When I was in first grade, I concocted a salami and peanut butter sandwich. My mother, frustrated by my uneaten bologna and cheese sandwiches and other brown bag lunchtime staples, flung a challenge at me.
“Why don’t you come up with a sandwich you’ll eat?”
Now, to a first grader, that’s a big challenge indeed.
I asked my older sister, “How do you come up with a new idea for a sandwich?”
She loved making sandwiches. She thought to add onion salt to a turkey with mayo and lettuce on white bread, for example, and it was sublime.
Okay, so maybe she wasn’t the first person to come up with that combination. It was still delicious.
She shrugged. “I take my favorite things and combine them.”
So I did. I took peanut butter, a perennial favorite, and slapped it on white bread. Then I took slices of hard salami and layered it on top.
It was as disgusting as it sounds and I went hungry that day at school.
Why am I telling you this story? Because to me, combining AI with proofreading creative writing is like my childhood experiment with peanut butter and salami. It’s two good things — artificial intelligence and creative writing — and combining them into an unpalatable mess.
I experimented with combining the proofreading of my novel with an AI program and made the biggest mistake of my creative writing career.
Seriously Screwing Up My Novel Release — and a Lesson Learned
This year, I released my second novel, I See You. It takes me about three years and at least three drafts to get a novel shaped to the point where I feel it’s ready to debut, and I See You was no exception.
In years past, I hired an editor to proofread my novels and novellas. A few mistakes ended up in the final drafts; I’ve found it’s inevitable when asking someone to proofread almost 400 pages of text.
This year, however, I was strapped for cash. My biggest client had gone out of business leaving five-figures of unpaid invoices on my business’ books. A magazine client also went belly-up leaving a smaller, but no less important, unpaid bill. I’ve had clients go out of business with unpaid receivables before but never two in one year.
I had no money to pay a proofreader. I scrambled for a solution and came up with the obvious. I had a paid subscription to an AI-driven proofreading software that served me in good stead when I worked on blog posts and short articles. Why not use it for my novel?
I dutifully broke the novel up into 3,000 word chunks and fed it into the churning maw of the AI-powered site, trusting it to do its good work as it had done for my articles. I saw typos captured, grammar mistakes highlighted. I clicked “okay” and thought, Well, this is fine! I just saved money on a proofreader!
I scheduled my novel’s release to great fanfare on social media. My loyal fans queued up to purchase advance copies. They had waited three years to learn what happened to the Majek family; many had grown close to the main characters. They couldn’t wait for the novel to hit Amazon’s virtual shelves, and I couldn’t wait, either.
Until the day my friend Barb, a loyal reader and fan of my work and the editor of a national magazine, dropped me an email bombshell.
“I think Amazon published a previous draft,” Barb wrote in a confidential text message. “I’ve just read the first chapter and found three typos in the first six pages alone. I can’t go on. When you correct the errors, let me know.”
What? How could three mistakes in the first six pages have escaped the magic AI machine’s all-knowing grammar and spelling check?
I pulled out my Kindle and scrolled through the manuscript. The mistakes leaped from the page. Broken sentences. Character names misspelled. Horrible comma usage.
How did the AI-driven program, which was highly accurate with my blog posts about software and digital marketing, screw up my novel so badly?
Creative Writing Defies Many Writing Conventions Upon Which AI Is Based
Good writing tends to be beyond the skills of predictive technology. Creative writing pushes the boundaries of acceptable grammatical conventions, often breaking rules in dialogue and descriptions.
I used the phrase “gunmetal sky” in my novel. The AI program flagged it as incorrect; it was certainly correct, as I meant to liken the color of the stormy sky to the color of a gun barrel, an ominous sign. To the AI program, ‘gunmetal’ doesn’t belong with the sky. The program wasn’t smart enough to figure out the phrase and it didn’t understand why it was there in the first place. The nuances of poetical description to set the mood and tone of a scene were beyond its capabilities.
I cleaned up my mess, had a friend who had worked with me as a proofreader in a past gig at a publishing house proof the novel, and re-released it. It’s getting great reviews, but I seriously screwed up my launch by releasing a subpar product. My hard work, three years of late nights and aching typing fingers, and the book pulled from the shelves for revision.
I could blame the AI program. I had tried to force it to work with text it wasn’t meant to work with in the first place. The company producing the AI program actually warns against using it for creative writing projects, suggesting instead that writers hire a human editor through their handy freelancer program.
It was my fault entirely that I’d tried to trust a job meant for a creative person to artificial intelligence. Peanut butter and salami. Two good things poorly paired leading to a stomach ache.
Nothing matches a skilled editor for catching mistakes and improving my writing. I started working with a new copy editor at a marketing agency gig this month and she’s not only caught my mistakes but her edits have improved my writing, making it stronger and teaching me in the process how to be a better writer.
That’s the best gift a skilled human editor brings to a project: they make a writer’s work better. No AI program has ever taught me to choose strong verbs or avoid unnecessary dialogue tags; my human editors, Donna, Marge, and Eleanor, have. The ensuing discussions about why I chose to write as I did and how it impacted them as readers also added nuances to my understanding that no artificial intelligence can match.
One day, AI programs may equal the abilities of seasoned editors. But today, I’ll trust Marge’s decades of newspaper reporting and editing, Donna’s novel writing skills, and Eleanor’s sharp-eyed proofreading when it comes to my novels. Gunmetal skies and sapphire eyes, dialogue written in English and American Sign Language, and other aspects of my novel flummoxed the AI checkers but excited and engaged the human editors.
And that’s how it should be.
Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning fiction writer and a freelance content marketing writer. She is the author of several paranormal mystery novels set on Long Island, New York’s famed Gold Coast area. When she’s not writing, you can find Jeanne hiking, gardening, or spending time with her German shepherd dog and many cats. Learn more about her fiction at jeannegrunert.com