “Growing up in Warner Robins,” but I changed the tone of voice to “angry.” You wouldn’t know we were talking about the same hometown:
Warner Robins was a horrible place to grow up in the eighties. The town was full of rednecks and trailer trash. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. The only thing to do was drink, smoke, and fight. Warner Robins was a boring, backwards, and dark place. The only good thing about Warner Robins was that it was close to Atlanta, so we could go there on weekends and actually have something to do. But even Atlanta was a far cry from the big city that I really wanted to be in. Warner Robins was a small town in every sense of the word, and I can’t wait to never see it again.
Neither of these paragraphs about my hometown is any good, and not because they were written by a robot. They could have just as easily have been written by a human being—and the less the writer knew about Warner Robins, the better able he would be to write this kind of thing.
The paragraphs above aren’t actually about Warner Robins, even though they claim to be. They simply string together the kinds of things people say about their hometowns when they are nostalgic or when they are bitter. Nostalgic people say their hometown was a great place to be a kid. They talk about sledding with happy neighbors. They speak of a sense of cohesion that has since been lost. Bitter people speak of their hometown as a terrible place to group up. They talk about how eager they were to go to college and never look back. These are all verbal formulas just as surely as “There’s nothing ________ about _________” or “Knock knock…Who’s there?”
A quick aside: We tend to think our inner lives are what make us unique, but any time you try to speak directly about your inner life, the cliches gather around and demand a hearing. Since we’re already on the subject of hometowns, my feelings about my hometown, which run to the nostalgic, would sound pretty familiar to you if I wrote of them directly. I would be no more original if I were bitter and angry (this is something that bitter and angry people often find hard to believe). But if I actually were to talk about my actual hometown, what I saw and heard there, my writing would almost inevitably sound more original. I’m willing to bet that your hometown doesn’t have a bank of boxwood shrubs trimmed to spell out EDIMGIAFAD (unless, of course, you have the same hometown as me).
If you’ve been reading The Habit Weekly for very long at all, you have heard me mention the importance of giving the readers what they can’t get for themselves. Your readers already have Google and Wikipedia, and they’ve seen most of the TV shows you’ve seen. They already know the cliches and the formulas. They know about kids catching fireflies and disaffected youths who can’t wait to leave town and never look back. If that’s all you’ve got to write about, it won’t be long before the robot writers figure out how to do it better.
But I don’t believe that’s all you’ve got to write about. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, show me what you’ve actually seen. Tell me what you know from living, and not just from reading. Introduce me to the people you actually know—the ones you understand so well that you can’t put them in categories like “redneck” and “trailer trash.” If you do that, I don’t think the robots will ever catch up with you.