The Case Against Hemingway, and Other Things
No, not that Hemingway. Not the author Ernest Hemingway, undoubtedly an icon of 20th-century literature. No, of course not. I meant this Hemingway. The editing app. That was a bit of a misleading start, I apologise. But do stay, because I have some compelling things to say.
You know, I’ve always sensed a bit of irony in the idea that something as bland as an online editing software should be named after a literary giant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the AI boom (I’ve had my fair share of Asimov-esque fantasies for the future of bots), I just don’t think it’s worthwhile if you want to want to write…well.
I’m going to be so bold as to argue that even if machine learning ventures into editing literary texts, a machine will never ever ever do it as well as human beings could. That’s the tea.
No, really. Are you seriously telling me that AI is capable of successfully overtaking the one thing that sets the human race apart? The art of writing. This is a feat achieved by no one other species. For millennia, writing has shown itself to be a potent medium that sheds light upon human complexity. Is it truly fair to give up that quest to machines?
Allow me to elaborate.
We’ve already said that editing is a long process, and has many steps within it. Technical expertise aside, the art of editing is filled with nuance. Ensuring syntax, punctuation, and formatting is only a part of this process. Editing a piece of literature requires an in-depth understanding of what the author is thinking – what they will eventually want to convey in writing. This requires human touch: an author-editor relationship.
Language occupies a very high place in our society. It goes far beyond its functional purpose of being a medium of everyday communication. Language, along with literature, is a reflection of human life. They are the containers of a history of human endeavours and conflict. The scars of our actions are evident in the words that we choose to use when we document ourselves. Language captures politics, history and cultural complexities within it. Writers carve poetry when they write for pleasure: machines that exist in this nascent stage of the automaton age cannot capture that.
What Artificial Intelligence essentially comprises of is a bunch of code. So AI is only as good as its coder. But even combining the skills of the world’s greatest grammarian and the world’s greatest coder will produce results that will fall short of an artist’s imagination. Just think of all the irritability that comes from an editing software soullessly asking you to remove words or simplify your language without considering the deliberation that you have put in your sentences. The issue here is that AI makes far too many presumptions: a trend that might eventually prove detrimental to good literature.
There is also this larger consideration: language is not static. It is true that language is often bound by the rules of grammar and syntax, and yet language constantly evolves. New words are added, and the meanings and usage of existing words are constantly changing. Pretty cool, right? Since AI can only perform the functions it is programmed to, it won’t be able to keep up with this evolution. Even with the rapid advancement of technology, language bots will probably have to be reprogrammed constantly. Frankly, that kind of investment just makes the bot counterproductive.
Another limitation of these online editing platforms is that there is no scope for context editing. Even services as popular as Grammarly and Hemingway only edit on a sentence to sentence basis. In isolation, this would be fine, except the fact that a major component of editing is to improve flow, tone, and the general literary quality of the text. In other words, Grammarly just does 10% of the task at hand. How about that?
That is not to say that (successful?) attempts have not been made. In 1990, Robert Dale wrote a paper titled “A Rule-Based Approach to Computer-Assisted Copy Editing”, that sort of enumerated the principles on which such an application would work. But even he wrote it as an application that assists editors, rather than replacing them. He wrote of the machine as one that “[assists] an editor in ensuring the correctness of low-level matters” such as punctuation and formatting styles. And isn’t that what machines are for, at the end of the day? Whether it’s the wheel or the world’s most complex computers, the commonality in every machine is that it is a device that enables human life to be easier.
So, sure, go all out and use Grammarly and Hemingway and Ginger to make these technical changes to your text. But you don’t want to live in the blissful illusion that these tools are your key to becoming a better writer. Art is created by people, and art is bettered by people. Go to your friends, go to a human editor. Do what you must, but don’t deprive yourself of the magnanimity of human input.
You’ve heard my two cents. But if you’re still a little ambiguous about the perils of an AI dominated literary world, then Roald Dahl’s short story “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” is just for you.
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I was happy to receive both a tracked and a clean version of the edited document.
I will happily recommend PaperTrue to my friends, and I will myself come back on a later occasion.
Amazing service and a welcoming chat on the website! I love the detailed comments and feedback on the tracked document :) They really did a good job at making my debut novel a lot better while still keeping my style of writing!
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