Ghostwriter in the Machine: How Robots Can Improve Our Writing and Editing

June 1, 2018

[andrey popov]
[andrey popov]

Robots are coming. But are they coming after writers? Until now, the scenario hasn’t seemed likely. After all, experts predict the tasks most likely to be automated are those that are predictable, routine and repetitive.

Writing and editing, of course, require a great deal of creativity. That’s why your tax preparer has a 98.7 percent chance of seeing his or her job automated in the next 20 years, while PR specialists and editors — at 17.5 percent each — are less likely to be replaced, according to a 2015 NPR survey. Writers are safest of all, with a 3.8 percent chance of being supplanted by automation.

Still, the uncomfortable truth is that algorithms can handle some writing and editing tasks, such as correcting misspelled words. And fluid though grammar can be, it still consists of rules, which can be turned into computer code.

Indeed, it’s possible that robots might come for our jobs someday. More likely, though, they’ll transform the writing process instead. Since AI and machine learning could help us do our jobs better and faster, why not take advantage of these technologies and automate the more routine aspects of writing and editing?

Revising, clarifying and proofreading

Let’s be honest: The writing process is labor-intensive and impossible to scale. It requires an incredible amount of creativity, thought and energy. Sure, it’s possible to write a thousand words in under an hour. But the resulting quality will not meet your standards or those of your clients.

Until recently, I didn’t see how automation could be useful in my writing life. I resisted the technology because early checkers for grammar and spelling were poor substitutes for human editing. But over the last few months, I’ve incorporated three tools — Grammarly, Hemingway Editor app and ReadablePro — into my writing process, with some success. I’ve come to believe that AI can give us more time in the day — time that could be spent on higher-value tasks, such as cultivating client relationships. And in a surprising twist, I’ve discovered that artificial intelligence can improve content quality.

To be sure, these tools aren’t capable of doing the heavy lifting required during the rewrite stage. But they can help in three important phases of the writing process: revising the first draft; copyediting for clarity, grammar and spelling; and proofreading the final draft.

Keeping or rejecting suggestions

Like most writers, I begin every article I write by typing my thoughts as fast as I can. The first draft is always a mess. But Grammarly cleans up my typos in just a couple of minutes, producing a draft that I can work with. The free version of the software checks for common grammar and spelling errors, such as subject-verb disagreements and contextual spelling mistakes. But the premium upgrade (which requires a $139.95 annual subscription) evaluates sentence structure and offers vocabulary suggestions. Grammarly throws a lot at you at once, but the decision to keep or reject its recommendations is yours. Clicking through each change can be cumbersome, but I’d rather be in control than let the software make wholesale revisions I don’t want.

Eliminating unnecessary words

That lousy first draft usually undergoes several heavy rewrites. By the time I have near-final copy, I’m too close to it and have lost the objectivity required to recognize overly complex sentences or excessive adverbs.

The Hemingway Editor app (free on the web; $19.99 for the desktop version), inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s spare writing style, analyzes text for readability. In addition to identifying hard-to-read sentences, it also highlights adverbs, recommends simpler words and flags passive voice. When I drop my draft into the app, it shaves time from the copyediting process by marking problems in the text, so I can focus my energy on simplifying those sections. If you’re a fan of Strunk and White’s writing guide The Elements of Style, you’ll like this app.

Detecting plagiarism and clichés

Although I wouldn’t use it for a final read, Grammarly reduces the time I spend proofreading by pinpointing errors I’ve overlooked or missed. But there’s another reason I turn to Grammarly at this stage: its plagiarism detector. The company claims the software checks billions of pages to identify identical copy. As I often reference the work of others to back up my arguments, this check offers some reassurance that I haven’t cited too much of another person’s writing.

Another app, ReadablePro, can improve the quality of your prose. It scores copy according to 10 readability tests, including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the Coleman-Liau Index. Each test serves a different purpose, so you’ll need to select those that are most relevant for your work. But ReadablePro helps ensure your copy is appropriate for the reading level of your target audience. I like the tool for its ability to notice clichés and buzzwords — something the other two apps don’t do.

Assessing opportunities and pitfalls

The results of my experiments with AI writing tools have been encouraging. I estimate that I’ve reduced the time I spend writing and editing by 10 percent. My copy is sharper, too.

But none of these tools is perfect, and they have plenty of pitfalls. For one thing, I disagree with roughly 30 percent of the edits they suggest. For example, ReadablePro tells me that words like “exceptional” and “relationships” are difficult or too long. Whether I keep such words depends on my target audience.

More troubling is that sometimes the algorithm will recommend a change that alters the meaning of the sentence. Without human oversight, there’s a risk that robots will water down messages or get them completely wrong.

As writers, another risk we face if we rely on current AI tools is that all of our work will start to sound alike in style and tone. Thought-provoking, beautifully crafted copy should be lyrical and distinct, and inspire readers to act. At the moment, only a human can produce this type of content. We’re still a few years away from when writing and editing robots can create remarkable work.

For now, though, writers and editors should feel comfortable embracing AI tools. Any method that helps streamline the editorial process will benefit our businesses and clients.

Diane S. Thieke, APR

Diane S. Thieke, APR, is a freelance writer and editor who works with global B2B companies in technology and media. Previously, she led editorial, PR and marketing teams at Dow Jones. In 2009, she won a PRSA-NJ Pyramid award for her eBook on PR measurement.


Lily Gordon says:

While AI will continue to help PR practitioners create concise, grammatically correct writing, the biggest pitfall of an AI writer is lack of experience. Humans understand puns, cultural references and just plain human reliability. Once AI can seamlessly weave such pieces into its writing, communications folk should start packing their bags. For another take on this topic:

June 4, 2018

Andrea McMakin says:

Have you had any experience wih Acrolynx, the AI platform for enterprise content? My company will be piloting it this year. Wondered if you had any tips.

June 26, 2018

Diane S. Thieke, APR says:

I agree, Lily! Algorithms cannot understand nuance or make the distinctions humans can, at least not yet. You can be sure technologists are working on it, though. However, I wholeheartedly agree with what Tiffany Gallicano told you, as you wrote in your post: writers have to be smarter than the machines to use them. I always tell novice writers to turn off spell check and pull out their dictionaries. They need to hone their skills first before integrating AI into their writing process. Thanks for reading and for your comments!

July 12, 2018

Diane S. Thieke, APR says:

Hi Andrea, I don't have any experience with Acrolynx. But as I work with the other tools, I keep thinking how helpful it would be to have brand guidelines and corporate nomenclature incorporated into the checks. Acrolynx appears to have that capability, which makes it an attractive option. In your pilot, I'd track both net time saved and accuracy rate. I'm interested to know how it works out for you, so keep me posted. Thanks for reading and commenting!

July 12, 2018

samyuktha says:

If you want Google to prioritize your blogs posts, you without a doubt have to conduct a competitive analysis. Hemingway hasn’t helped me or my team with this incredibly important part in the content creation workflow. Over the next quarter, we plan to use INK. It’s supposed to provide notes to help improve ranking potential.

Sept. 10, 2019

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