AI ChatGPT & others are all the rage, seemingly able to produce and/or edit any written text. That’s not exactly true.
The good old human being–especially one with a PhD–can edit any document far better than AI can. Here’s how and why:
In the 1700s, dictionary inventor Samuel Johnson heard about female Quaker preachers and responded, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” These days, most of us would consider that pretty sexist.
So, I am ready to be called “humanist” because while I am impressed that a computer program can copy edit “at all,” it’s certainly not “done well.”
Quillbot.com suggested this would be better: “Therefore, I am prepared to be referred to be a ‘humanist’ even though I find it impressive that a computer program can copy edit ‘at all,’ much alone ‘done well.’”
Fail. This suggestion is wordy and has introduced two grammar errors in “referred to be a” and “much alone.”
Just what is an AI Copy Editor?
While the human mind is complex, AIs (as we know them today) are straightforward. They process data with algorithms, which is a fancy word for a simple concept. An algorithm is a finite sequence of detailed instructions, in our case for solving a class of problems related to writing. The important part is “finite sequence.” Somebody somewhere has to write out a list of those instructions, and that list will always come to an end.
AI copy editors, as with all computers, can be super-impressive in the amount of data they can process at lightning speed. But no programmer or group of programmers can anticipate the literally infinite types of issues that can arise when we’re writing something.
Grammarly.com says I should take out the word “literally” in that last sentence probably because its algorithm flags it as a slang term.
Fail. I used “literally” correctly. The combination of words and ideas, sentences and humor, irony and themes, and all the rest of writing make up a literal infinity. Being a good editor means you can’t be limited by a set of instructions. Nothing finite can correct something infinite. Eventually, I’m guessing somebody is going to invent a tech based copy editor that will work, but it cannot rely on algorithms, so the current concept of AI will never do the trick.
Moreover, these algorithms flag something as “correct” when it’s being used in the usual way. This means AI follows the rules of whatever dictionaries, grammar books, and style guides have been programmed into it, as well as whatever is most popular on the internet (save us all).
An original phrase, no matter how awesome, will not make an AI copy editor happy. It will make suggestions for something more typical instead. It (i.e., its programmer) wants you to be like the writing majority.
Just What Can an AI Copy Editor Do?
Knowing it uses algorithms, we can address what that looks like in practice. An AI editor looks at all the writing samples it has been given and flags the following:
- Incorrect (overt) spelling, grammar, and technical errors;
- Inconsistency in style and tone (as long as they are simple);
- Alternative suggestions and paraphrases (whether they’re any good or not); and
- Plagiarism (to a point).
Now, these are not useless things. A compass is no replacement for a GPS, but it beats the heck out of nothing when you’re lost in the woods.
To my horror, Wordtune.com took that one sentence and kicked back a blog post of 372 words that said absolutely nothing more than that. Here’s an excerpt: “When you’re lost in the woods without any other navigational aids, a compass can help you determine your general direction and keep you from going around in circles. It consists of a magnetic needle that aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing you to identify the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west.”
Fail. Seriously, did you actually enjoy reading that? I mean, I personally had no idea what a compass does.
And yeah, AIs can’t understand sarcasm.
I won’t lie. Back in the ’80s I just about wept when I found out about Word’s spell check (an early version of AI copy editing). Telling me that I was using British spelling in a US English document, I wrote “the the,” and I put in two spaces instead of one is like having some sort of grammar guardian angel watching over me.
However, I never thought about making that angel do my work. I mean, even today spell check can’t handle reflexive pronouns.
Even though there are now more bells and whistles, AI copy editing hasn’t much improved since those early days. AIs are better at noticing improperly used synonyms, but they still miss a few. The “consistency of tone” thing mostly just picks up slang and the use of first, second, and third person. When I put Shakespeare into most plagiarism checkers I pass just fine as long as I change a few words and swap phrases around.
These days, I use AI much the way a mathematician might use a calculator. Calculators are precise at arithmetic and can quickly prevent some dumb errors. But a calculator is not a replacement for a mathematician.
Just What Can’t an AI Copy Editor Do?
Even in their strongest skill area, spelling and grammar checking, AIs can’t recognize when grammar errors are purposeful, such as when quoting someone not from this century. Johnson’s quote above has a semi-colon followed by a conjunction, which is wrong today, but not back then. You might be writing dialogue and not want a character’s grammar to be correct. You might be purposefully using slang like “ain’t” or making a joke with a double negative. AI won’t know.
But the real limitation of AI is that it cannot create. It takes from what’s out there and reassembles it. Knowing how algorithms work, you can see why this is true.
HoppyCopy.co says this is better: “AI is limited in its ability to create, as it takes existing elements and recombines them. Understanding the workings of algorithms helps to explain why this is the case.”
Fail. there shouldn’t be a comma in front of “as,” but more important is that I didn’t say AI was “limited in its ability to create” but that it can’t create at all. Nada. The AI copy editor changed my meaning.
The danger is that AI can look creative. It’s an excellent mimic, if you don’t look too hard.
Let’s say I’m an AI, and someone gives me only the complete set of Beatles lyrics to work with. The user then asks me to “write” a poem about how humans hide from other people. I offer up the following:
All my troubles seemed so far away before,
But now I’d rather be in an octopus’s garden
Wearing a face I keep in a jar beside the door.
“Let it be” can be a bargain,
But happiness is a warm gun.
I must disappear into a glass onion.
That’s not a terrible poem. It brings up drug addiction that hints at self-destruction. It connects introversion to fantasy. It seems quirky and “human.”
But whatever creativity and humanity you see in it comes from the Beatles, not from the AI, who just slapped it all together by making sure it rhymed, followed grammatical rules, and grouped phrases about hiding from others. It might be impressive to those who don’t recognize the lyrics, but it’s not creative.
Moreover, if you do know the Beatles, you’re going to spot the plagiarism. It makes me think of my old teaching days when students would “write” an essay by stitching together three Wikipedia articles. AI content creators just do that on a grander scale.
Moreover, there’s now so much AI material out there in writing and art that AI programs are starting to pull from the work of other AI programs, which means some AIs are now producing gibberish and art that looks like nothing.
In other words, AI is eating itself.
There are other dangers about AI copy editors. Many offer suggestions for alternatives but then leave you to determine which is best.
CopySmith.ai said this is better: “Additionally, as AI copy editors do not understand the context of the written material, they may suggest changes that are inappropriate for the particular project.”
Fail. It’s not only wordy, it again changes what I’m saying, which is that you, the user, are still left to make choices. It’s not that the AI-generated content might be inappropriate; it’s that the user isn’t really helped by the AI’s suggestions.
Other AIs offer alternative words, but so does a thesaurus, and with the same problem: you are responsible for knowing what the words mean. Yet other AIs call themselves copy editors but then offer to act like content creators, often with their “premium” services, without explaining why their content is better.
I also notice that AI content is always wordier, no doubt to appeal to students who need to get to 500 words for their assignment or bloggers who don’t want to be bothered to actually blog.
What a Good Human Editor Can Do
The list is (literally) endless regarding what a human editor can do for your writing that an AI copy editor cannot. This is particularly true here at Edit911.com, where all our editors hold PhDs and are highly invested in both safeguarding the language from errors and in fostering clients’ creativity.
It’s ineffable, but humans have an ear for communication that AIs, as long as they rely on algorithms, will never attain. We are contrary, emotional, and attuned to the sublime and the downright stupid. This means we’re attentive to nuance.
The New York Times did a quiz recently to test people’s editing ability. While I have mad respect for the Old Gray Lady, I really have to disagree with #3. Can you see what’s wrong with the following:
He has been dogged by reports—many published in Newsday—that he had received free gifts and vacations from a longtime friend, Harendra Singh, a Long Island restaurateur with about 30 businesses in the area and several government contracts.
The NYT’s answer is that “free” is redundant with “gifts.”
Fail (sorry). While this is true of the dictionary meaning of “gift,” in real-life writing, I disagree. Consider the advertising promise of “free gift with purchase.” That’s not free. Gifts can have all sorts of strings attached and quid pro quo understandings. Also, what’s the alternative: “received gifts and vacations” or “received gifts and free vacations”? What is a free vacation if not a gift?
The human ear can also pick up on writing that is dull and trite. AI copy editors actually steer writers toward unimaginative text. That means whenever you’re trying to be innovative and develop your own writing style and voice, AI copy editors will discourage you. You may want to stand out from the crowd, but AIs are programmed to say the crowd is better.
And let me return to the idea of being “ineffable,” which may sound a little hoity-toity, but no other word will do. No one has as yet explained the true difference between human and computer speech. Indeed, no computer has yet passed the Turing Test, which “only” asks that a computer sound like a human in conversation, let alone a human writing a story.
I turn to Irene McKinney and her poem “What Enters Us” for a discussion of something ineffable that she just calls “it.” Here are the first and last bits:
Because it enters us through our breath,
And because its sweetness is beyond belief . . .
It enters through their breath
too and they don’t understand any
more than we do, but to them it doesn’t
matter. We don’t know what comes into us
and I’m saying, it doesn’t matter.
This quality, what cannot be programmed, is what makes human creation beyond AI.
- Consider examples. An AI can follow instructions that three examples are better than two, but it cannot say when there are enough examples to be convincing.
- Consider confusion. An AI can tell you when your sentence goes on too long, but it cannot say the idea is unclear.
- Consider intros and conclusions. An AI can say you need a conclusion, but it cannot say when you’ve ended with a bang.
- Consider tone. An AI might recognize when some forms of humor are being employed, but it cannot say when humor is going to offend people or if it’s funny.
And to really drive the point home, let’s turn to the area no AI promoter has yet to pretend it’s any good at: reader enjoyment.
Typely.com told me I started that paragraph with a conjunction, which yeah, I know.
Fail. When I put the text in with “enjoyment” spelled wrong, it didn’t notice.
Being enjoyable to read is important in all writing, but it’s particularly obvious in fiction, so I’m going to use that to make my point.
Fiction, the Final Frontier
An AI copy editor can tell you what’s wrong with your writing, and some might even tell you a little about what’s right, but it cannot tell you whether your writing is thrilling, sad, happy, exciting, touching, engaging, boring, Pulitzer worthy, or just plain garbage.
It can’t tell you whether:
- A character is likable or a jerk, original or a stereotype;
- The plot is too obvious or has holes;
- The pacing is too slow or fast;
- The descriptions are too focused on vision and don’t appeal to other senses; or
- The ending is a cliché.
In short (I know, too late.), an AI copy editor can tell you whether your writing follows instructions, but it cannot tell you if it’s any good. As a writer, you want a thumbs up, but the best AI can do is give you a pass.
So, Bottom Line…
Am I worried about my job? No.
Already, I see some of the hype about AI-generated content and copy editing is dying down. I’m reminded of when Babelfish and Google Translate first came out. We were all, “Wow! No more paying for interpreters!” Then we paid attention to the final product and realized human interpreters weren’t going anywhere.
Even more bottom line, should you ditch human editing services like Eidt911.com for robots? I wouldn’t recommend it.
Sudowrite.com suggests instead: “Forget about trading humans for robots when it comes to editing services such as Eidt911.com–I don’t recommend it.”
Fail. It keeps most of the meaning, but it gets rid of all my fun. It ignores the whole “bottom line” thing, it nixes the rhetorical question, and it uses a sloppy em dash when it should be a period or at least a semi-colon.
For now, and doubtlessly for some time to come, you need an educated and skilled human to give you a proper edit.
The final thing I realized in writing this paper is that the kind of writer who can benefit from AI copy editors (someone who has serious issues with basic grammar or just wants something “OK” quick) isn’t the kind we at Edit911.com attract. Our clients want to go from acceptable to exceptional. They’re looking for expert feedback from a staff of PhDs with decades of experience to help them become the best writers they can be.
Our clients don’t want to walk the line. They want to fly.