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Using ChatGPT as a Writing Coach
How to improve instead of atrophy
If you use ChatGPT for writing, you will become a worse writer.
If you let a machine do the work for you, you will become less fit to do that work. Driving a car does not make you a better runner.
So it makes me sad seeing writers use ChatGPT to do some of their writing for them. In the short term, it is convenient. But the price of that convenience is sacrificing their future competence.
There is, however, a way to use ChatGPT to become a better writer. To treat it as a writing coach instead of a writing robot.
In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he outlines how he used The Spectator magazine to improve his writing:
“I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
He also tried changing sentences into verse and changing them back, as well as rearranging the sentences and then having to reconstruct the arguments. It allowed him to create a deliberate writing practice to improve his craft without needing to hire a coach to critique his work. He had work to compare his to.
Now, ChatGPT is not a great writer. But it might be better than you in certain aspects of writing, and you can use it for some Ben Franklin-style writing coaching.
I’ve been trying to learn more fiction writing, and one thing I’m particularly weak at is describing a setting. So let’s say I want to practice that.
I’ll start by writing a very short scene and try not to edit it (which is painful, let me tell you…):
I caught the alarm by the fourth ring. Snoozing was easier back when there was a huge button you could smack on the radio clock instead of fumbling with your iPhone. I slipped out of bed and put on the sweats I’d laid out the night before, sliding my phone into my back pocket, resisting the urge to check it and fill the room with light.
The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour. But the moon was bright and lit my way down the steps, being careful to avoid any dog or baby toys. Not that there was much difference these days. If it squeaked, it went in everyone’s mouth.
I turned my first light on in the kitchen and squinted at the floor while my eyes adjusted. I desperately needed a soft lamp downstairs. The harsh glow of LEDs was more jarring than the alarm. I kept my eyes down as I shuffled into the garage to flip the breaker for the coffee maker. Whatever was tripping it each night had set it off again.
Okay, so I have my very brief little description. And it’s fine, but it can obviously be a lot better.
The first question is: what’s the first criticism that comes to mind? For me, the first thing I think is that I could make these descriptions more vivid. You have some idea of the space I’m moving through and what I’m doing, but it’s not that descriptive.
So let’s start with just getting out of bed. How can I make it more vivid? The impulse is to plug it into ChatGPT and ask for help but don’t do that yet!
First, try doing it yourself. So here’s my attempt:
I felt the Bzzz… bzzz… bzzz… and my eyes flickered awake. I was warm, not quite sweating, but too warm to keep sleeping. I fumbled with my iPhone on the nightstand, being careful to keep the screen low and dim so I didn’t light up the whole room. I scooted Pepper off my feet down to the edge of the bed and slid out from under the covers. As soon as my feet hit the floor she scurried up to claim the warm spot on my pillow. I thought getting a dog would make me wake up earlier, but she was the latest sleeper in the house.
I think this is a little better, I’m still not very happy with it, but it’s a start. Now let’s try playing with ChatGPT and see what else we can come up with.
We can start with something very basic, write a vivid description of someone getting out of bed.
Here’s what I get back for that:
“As the morning sun peeks through the curtains, the individual stirs from their slumber. They stretch their arms high above their head, feeling the satisfying pop of their joints as they awaken from a peaceful sleep. The covers rustle as they throw back the blankets, revealing their bare legs and arms, still adorned with the remnants of slumber. They take a deep breath, inhaling the fresh morning air and let out a contented sigh.
As they swing their legs over the side of the bed, their feet touch the cool hardwood floor, sending shivers up their spine. They pause for a moment, taking in the sounds of the world outside their window, the chirping of birds, and the distant hum of cars on the road. Then, with a sense of purpose, they rise to their feet, shuffling towards the bathroom, ready to start another day.”
I like this even less than mine, it feels very generic. But there is some good in it we can pull out, like referencing something external in the environment, like birds chirping.
Let’s just ask it to rewrite mine next. Here’s what it comes back with:
This sounds worse to me honestly, but that’s probably because I’m being too broad. One strategy I’ve found helpful is to try to invoke a specific popular author you like.
So I’ll ask it to write one from scratch as David Foster Wallace:
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. But what if I ask it to just critique my paragraph as if it were DFW?
This is the most helpful by far. Making the first sentence a stronger hook, and using more “show don’t tell,” would definitely strengthen the passage.
So now let’s imagine I’m waking up this early not to work, but because I just got a PS5 and want to play God of War. So there’s an eager element to it, and a little urgency, since I want to get my gaming time in before my daughter wakes up.
“I felt the bzzz… bzzz… bzzz… and my eyes flew open. Funny how much easier it is to wake up when you’re excited. I fumbled through my phone passcode and turned off the alarm before I woke anyone else up. 5:30, plenty of time. I slid out of bed, careful not to rustle the covers, and felt the rug's warmth beneath my toes. I stretched out my arms and cracked my neck while Pepper claimed the warm spot on my pillow. I thought getting a dog would get me out of bed earlier, but she was the latest sleeper in the house. It was for the best today, though. She wouldn’t need to go out for a couple of hours. More time to myself.”
Okay, this is getting more interesting! Let’s say this is the opening of some short story, though, and I really want to hook the reader with this paragraph. Hook them so they are dying to know what happens next.
Now I’ll try asking ChatGPT to up the suspense:
It’s maybe a touch over the top, but there are some great bits we can incorporate:
“My eyes flew open, heart racing with excitement. I scrambled to unlock my phone and silence the alarm before it could alert anyone else in the house. 5:30, plenty of time. I slid out of bed and crept across the rug to fish my sweats out of the dresser, careful to avoid any creaking floorboards or errant baby toys. The only one who noticed my escape was Pepper, who drifted towards the warm spot on my pillow to fall back asleep. Good, I didn’t want to waste any time going outside. I’d barely been able to sleep with anticipation.”
Alright, we’re definitely getting more exciting. I don’t love the last couple sentences, though, maybe I’ll try getting those rewritten:
I don’t love this, but it does give me ideas. Instead of:
“Good, I didn’t want to waste any time going outside. I’d barely been able to sleep with anticipation.”
I could say:
“Good, I was determined not to waste one second of my morning solitude. I’d barely slept, consumed with anticipation of the morning to come. And here it was.
So, you get the idea. You could do this all day, pulling in different authors as coaches to try to refine different parts of your writing, but the most important part is to try to incorporate the advice yourself, don’t just copy and paste.
ChatGPTs generations are not that good, but they point you in helpful directions. If you can incorporate that advice, you might have a powerful new writing coach.
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