Artificial Intelligence and Writing: An encounter with the Open AI ChatGPT and some general thoughts

I was born during a time when writers were wary of what they preferred to call “word processors” but were basically computers that allowed you to write. I distinctly remember wishing I had one of those typewriters that I always saw journalists or novelists banging on in the television series of my youth. I’m convinced that it is the main reason why I, well over thirty years after the fact, continue to bang on laptop keyboards with my fingers just as hard as if I were trying to move mechanical levers and metal type. However, I never really had a good working one, or even one of those electric typewriters that I had heard of as well, which was the motorcycle to the old ten-speed of the mechanical typewriter. You couldn’t ever have everything as a kid.

During those early years of my life, print was still king and the Internet was a rumor. If I wanted to do what I am doing now, I had to petition the gatekeepers at a New York or even, possibly, a European publisher to allow me to write a book and distribute it to people. If I wanted to give my opinion about the current political situation, I needed to get friendly with the editor of my local paper so that I could submit a letter to the editor, or, if I was feeling ambitious, a guest column. The process was, by no means, easy.

I will end my time in an era where if I want to write something, the only thing I need to publish something is a familiarity with certain blogging or publishing platforms and the time to click a few buttons. And, I live in a time where versions of artificial intelligence (AI) will write for you rather than just provide a keyboard to type.

I often wondered what it was like to live the life of my grandparents, who came of age at the still-early stages of the Industrial Age and the Age of Aviation and passed away attempting to understand the Internet and music videos. Now, I’m beginning to get a feeling for what it might have been like – to an extent.

It’s that part about artificial intelligence, that I haven’t grappled with until now. To be honest, it’s not been something that I’ve considered to affect me. To be honest, that’s not necessarily the case.

Before I begin this conversation, I need to let you know that I do not have any expertise in artificial intelligence, programming,

Although I knew that companies such as Google have been experimenting with AI, I recently learned about a new program called GPT-3, sponsored by an AI firm in San Francisco called Open AI. Basically, programmers have fed this system with trillions of words and multitudes of writing to be able to generate its own original writings. You feed in some parameters,

This program has now been released as an open chat bot program that anyone can access online and try it out for themselves. And now, it appears that some writers are starting to make use of ChatGPT. This interview of Kindle novelist Jennifer Lepp, who writes under the pseudonym of Leanne Leeds, on The Verge news site, was quite informative. She is now a paid contributor to the blog of a company called Sudowrite which uses a GPT-3-based system.

She details some of the ethical issues facing writers that are utilizing this technology. Is it considered plagiarism if you ask the program to write like a certain famous author? (In my own opinion, it’s too close to the dictionary definition of the word for comfort). Is it al right to use it to write blurbs for a book, or to create plots or ideas for descriptions? (Maybe?) Lepp concludes:

I’m really just stuck in the middle, wondering which way it’s going to go. I definitely don’t want to encourage people who aren’t comfortable using it to use it. I do think it’s going to leak into their lives. It’s already leaking into all our other software, so I think it’s going to be very hard to get away from. But I definitely don’t know where it’s all going. ChatGPT shocked the hell out of me. I had thought, well, it’ll take three or four years, and it’ll get better. Then came ChatGPT, and oh my god, that’s so much better! It’s been six months! The progress is so incredibly fast, and so few questions have really been answered.

Lepp

After reading multiple articles and online discussions about ChatGPT, I was intrigued as to whether there was anything to this. Inevitably, I decided to download ChatGPT and give it a test drive myself.

My experimentation with ChatGPT has been limited. I queried the bot as to why the United Kingdom no longer had an absolute monarchy and got a good explanation of the issues that culminated with The Glorious Revolution of 1688. I asked the chat bot to write a good scene involving a team winning a soccer game (shades of my new project), and it managed to put together a good few paragraphs of description in under a minute. The writing was simple, but quite good – detailed, lacking any grammatical errors, and efficient.

When I think of AI and writing, I don’t necessarily think about “being replaced” by an AI. As I have considered over this past year, I would likely keep writing no matter what the size of the audience that eventually reads my work. I am compelled to express myself that way in a way machines (at least currently) are not.

Would I actually use such a product to help produce a book faster, like if I asked it to write a few filler scenes for me or something more? I could still see myself as being a creative person if I did this, but it would be a different type of creativity than having me “do all the work” myself. If you write a book with a co-writer or even a ghost writer, you can be creative, but it is a different type of creativity than doing all the legwork yourself. Frankly, it’s a lot less work for you to do.

And this would be no different than using an AI co-writer, co-secretary, whatever you want to call it. It’s just not the same type of writing than doing it yourself. Anyone who would argue that makes as much sense as arguing that a flyweight fighter is the same type of fighter as a heavyweight or that a boxer is the same type of athlete as an MMA practitioner. If I ever included AI-assisted materials in my work product, for example, the very least I would do would be to post any word count I would get doing that with a massive asterisk and accompanying footnotes. It would not be the same type of writing that I have been trying to work on and improve for the past five years.

I was somewhat surprised, however, to find that the implications of this AI technology would have on my own writing was not the first thing on my mind. My thoughts first went to my students, the middle schoolers and high schoolers that I have been instructing about writing for the past couple of years.

The first thought that rattled and banged around the edges of my skull as I saw the ChatGPT writing that soccer scene was this:

This chat bot writes better than maybe half of my students. And it produces that material in a fraction of the time that it takes my human teen students to do it.

When I say better, by the way, I mean better in the sense of being grammatically correct, organizationally on point, and having clear transitions between ideas. I do not necessarily hold that the chat bot’s creativity is the equal or better of those kids. Teenagers can be quite creative, especially if they are trying to impress themselves or their peers.

Regardless, that was something to consider. And the questions that thought raised have continued to roll and tumble through my mind since.

The thought what if students use this to plagiarize and put together their assignments was immediately followed by wouldn’t they realize that they were replacing themselves? Is AI something that could become a writing tool for students with additional academic needs like voice to text speech technology or spelling and grammar check, or is that a bridge too far? Would ChatGPT or its inevitably more advanced successors help free my students who would prefer never to write to express themselves from writing drudgery? Or will the new technology just leave them behind just like the 20th century has now been left behind?

The other evening, as I talked with my father over a dinner out, I talked with him about this topic and joked that I half expect the Earth to undergo a Butlerian Jihad at any moment. For those not familiar with the Dune series of science fiction books by Frank Herbert (I’m a bit of a fan), it was a war well into the future of humanity when it battled with artificial intelligences in a massive, devastating war. At the end of it, humanity forbids the building of AI altogether.

We’re not at the edge of some sci-fi war here. But I think this technology is going to raise a lot more hard questions about how things are going to be in our world than all but a few people are beginning to understand. I don’t think most people are ready to ponder these questions. I consider myself a forward-thinking person, and I don’t think I’m really ready to consider or understand the answers to those and other related questions. However, I know that I will have to continue to consider them for the rest of my days as a writer and as a person.

While I do appreciate you following this blog, I really would like you to subscribe to my Substack page. By subscribing to that page, you’ll not only be receiving my Substack newsletter, The Writing Life With Jason Liegois (the companion blog to this one), but you’ll also be signing up for my email list. I will eventually be opening some special contests, offers, and first looks at original fiction, poems, and other items. Just click the button below.

Substack: A Sequel

I usually don’t include short notes like this on the blog, but I did want to share something related to a review of the writing site Substack I shared here a few weeks back.

One of the things that I mentioned in that review was while I found the frequently asked questions pages quite helpful (the company terms them the “Writer’s Resource” pages) to be quite helpful, of course they were never going to have every single answer I was looking for. Also, it’s always tricky to try and use the right keywords to get the exact advice you want. Substack has regular office hours, but those are during the midday and especially with the school year coming up, it’s difficult to me to make those hours.

However, I did manage to make it to one of those “writer’s hours” chat about a week ago, and I got a great response from a writer by the name of Jackie Dana, who runs a page on Substack called Unseen St. Louis and also contributes to another couple of Substack pages as well. She answered a couple of questions I had about the platform, including what would the best options be for cross-posting from WordPress to Substack. (The short answer is, publish in WordPress, copy and paste into Substack, and there shouldn’t be too much of an issue except for maybe a couple of formatting issues.) Also, I got invited to join a Substack Writer’s forum, so I can start wandering around there at odd hours if I need some other advice.

The short story is, I’m going to look at putting together my first official Substack post soon. After that, I will continue to cross-post from her to there, and perhaps add a few older articles occasionally to Substack as well. I’ll let you know here when that goes “live,” so to speak.

I always am trying to take care that I’m doing my research before jumping into a new writing endeavor. However, I think at a certain point, the best policy is for me to plow ahead and see what happens.

So, I guess I’ll see you later here and at Substack (as well as the other places; just check out the sidebar lol).

Substack: A review

Every so often I have to remind myself of a rule that relates to my work output. It was very much the case in my younger years, but even now when I’m slowly beginning to increase my output, it still applies to me. As it turns out, I typically manage to be more productive when I’m facing a “hard” deadline.

Such is the case here, as I attempt to put together this blog starting on Monday with enough time to make sure it is completed on Saturday. Confidentially, it is also serving as a presentation for my writing group on the same day. As I once heard about the game of chess, if one move can accomplish two tasks at once, it is always a good move and usually the best move available in a given situation. So, this blog will serve the same purpose.

Introduction

It is strange how, during the course of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to see publishing, such as it is, warp from a 20th century print emphasis to a 21st century online emphasis. In the 20th century, you worried about finding a publisher for the work that you wanted to write, or possibly and agent. You would have to consult tomes, not regular books, such as Writer’s Market and other similar resources to find suitable outlets for your literary efforts. That’s how our great-grandfathers, grandfathers, and fathers did it, and we were expected to do it as well.

Then the Internet became a thing.

It turned out that you could go out onto what they called the online world and somehow make a living at doing different things. It turns out that people could take a look at something at Wal-Mart on a web site and order it to come to your house. People could reach potential customers from all parts of the world rather than just their own neighborhoods. Also, it opened up markets or services that went way beyond what people expected in the old days when people out West were amazed that you could order a Colt revolver that shot .45 caliber ammunition in their Montgomery Ward catalogue and have it arrive in person a few days later1.

So, if one is to look out into the online world, there are many places where people are trying to make a living writing online. The legacy newspapers and magazines considered the Internet a side gig where they could promote the print product until younger people realized they’d prefer to have the articles on their laptops or smartphones rather than some awkward pseudo-blogger (lol).

As such, I was trying to find the best platform for me to try and write and make a good living at it. And the more I hung around Facebook or other social media platforms, I kept hearing about something called Substack. I kept seeing authors I admired such as Robert Reich and Amanda Palmer using Substack as one of their platforms.

Although I have been blogging on WordPress now for about five years, I’ve been interested in other ways of reaching people through writing and at least making some money from it. From my initial glances at Substack, it seemed to be a platform that someone could make a living – not a prosperous living, but something to help authors out. If I wasn’t going to be a starving artist, and if I wasn’t going to be a hustler like some of these guys on YouTube and TikTok, I had to have something that would be simple, easy to understand, and capable of maintaining with few if any logistical complications.

I decided to look into Substack and see if it might meet my needs. As I do that, I will also look at my experiences using WordPress and comparing my experiences with those services.

Getting Started

Getting going on Substack is insanely easy on www.substack.com. Once you have an email address to use for setting up an account, signing up for an account is as easy as pretty much any site or online service you might encounter. They also have an app in the Apple store for Substack. I went ahead and got both the app for my iPhone and also access the site through my desktop, although the mobile app is only a reader for the service and does not have editing capabilities.

There is no cost to setting up an account or using Substack’s basic services, although if you do start charging for subscriptions they will take a cut of that. But I’ll get into that later.

Writing Something Down

When you start composing something for publication, you do so on the Dashboard section of the site. The Dashboard is the way you access not only your posts, but other information such as for subscribers, statistics, podcasts, and other features which I’ll discuss later.

I did like the straightforwardness of the drafting and editing setup for posts. You are able to put in a variety of text styles and formats, and embedding other items such as YouTube videos, Spotify tracks, and others is as easy as cutting and pasting the link into a new line of the post. I still have frustrating memories of trying to get HTML programming perfectly and trying to cut and past relevant codes I had saved for different posts on an old Blogger site I operated for a few months way back when I had a lot less motivation to write. I’m very glad sites in general are more plug and play, so to speak, than they were before, and Substack fits this bill.

The one disadvantage, however, to the editing is that you can’t substantially change the style of the Substack posts themselves, the basic formatting. By contrast, WordPress gives you several paid and unpaid options for changing the look of your blog which I have used to freshen it up at least a couple of times over the years.

When you do publish posts, Substack gives you the option of simply posting it to the web or both publishing and emailing your subscribers at the same time. One good thing about that is if you have to revise or change something, it won’t send out other emails when that happens, so that cuts down on spam quite a bit.

You can also set up separate sections of your Substack site that can host different newsletters and podcasts, for example. This can be done through the Dashboard.

Building Readers

Writing something is one thing, but actually getting someone other than yourself or (maybe) your significant other to read what you write is something entirely different. Both Substack and writers on Substack, in some of the articles on the site regarding operations, gave me some good initial advice toward how to build such a readership. Some ways that Substack suggests to promote your site include letting people know about your site by word of mouth and promoting it through any communications and social media. Another thing they emphasized was being consistent with publishing content that displays your personality. They definitely have an idea of how to create a name brand.

Another method to promote yourself is using the Recommendations feature. This allows you to recommend fellow writers that you have admired, while also allowing you to be recommended in turn to others. This feature is pretty straightforward and is a lot simpler than trying to make an Amazon review and wondering if it will get deleted because you and the author are connected on social media.

Subscriptions (Free and Paid)

When talking about subscriptions, I should mention that they can be either free or paid. Either kind are alerted to new posts via email. Free subscriptions are recommended for new authors on site. This gives you the opportunity to help build your audience for when a paid-subscription service is viable.

As for paid subscriptions, they can be at varying levels depending on your wishes. You choose how much those subscriptions are and what do readers receive for them. The website will receive 10 percent of the income that you receive from paid subscriptions as well as any credit card fees. The general advice that the site and its users give regarding paid subscriptions is to build your free subscriber base first and have a very solid plan for what people will get for those subscriptions.

Paid subscriptions are supported through a payment system called Stripe. I managed to get signed on to Stripe with little difficulty in about 5-10 minutes.

Metrics, Statistics, and Traffic

The Dashboard for the site is the place to find out all sorts of information about what is going on with your page. When it comes to posts, it gives detailed data regarding who’s seen it, shares and subscriptions from reading a post, click rates, and several other items.

The dashboard also has specific subscriber statistics. It tells you who has signed up for your email lists and its growth. You also get the total email list, total subscribers, and the revenue from those subscribers.

Other statistics the site provides includes where the traffic to your page is arriving from, along with unique visitors. There are also other sections, such as email and podcasts, that provide data for those specific operations.

Podcasting

Substack also has a podcasting feature by which you can host a podcast on your page. It allows you to import existing podcasts to the Substack page through RSS, and allows you to submit your podcasts to Spotify and other services.

However, while Substack does allow you to upload any audio files for the podcast, there isn’t any functionality that allows you to produce, edit, and revise podcast episodes. By contrast, WordPress is in partnership with Anchor (a Spotify division) that provides a very good production element). In some of my initial work with Anchor, I was able to use it to provide a fairly solid production, complete with intro/outro music, effects, etc.

What if You Need Help?

Substack has an extensive help and support section. Some of the articles are produced by the company, while some others have been contributed by successful users who pass along their knowledge. I found all of the articles to be quite helpful in walking through the publishing process. They also have “Writers’ Hours” during the week, but that can be at an inconvenient time for many. For example, they are usually going on during middays on Thursdays, so people who work during the week might find it difficult to participate. I would love to have either some later times or weekends to be able to take part myself.

Comparisons Between Substack and WordPress

WordPress has been my main blogging platform, so I usually compare a blogging platform to my experiences there. Both Substack and WordPress have an ease of use about their sites. However, I think it might be easier to embed items from other media into Substack. The statistics I get from Substack were very thorough and easy to understand. However, the ability to customize Substack doesn’t compare to WordPress.

In addition to WordPress’ ease of use, I like the creativity it allows me to alter the look and feel of my blog. The mobile app for WordPress is much better than that of Substack because it allows me to post and edit posts, unlike the Substack app. However, I do have to make some modest investments – maybe around $150 annually – to have the site have the functionality that it does as well as for domain and email services.

My verdict

Substack has potential as a possible supplement and revenue stream for my writing work. With the time and effort I have put into my WordPress blog, as well as the features of the platform that I think can match what Substack does, I don’t see myself abandoning WordPress as a result, but I get the feeling that I will be crossposting items from WordPress to Substack in the near future.

I’d score Substack as being 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a great program, but it doesn’t necessarily have every single function that I would like in a publishing platform. It’s something I will make use of in the future.

Footnotes:
1. I’m trying really hard not to get off topic. I might not succeed. But I am trying.

Writing Journal, 13 July 2022: Good (acceptable?) start to the month

[PHOTO NOTE: The picture was the first thing that came up when I put “July” in the photo search.

Last week was… acceptable, if not good from a writing perspective. I’m ahead of the game regarding my writing pace, although I’m frankly disappointed that I didn’t get more blog posts done than what I have done.

However, I am working on a presentation that I will be giving this weekend to my writing group, and it will be a presentation on the blogging and subscription website Substack. As part of my work on giving that presentation to the group, I will be putting together a blog post and review of the site – basically, my first impressions after starting to use and experiment with it.

Not much else to mention about that, although I will be posting that midday on Saturday (16 July 2022).

Anyway, that’s it for now. Stats are below. Take care everyone.

Writing statistics for the week ending 9 July 2022:
+4,895 words written.
Days writing: 5 of 7.
Days revising/planning: 1 of 7 for 60 total minutes.
Daily Writing Goals Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of planning/revisions): 6 of 7 days.