This is not a post about AI per se, it’s about my writing process. I was chatting to a colleague this week about the tool of the moment, ChatGPTn, they were expressing that it was beneficial for them, because faced with a blank piece of paper they struggle to start. I get that, I have always struggled with writing, I have dyslexia, and I also had the confidence knocked out of me at school (to the point that I left school without sitting any final exams, and exams still terrify me). I get it. But I try to write regularly now, and currently, I still don’t use that tool. I say currently because Word and Google Docs are my tools of choice, and I don’t think I am going to be getting a choice soon; the generative AI might well seep in.
When I went back into education as a mature student it was terrifying, and I was convinced for a long time I would fail. I had good people around me and that helped a lot with imposter syndrome, but I also had a couple of good further education lecturers on my access course who helped me learn how to write essays and cope with exams. I found an old notebook today that still had some of the things they suggested I try in those first few weeks of the course in the run-up to handing in my first assignment (a 1500 word essay on adaptations of animals and plants in the rainforest).
- Freewriting: Think about the subject (you have read the chapters, books, papers) and just write anything that comes to mind for 15 minutes. Don’t worry about grammar, structure or spelling, just get the words out and onto a page..
- Walk away: Taking a break from writing and doing something completely different can help clear your mind and give you new ideas, try to stick to a limit on the break.
- Change your environment: If you always write in the same place, try writing in a new location (I started going to the public library in Plymouth).
- Read: Read something for leisure that you enjoy, something where you like the way the author expresses things.
- Brain Dump: Write down all your ideas about the thing you need to write, no matter how off they seem. Just the act of sitting down and doing that feels like you are starting (and if you can use colours)
Once I got to university, and longer-form essays were required I added things such as,
- Goal setting: at first the number of words needed scared me, so I thought I’d set a goal on the word length, but I soon realised that it was better to think about goals around sections of the work and the key themes. It helped get different parts of an essay to the point where it might be too long or short, but I’d said what I wanted.
- Everything was required to be word processed at university and at first I would sit in front of a computer and do the two-fingered typing that you see (some) people of my age doing – that really slowed my thinking, so I switched back to handwriting because the tech was slowing my thinking and I was having to concentrate on process instead of content.
- I was also lucky to have a group of friends that we could discuss work with. I don’t think we ever discussed collusion or plagiarism back then, we were all mature students and I think we had a sense of what was crossing the line, but I do wonder now if some of the areas where we worked, pooled resources and ideas were close to collusion. The real benefit for me was that they would help proof my work, my spelling and grammar were not great, and still aren’t. We didn’t have the tools to correct it back then.
It took me several years to get to a confident stage in my writing, beyond the completion of my undergraduate degree. And now? I’m still not always confident, but I’m really lucky to have colleagues to write collaboratively with. These people are my “generative AI”, but it’s not artificial, they have emotions and humour and creativity, and they sometimes say let’s publish together, sometimes they just help out, and I return that gift. During the pandemic, those collaborative writing times reduced isolation, and importantly they didn’t reduce writing to what they already knew in their “database”, they helped me create new ideas and new content.
With so many people on social media saying that using generative AI can be integrated into student learning, and suggesting so many ways to do it, I worry about what might be lost. The processes I went through, and struggled through, made me better, and my confidence grew. The nascent writing behaviours we see in students will atrophy if they are told “this is how you write now, you use a chatbot, your humourless, emotionless writing buddy. It doesn’t sound like the connected, collaborative experience that helped me develop my process. In fact, I can imagine that at some point I would just be sitting there mumbling “open the pod bay doors” as the generative AI glibly sings “daisy, daisy”.
Learning to write should be about the process and the connections made along the way, and the joy of discovery and creativity.I get why people are saying to use generative AI, but this rhetoric can drown out the opportunities to build connections to real humans at a time when we are still dealing with the isolation imposed by a global pandemic.