People have asked me how I use AI, particularly ChatGPT, to write or edit my articles. I’ve always proudly admitted I don’t use it—at all.
Some of you may find this surprising given that, firstly, I write about AI, and secondly, I presumably know quite well the potential and proven merits of these tools—which are undeniable—and also the areas where they fall short and should thus be avoided. I’m aware that I enjoy an enviable edge to leverage generative AI tools. Anyone in my position would correctly think it’s ridiculous to not use ChatGPT—from a competitive lens, I’m imposing a strong handicap onto myself.
To explain why, I don’t have to resort to dismissing arguments like “ChatGPT produces low-quality prose.” That’s true now but GPT models will improve—maybe so much that they’ll become better than the best living writers (I don’t dare bet against AI). Tech-savvy, open-minded creators will take ChatGPT as a companion and overproduce and overshadow folks like me. How can I compete against such a force of nature?
The pleasure of typing these words
I don’t want to fight steel swords with a stick. Why I don’t use ChatGPT, then? As an AI writer, I obviously don’t dislike technology. Neither do I advocate for stopping AI progress—although I support doing it more conscientiously. And even if I acknowledge we writers have a big problem looming over us, I think AI tools are merely a symptom, not the root cause.
I found the explanation—which applies to me but might not apply to any other writer who rejects AI—in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.” Before getting into the details, let me give you the answer right away. There’s one main reason—albeit possibly not the only one—why it wouldn’t make sense for me to use ChatGPT. It’s as simple as it gets: It would steal the pleasure I find in writing.
I don’t write to compete. Competition is unavoidable, though. I don’t write in a vacuum, I have to compete against others for your time and attention, whether I like it or not. This is the only reason why I’d even consider AI an option—if I felt my ability to earn a living was at risk. And I don’t write just to obtain something out of the finished work (e.g., money, followers, praise), although that’s always a bonus, as Orwell eloquently states.
I realize that, just as in life, my love for writing happens on the journey. In the process of learning to write better. In writing for the sake of writing. Maybe this makes me weird, but I feel a twinge of sadness when I hit publish because that's the end of an essay’s life. It then rests unmoved, unchanged forever so readers can perceive its static beauty (also love that, not gonna lie). Then I rejoice again because it means a new one begins.
Orwell’s four motives for writing
In his essay, Orwell writes:
“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.”
This resonated with me. I didn’t want to come up with other motives he might have missed and for the ones he laid out, I fully agree. I don’t even need to look very deep to catch myself thinking about my writing from any of these four perspectives.
The first one is “sheer egoism.” I’d be tempted to deny it but I’m cynical enough to acknowledge that we’re all—at least partially—selfish. I am: I “desire to seem clever,” want “to be talked about, [and] be remembered after death.” I definitely feel my “aesthetic enthusiasm,” Orwell’s second motive: I perceive—and strive to find—beauty “in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” As a popularizer of AI, maybe there should be no stronger motive for me than the third, “historical impulse.” Everything that’s happening will reverberate in the years to come, so it’s a moral responsibility for me to “see” and portray “things as they are.”
Finally, like Orwell, I naturally tend to avoid the fourth—“political purpose”—but I certainly don’t think AI can now be dissociated from politics. It’s too mainstream, too ideologically charged, and too critical for the state of international affairs and the present and future development of societies to try to isolate it as an apolitical technological endeavor. Orwell goes as far as to say that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Agreed.
My main takeaway from Orwell’s four motives in relation to AI is something else: Using ChatGPT is almost fully compatible with a writer’s intention to fulfill them. Three out of the four aren’t in principle—if done correctly— in conflict with using AI. I can appear clever by passing ChatGPT’s outputs as mine (for some writers this one is, besides making money, the main reason to exploit AI tools). I can, not without some difficulty, use ChatGPT to learn things and see them as they are (although I wouldn’t recommend it due to language models’ tendency to hallucinate).
And it can be used to put forward a political agenda (this kind of misinformation is one of my main worries). Historian Yuval Noah Harari says in his recent essay in The Economist that AI writing school essays might not be the real problem: “Think of the next American presidential race in 2024, and try to imagine the impact of AI tools that can be made to mass-produce political content, fake-news stories and scriptures for new cults.”
Why I write: My enthusiasm for aesthetics
But there’s one motive ChatGPT isn’t compatible with by definition: “aesthetic enthusiasm.” Stripping it out of embellishments, aesthetics comprises the simple joy of trying to find the best word to put on the page. If anything, that’s ChatGPT’s exact purpose: predicting what’s the best next word.
Aesthetic enthusiasm is, out of the four motives Orwell laid out, the only one inherent to the very act of writing. The others are instrumental, even collateral—you could always achieve them without ever writing a word, just like Socrates. If I use ChatGPT to write for me—or just with me, as a sort of AI partner—I’d lose the motivation to explore my enthusiasm for the aesthetic aspect of writing. If it can come up with a better word than me every time, what’s the point?
While reading Orwell’s essay, I realized that aesthetic enthusiasm not only conflicts squarely with ChatGPT; it is, for me right now, the strongest motive for why I write.
I hinted at this with my interlude essay on Borges, “A Bull, a Rose, a Tempest.” I think my obsession with aesthetics sets me apart from most other writers (certainly the vast majority, if not all, of AI writers). It’s not useful or productive, and might not provide the same value for you, the reader, as it does for me. But it is where my passion for writing lies, at least now that I’m still a novice, learning like a sponge absorbs water. I like to hone my style. find better words and better-sounding sentences. Just the other day I was rereading some notes on literary devices: allegories, anaphoras, and asyndetons. I like to make my words rhyme. Make them sing. I reread this short passage by Gary Provost from his book “100 Ways to Improve Your Writing” every so often.
The content I put out is important. The value I provide to you is important. The topics I write about are important. But the thing is, I really like writing, and I like writing this way. To quote Orwell once more, this time from his essay “Politics and the English Language”:
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
I’m trying to be that scrupulous writer.
Why do you write?
Let me close with a final excerpt from Orwell that applies to anyone who writes, including you:
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand.”
I haven’t written a book (would like to one day) but I can see that anyone who decides to use ChatGPT to write for them—I’m not referring here to superficial editing, coming up with ideas, or lightweight details, which I find perfectly fine—wouldn't be able to explore that mystery Orwell refers to. They wouldn’t feel that irresistible demon.
Some writers are okay with that, and that’s great. For those who aren’t, you may want to reflect on why you write.
Thanks for sharing those great perspectives. As for me, I find that I’m compelled to write when an idea simply won’t let go of me. It could be any time of the day or night and it doesn’t have to be extensive; just delicious in its own way. Occasionally it’s a chain of thought that I find compelling, and I would welcome reading it even if somebody else came up with it and framed it in their own unique style. If it’s a worthy idea then it’s on me to take the time to polish it and hold it for delivery. Although I’ve done this on Medium, I haven’t had the courage yet to do it on Substack. I feel it had better be damn good in every respect if I plant it there.
You wonder whether the distinction between the types of writers becomes clearer in the short to medium term. Those of us who love writing will keep doing so, possibly shifting even further towards innovating in how we write and being more creative. Those who write because they have to, may slide further towards generative AI’s OK-ish style of writing. Yes, the letter will improve in the long term, but perhaps, by then, the two groups of writers would have diverged significantly.