As a Technical Writer, I’m Worried about ChatGPT
Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, I’ve been having some weird conversations with ChatGPT over the last couple of months. We’ve talked about history, politics, religion, health, and even just the wonderful world of totally random facts.
My spouse and I have also spent a good bit of time messing with it, trying to trip it up with deep philosophical questions or confuse it by using three different languages in a single sentence. It fielded all our plays like a champ, and the only time we were finally able to get an error message out of it was when my spouse asked it to write him a poem in Arabic.
On the other hand, I’ve also had a few more professional conversations with it — trying to gauge how likely it is to replace me. As a professional writer, it’s hard not to worry when a chatbot comes out that can do so much more than simply verbalize Google search results. It can think (kinda sorta). Thankfully, the more I chat with GPT, the less worried I get. There are a couple of things it can do really well, but, at present, its content in most disciplines leaves a lot to be desired.
Before moving to copywriting, I was a technical writer for four years. This is the discipline in which I feel writers are the most vulnerable. Having a unique voice is unnecessary for technical writing. In fact, technical and scientific writing are some of the only writing styles where having a unique voice is a bad thing (a very bad thing).
Take the following as an example. This is the output from my request for a set of instructions telling me how to change the font in Word:
- Open Microsoft Word and open the document in which you want to change the font.
- Select the text you want to change. To select all the text in the document, press “CTRL” + “A” on your keyboard.
- Click the “Home” tab in the ribbon at the top of the screen.
- In the “Font” group, you will see options for font size, font style, and font color. Click the drop-down menu next to the font style option to view a list of available fonts.
- Scroll through the list of fonts and select the one you want to use. You can also type the name of the font you want to use in the search box to find it quickly.
- Once you have selected the desired font, it will be applied to the highlighted text. If you want to change the font size, click the drop-down menu next to the font size option and select the size you want.
- If you want to change the font color, click the drop-down menu next to the font color option and select the color you want.
- If you want to change the font for the entire document, you can press “CTRL” + “A” to select all the text and then follow steps 4–7.
- Once you have made all the desired changes, you can save the document.
This is decent technical writing, maybe not brilliant, but more than acceptable. It’s concise. It’s accurate. It’s dry and soulless. It’s everything technical instructions need to be. To get it ready to publish, I might add a couple of pointers or even visuals demonstrating what the drop-down menus look like for people who don’t know how to find them. That would take five minutes.
Thus, I feel it won’t be long before many — if not most — technical writers are replaced with engineers and researchers using their own parameters and editing the output for accuracy and sufficient detail. They might even be able to dump the editing on an assistant, but the writing itself likely no longer needs to be done by a human. This is the one discipline in which ChatGPT is prepared to replace writers right this minute.
Though ChatGPT is able to write adequate copy, the thing it isn’t able to do is make that copy stand out. To stay at the top of online search results, companies have to constantly post blog pieces on the same topics. This can result in hundreds of pieces with extremely similar content.
The job of the copywriter is to make each piece of this content unique and engaging. This is about more than just SEO optimization. That, ChatGPT can do, with a bit of help. What it can’t do is take dull, lifeless marketing copy and make it interesting. It just produces dull, lifeless marketing copy that’s so repetitive it borders on plagiarism.
When I, as a human writer, write copy, I am constantly trying to think of ways to make it stand out from the pack. Fun turns of phrase, alliteration, rhyming, puns, and other wordplay tricks are all ways to make marketing articles more distinct and memorable than all the other blog posts on the same subject. My unique (and uniquely human) voice helps the reader remember me and the products I’m discussing while they’re sifting through article after article.
In the age of the internet, the average consumer researches the products they buy before they purchase them. It’s my job not just to offer accurate and relevant information but to present that information in a way that engages and entertains the reader enough to differentiate my articles and my products from the rest. That is something ChatGPT’s formulaic and repetitive content just cannot do.
If you’re a student thinking you can pump out essays with ChatGPT and get away with it, think again. Perhaps you can get away with it at the high-school level, assuming your teachers are overwhelmed and disengaged (as teachers are wont to be in the current exploitative and thankless schooling environment). However, the jig will be up when you get to college, especially if you pick a major that requires you to think critically and write deeply.
The current iteration of ChatGPT simply cannot write at the advanced collegiate and graduate levels — much less think at these levels. These bots might be able to follow the strict rules for writing academically, but what they cannot do is replicate the stylistic rigor of the academic essay. In other words, they can’t write like pretentious snobs (just kidding).
Furthermore, as someone who both studied and taught academic writing for six years, any students reading this post best believe me when I say their professors will catch on if they’re using chatbot writing. Profs get to know you, especially in the latter years of college when you’re taking multiple classes with them. This means they know your style, your voice, and your level of skill.
I would bet decent money most of my junior and senior-year college profs could have sorted their students’ essays without their names on them. I know I sure could have by the end of each semester. So if a student’s writing quality suddenly goes way up or down, or their voice undergoes a sudden and drastic change, professors are going to pick up on that, even without the help of a content detector.
This means the academic essay is likely still going to be written by students — for now. ChatGPT can certainly help students organize their ideas and focus their research, but it will not be writing the bulk of their essays for them without many of these essays being flagged unless they are heavily edited (which takes tons of time and kind of defeats the purpose of ChatGPcheating).
When it comes to creative writing, I am about as worried that ChatGPT will replace me as I am that my dog will stop licking his feet and start typing out a memoir. The creative content ChatGPT produces is, unsurprisingly, embarrassing. It’s formulaic. It’s predictable. It’s repetitive. It’s impersonal and lifeless and boring. Without vast improvements, no chatbot can replace a human creative writer.
I’m not saying a chatbot will never become better at creative writing than humans (we all know how it generally goes for naysayers in the tech world). But unless these bots get a whole lot better than the following few paragraphs, I think we are all pretty safe.
This is the content output from my request for a paragraph about growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee:
Growing up in Chattanooga, TN was a unique and memorable experience. The city is situated in the beautiful foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and its natural beauty played a large role in my upbringing. I spent countless days exploring the area’s many hiking trails, swimming in the Tennessee River, and picnicking in the city’s many parks. Beyond its natural beauty, Chattanooga is also a city rich in history and culture. I was fortunate to grow up in a community that valued the arts and education, and I have fond memories of visiting the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. Perhaps most importantly, the people of Chattanooga made my childhood special. I was surrounded by friendly, welcoming neighbors and a strong sense of community that made me feel at home.
None of that content is necessarily wrong, but can we all say “snoozefest?” I think I started wanting to drive my car off a cliff by the second sentence, and there’s not enough alcohol in the world that could induce me to read a whole book that sounds like that. If ChatGPT keeps putting out paragraphs like the above sample, I feel pretty safe saying creative writers have nothing to worry about for the foreseeable future.
If I were still a technical writer, I’d be shaking in my shoes right now. If I were still a college instructor, I’d be annoyed with all my cheating students. As a copywriter, I am definitely paying attention to how chatbots develop over the next few years. And as a creative writer, I am entirely unconcerned.
Even if chatbots one day learn the skills necessary to develop their own unique voices, they will still lack lived experiences, emotions, opinions, and all the other things that make creative writing worth reading. ChatGPT may learn more words than me and go on to create technically better content than me, but nothing it spits out will ever have a soul.