Writer’s Diary #29 – Large Language Models as Writing Assistants and First Readers?

Years ago, when I first discovered Wendell Berry, I remember reading a 1988 Harper’s article by Wendell Berry titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.

When the article was published, I was five years old. That was the same year my mother, a professor, brought home an Atari ST 1040 from work. I cherished that computer, using it for the better part of the following decade. In 1997, my parents purchased a Macintosh Performa 6400. On both machines, I learned to type, program, hack, tinker, and write.

However, I‘m unsure whether my writing process has been the best. Two years ago, Peter Elbow’s book on freewriting was a revelation.

Anyway, in that 1988 article, Berry writes:

As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.

He continues:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 19~6, and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong, and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with.it.

He goes on, noting that a friend suggested he buy a computer, and change his workflow. As of 2019, Berry hasn’t purchased a computer.

His reluctance to buy a computer, and his support of his wife as a first reader, sparks professional envy.

One the one hand, Berry is a gifted and prolific writer, and has crafted a thoughtful, respected body of work around agrarian themes without the aid of a computer. Yet, of course, this success can be attributed, in no small part, to the work of his wife, Tanya[^2^]. I suspect, in the way, a good first reader makes a writer strong.

While I hesitate to form opinions about a couple who have lived together for sixty years, creating a thriving literary cottage industry, there is a feminist critique that many acclaimed male writers have relied heavily on uncredited female secretaries, assistants, wives, and family members.

I’m thinking of Eleanor Marx, who edited many of Karl Marx’s manuscripts. Simone de Beauvoir, whose un-attributed efforts shaped Jean-Paul Sartre’s work. Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, was the source of many of his ideas, and even, it seems, of un-attributed scenes, in other words plagiarism.

While such unacknowledged collaboration raises questions about attribution and recognition, it also raises questions about writing as a process, involving first readers and, frankly, the work of a typist.

Since the 1990s, society has replaced secretarial staff with computers. Many writers, including myself, have effectively become our own first readers, typists, and copy-editors. My method of writing hasn’t changed much since childhood: I draft, rewrite, revise, correct spelling and grammar, and revise, revise, and revise. I might go through a few dozen drafts, fixing and adding spelling errors as I go.

For my first book, I employed a copy editor and a substantive editor. Friends and family members read my earliest drafts, and offered suggestions.

As I attempt to write my new book, juggle my responsibilities as a professor and a father, I find not only that there‘s too much going on and the writing isn’t happening, but that I have a much smaller pool of people who can help out.

Part of this issue, as Cal Newport‘s work suggests, is that administrative and secretarial roles that used to exist in offices and white-collar jobs were replaced by technology in the 1990s. Funds that previously paid for support staff now end up in IT departments, ultimately benefiting Big Tech.

Berry’s critique of this transition is prescient, as he starts his argument by expressing his disdain for dependency on oil companies.

Part of the issues, is I’m older, and everyone is busier.

But, the challenge of writing and finishing remains. Finishing requires a combination of hard work, creativity, and perseverance. Some elements of the process are iterative. Some of it requires a good first reader.

The work of a first reader, editor, and copy editor is hard to fill. In my experience, I have no one to fill this role and have done this work myself.

But, over the last six months, I’ve begun to see artificial intelligence and large language models from OpenAI and Anthropic as competent copy editors and first readers, when prompted carefully.

While AI will drastically disrupt many industries and jobs wreaking havoc on society, for my writing, I can see a roll for it.

Not to generate words, ideas, scenes, narratives, or text, which is plagiarism. but, to copy editor.

Perhaps some writers will use AI to cross a boundary of what is moral. Perhaps what is seen as moral will change? But, in the mean time, I’ve found a role for AI to clean up my typing, as a first reader, and as a copy editor.