|Automatic Writing: Robots Wanted?
By: David Soyka
“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51–10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3... ”
As Steve Lohr writes in the Unboxed column of Sunday’s New York Times business section, this “lede” (the archaic form of “the lead,” meaning the opening paragraph of a news story) was “written” (meaning generated by a software decision tree) by a computer. Lohr, we are led to believe, is an actual human being writing an article about computer-generated prose.
It used to be an insult to say someone’s prose style was “robotic,” meaning not lifelike, automatic, and dull. Now, it might be a job qualification. Only machines need reply.
Admittedly, the cost- and time-saving value of such software is obvious, but there is a downside corporate bean counters might be overlooking. Namely, how do they develop new and inexperienced writers if they don’t have fresh stacks of relatively unimportant copy for them to take a crack at?
One of my first jobs was at a weekly newspaper where a significant portion of the readership comprised the parents of the high school sports teams. Alas, most of the teams were pretty awful, and the rule was that we weren’t about to alienate a significant portion of our subscriber base by pointing that out.
Now, there are just so many times you can write about “how the kids showed a lot of heart out there” week after week for teams that decidedly never got to sit in the driver’s seat against their opponents. However, the experience taught me how to look for an angle, any angle, that could somehow make something more interesting than it really was. A good skill to have not only in journalism, but where many a journalist winds up: advertising.
Until we get to the point where prose machines do all the creative writing (and the creators of the software claim it’s only a matter of time before it wins a Pulitzer Prize), opting to use software for reporting mundane details (sports scores, stock market fluctuations, what country is going bankrupt this week and/or is in civil war) eliminates a great resource for on-the-job training.
Of course, if machines are going to take our jobs anyway, I suppose it doesn’t matter. But I think a human might have realized that “in the driver’s seat” is a bit of a cliché, and a cliché that might be more applicable to NASCAR than a football game. For now, humans may still be ahead in the writing game, though we better keep our pencils sharpened to point out the drawbacks of mechanized prose.
(Hey, you machines out there, do you get it? “Pencils sharpened to point out”? Use of an anachronism and wordplay? As long as the answer is “no,” I’ve still got a job.)
David Soyka is freelance copywriter who has conceptualized and developed a range of strategic advertising, marketing, training, and technical communications for advertising agencies and Fortune 1000 companies in print, web, and broadcast formats. A former newspaper reporter and English teacher, he is a published author of ficiton and non-fiction, and a DJ at WTJU-FM. Find him online here.
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