The first time someone paid me to write I was in college. A newspaper in eastern Massachusetts, the Brockton Enterprise, paid me to cover high school sports.
On weekday afternoons in the fall, I would drive to suburban high schools and watch games, usually field hockey.
Most of the time it was chilly and drizzly. The wind wipped across the field and through the sidelines, especially when the games were close to the coast. I would tuck my notebook under my arm and stick my hands in my pockets, pulling them out to jot down what happened in the game. But the cold didn’t bother me. I was writing for money, and I was happy.
I kept track of who scored, who assisted, and who played strong defense. I interviewed the coaches after the game to get quotes for my story. Then I drove back to the newspaper office, sat at a computer terminal, and wrote up the details and the highlights of the game.
For the first time in my life, I felt like an actual writer, not just a college kid who could get As on English papers. And at the end of the week, I got paid. There would be a check made out to me, for $15 to $35 per game, depending on how far away the game was. That money felt like proof I was a real writer.
Robots are writers, and people are reading their work
Today, I might not have that chance to stand on the sidelines of a field hockey game and report on it. Robots are writing about high school sports for newspapers like the Washington Post.
And robots can write more than just-the-facts news articles. Artificial intelligence already writes novels, marketing copy, and financial reports.
MIT Technology Review reported that one company’s writing software can generate a million words a day.
It would take you or me 1,000 days — close to three years, without a day off — to write a million words if we wrote 1,000 words a day. Meanwhile, on every one of those days, artificial intelligence could generate another million words.
By the time we finished our million words, artificial intelligence would have written a billion words. We can’t dream of catching up.
For writers, artificial intelligence can sound horrifying. How can we make a living with our words when we have to compete with the relentless productivity of a software program?
How writers can compete against artificial intelligence
Kevin Roose, author and technology columnist for the New York Times, gives us writers reason to hope.
In his TED Talk, he shared ideas for how writers can compete. We can’t try to outperform artificial intelligence. Instead, we need to focus on what we can do that machines can’t. We need to create a human connection. He said:
“Rather than trying to compete with machines, we should be trying to improve our human skills, the kinds of things that only people can do, things involving compassion and critical thinking and moral courage.”
Roose shared how he has pivoted in his own career to make his writing meaningful and relevant. He said he puts more of himself in his work: “I stopped writing formulaic corporate earnings stories, and I started writing things that revealed more of my personality.”
He is beating the bots with things like financial poetry, profiles of interesting people on Wall Street, and aspirational lifestyle stories. And once he started focusing on his humanity, he discovered a sense of optimism:
“I found that this new human approach to my job made me feel much more optimistic about my own future, because you can teach a robot to summarize the news or to write a headline that’s going to get a lot of clicks from Google or Facebook, but you can’t automate making someone laugh with a dumb limerick about the bond market or explaining what a collateralized debt obligation is to them without making them fall asleep.”
Poole pointed out that you can try to outperform artificial intelligence: “You can work long hours, you can turn yourself into a sleek, efficient productivity machine.” But that’s likely not sustainable for most of us.
Instead of fighting to beat the robots with your productivity, it might make more sense to find those niches where they can’t compete. Bring your work there, and connect with your audience in that space.
“[Y]ou can focus on your humanity and doing the things that machines can’t do, bringing all those human skills to bear on whatever your work is,” Poole said.
The bottom line
“[W]riting is not data. It is a means of expression, which implies that you have something to express.” — Steven Poole, writing in The Guardian
I started this article by sharing a story about my own beginnings as a young writer covering high school sports. And with that story, I hoped to connect with you as a person. I aimed to find some common ground.
Maybe it brought to mind your own first paid writing work, or something else that made you feel validated in your profession.
I hope you could relate to the humanity behind my words. Because that’s something robots can’t do. That’s the place where writers can succeed and thrive. That’s our power, and artificial intelligence can’t take it away.