On the enduring power of the blank canvas

Why I worry about ChatGPT taking over outlines and writing prompts

As I wrote in my first piece on ChatGPT, it is the talk of the town.

Increasingly I hear writers talk about using generative AI to never start with a blank screen.

Believe me, I get it. And I am certainly not immune to the appeal. But if you'll bear with me, let me offer a counterargument. A blank page is a crucible every writer should confront. It's not an inconvenience to be dispatched as quickly as possible. It's the necessary start of the journey, and all of writing will suffer if we boost ourselves at the beginning so we can "start writing." Here are five reasons why.

  1. Creativity wains. The blank screen can be terrifying. But it is also edifying. Starting from nothing means everything is possible. A prompt immediately plots your path. Words begin to cloud your vision, and you're constrained to what has been put in front of you. Sometimes the best ideas come in the 10th minute of inactivity because you don't know where to start.

  2. Originality disappears. What does creative writing look like when everyone starts with the same ChapGPT prompts? While one is hopeful those writers will not just copy/paste; but if the source material is the same, it will inject a ChatGPT-derived sameness to the copy. How many creative voices will be robbed by a machine?

  3. Errors proliferate. Generative AI is far from perfect right now, evidenced by it well-documented, comical errors. And yet, like Wikipedia before it, there's a general "trusting" in these tools. A grandchild to the saying ("it must be true, it's on the Internet"), it's easy to trick yourself into thinking well-funded startups as well as Google and Microsft wouldn't launch something that isn't fully accurate. But that ignores the "beta" test and learn mentality that has proliferated. I have a long-standing policy to not include content on my "draft" that has not already been verified elsewhere, so starting with ChatGPT

  4. An incomplete outline. It is tempting to use generative AI to create a quick outline you can send to clients, knowing you can always enhance or change when writing. But that means you're treating the outline as an item on a to-do list, versus a key component of your overall writing approach.

  5. Your tried-and-true approach erodes. When I start a piece (such as the very thing you're reading now), I tend to jot my ideas down in a free-flowing system before I start "writing," even if I'm working from an outline. If I let generative AI do that, I miss out on writing what matters.

I am by no means anti-ChatGPT, nor afraid of using technology to help me create a better piece of content for my clients (or myself). But moving to a world where too many writers begin their work by having ChatGPT handle the outline or the opening paragraph will dampen the overall quality of work we do. Let's commit to holding onto the hard stuff because it's meaningful.