In the vast landscape of writing, it’s easy to find ourselves echoing the words and phrases we’ve encountered in our reading journeys. This imitation, while seemingly harmless, can lead to a passive approach to writing, where we recycle familiar idioms and phrases rather than crafting our own unique expressions. This concern was at the heart of George Orwell’s seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language”, where he warned against the dangers of relying on “ready-made thoughts.” Orwell argued that such reliance not only stifles our creativity but also makes us susceptible to manipulation and control, as we cease to think for ourselves.
In today’s digital age, the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has added a new dimension to this conversation. AI writing tools, capable of generating text at an astonishing speed, have become increasingly prevalent. These tools, while undeniably useful, present a new temptation: to lean on the AI’s “ready-made thoughts” in place of our own. This makes Orwell’s call for conscious, deliberate writing more relevant than ever. As we navigate the intersection of AI and writing, it’s crucial that we maintain our agency, ensuring that we use these tools to enhance our creativity, not replace it.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of conscious writing, the role of AI in the writing process, and how we can apply Orwell’s timeless wisdom to ensure that we remain in control of our words and ideas, even as we leverage the power of AI.
The Concept of Conscious Writing
Conscious writing is a deliberate and thoughtful process. It involves the careful selection of words, phrases, metaphors, and idioms, each chosen with a specific purpose and meaning in mind. Unlike unconscious writing, where familiar phrases are strung together with little consideration for their true meaning, conscious writing demands a deeper level of engagement from the writer. It’s not about creating sentences that merely sound good—it’s about crafting sentences that truly say something.
This process of conscious writing can be time-consuming and requires considerable effort. It’s not just about picking words that fit; it’s about understanding the subtle nuances of each word and how they contribute to the overall message. It’s about ensuring that the expression accurately conveys the author’s intent, not someone else’s.
The rewards of this approach, however, are significant. When we write consciously, we communicate our own unique thoughts and perspectives, not those of others. We retain control over our ideas, making it harder for us to be influenced or manipulated. In essence, conscious writing empowers us to be the true authors of our narratives, to express our thoughts with clarity and precision, and to resist the temptation of falling into the trap of unconscious writing.
In the context of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” conscious writing aligns with his advocacy for clear and precise language. Orwell warned against the dangers of falling into the trap of using “ready-made thoughts,” which he saw as a path to manipulation and control. As we delve deeper into the role of AI in writing, we’ll see how Orwell’s cautionary message remains relevant today.
The Role of AI in Writing
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has revolutionized many aspects of our lives, and writing is no exception. As discussed in a previous post, AI writing tools offer a range of benefits that can significantly enhance the writing process. They can help organize ideas, ensure grammatical correctness, assist with research, and most notably, produce a first draft in a fraction of the time it would traditionally take.
However, these advantages do not come without their pitfalls. The most significant of these is the risk of falling into a pattern of lazy writing and thinking, a trap that George Orwell warned against in his essay. The convenience and speed of AI tools can lead to a reliance on the AI’s “ready-made thoughts,” resulting in unconscious writing.
This was particularly evident in some of my students’ assignments, where they were asked to reflect on their use of AI tools in writing a research essay. While I advocate for the use of AI tools to assist in writing, it was clear in some instances that students had contributed little to their essays beyond the initial prompt.
The essays not only read like they were written by an AI, with an abundance of technical details that first-year students without a technical background are unlikely to know, but they also had striking similarities in their overall presentation. More alarmingly, some essays contained phrases such as “As an AI language model…,” a clear indication of AI-generated content. These phrases, which should have been corrected during the revision stage of the writing process, made it into the final drafts.
This suggests a lack of awareness or concern for what was being written. Like a computer executing a program, the students had been given a task and they carried it out without much thought. This unconscious approach to writing, where the AI does most of the work, is a stark contrast to the conscious, deliberate writing that Orwell advocated for and that we should strive for when using AI tools.
Lessons from Orwell: Conscious Writing and AI
“Politics and the English Language” offers timeless wisdom that remains relevant in our AI-driven age. One of Orwell’s major concerns was the tendency of authors to rely on “ready-made thoughts,” a practice that he believed turned writers into unthinking machines, susceptible to manipulation and control.
While Orwell lived in a time before the concept of Artificial Intelligence was fully articulated, his cautionary message resonates strongly in our current context. AI has the potential to transform the “dumb,” rote, and mechanical machines of Orwell’s era into intelligent entities capable of complex behavior. AI writing tools, in particular, can enable us to “write” without any real thought, with just a click of a mouse. This can remove us entirely from the writing process if we’re not careful, turning us from active creators into passive bystanders.
By using AI tools unconsciously, that is, relying on the “ready-made thoughts” of the AI and accepting its output without question, we risk being replaced by machines rather than being assisted by them. As discussed in this blog post, it’s crucial that we remain conscious and deliberate in our use of AI tools. We should actively engage with and collaborate with these tools, rather than ceding all control and effort to them.
A completely AI-generated text, while unlikely to be plagiarized in the traditional sense, can be fairly generic and devoid of the human author’s unique thoughts and contributions. It’s only when the human author actively collaborates with the AI that we can produce content that is truly human-inspired and consciously created. This collaboration is the key to leveraging the power of AI while maintaining our agency and originality in the writing process.
Practical Tips for Conscious Writing with AI
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell provided six rules to help writers guard against the use of ready-made thoughts and maintain vigilance in their writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules, aimed at promoting clarity and precision in language, can serve as a valuable guide for writers. However, when it comes to collaborating with AI in writing, we need to adapt and expand these rules to address the unique challenges and opportunities that AI presents. Here are five rules to help maintain conscious writing when working with AI tools:
- Never treat the AI as a substitute for yourself; always treat it as a collaborator. The AI is a tool to assist you, not replace you.
- Never issue a simple prompt when a complex prompt is needed. The more specific and detailed your prompt, the more likely the AI will produce output that aligns with your intent.
- Always read what the AI has produced and determine if it truly is what you wanted to say. Don’t accept the AI’s output without question; take the time to reflect on it and ensure it aligns with your message.
- Never blindly trust that the AI’s output is accurate. Always fact-check and verify the information provided by the AI.
- Always perform your own final round of revisions before publishing. The AI can help with drafting and editing, but the final review should always be done by you to ensure the content truly reflects your voice and intent.
By following these rules, we can leverage the power of AI while maintaining control over our words and ideas. This approach allows us to create content that is not only efficient and accurate but also truly ours.
As we navigate the exciting landscape of AI-assisted writing, it’s crucial to remember that these tools, while powerful, are not a guarantee of quality. The ease and speed with which AI tools can generate content can indeed lead to an explosion of written material. However, without conscious effort and active engagement from the human author, this content risks being generic, low-quality, and devoid of a unique voice.
George Orwell’s concerns about writers falling into lazy habits and ceding their thinking to others are even more relevant in the age of AI. The temptation to let AI do all the work is great, but succumbing to this temptation can result in content that is general, vague, and lacking in personal insight.
The true power of AI in writing comes not from its ability to generate content independently, but from its capacity to collaborate with us, to enhance our ideas, and to streamline our processes. When we use AI tools consciously and deliberately, we can produce content that is not only efficient and accurate but also uniquely ours.
In essence, conscious writing in the age of AI is about maintaining our agency, our creativity, and our critical thinking skills. It’s about using AI as a tool to assist us, not replace us. It’s about ensuring that our voices, our ideas, and our unique perspectives remain at the forefront of our writing. As we continue to explore and leverage the capabilities of AI in writing, let’s remember to stay conscious, stay engaged, and above all, stay human. The future of writing is not just about AI; it’s about the powerful collaboration between humans and AI, a partnership that can lead to truly great and unique content.