Writing Text Like Snapping Photos: Embracing the Instant Draft Revolution in AI-Enabled Writing

The transition from analog to digital photography wasn’t just a leap in technology—it transformed how photographers create. The pre-digital era, constrained by the cost of film and the time needed for development, necessitated meticulous planning. Digital photography, which made available a nearly infinite number of shots at a cost approaching zero, fostered a bold, improvisational style among photographers, resulting in a spontaneous and free-spirited “capture now, curate later” approach.

This transformation redefined the process and experience of creating visual art. It democratized access to producing stunning imagery and transformed cameras and editing software into dynamic tools of artistic collaboration.

A similar revolution is just now beginning to unfold in the world of writing, driven by AI-based writing aids. Just as digital cameras opened up a world of possibilities for photographers, these innovative tools are unlocking new realms of creativity, style, and efficiency for writers. As creating a first draft of an entire document becomes as quick, effortless, and cost-effective as taking a digital photo, writers are beginning to embrace a “create first, evaluate and revise later” approach. This evolution mirrors the seismic shift observed in photography and visual arts, signaling a new era of linguistic expression.

The Creative Paradigm Shift: From Deliberation to Improvisation

Chiseling a statue from marble serves as a good example of how the creative process plays out in the earliest stage of any creative field: each cut is deliberate and calculated, with no room for error. The high cost of materials and the significant effort required to fix even the smallest mistake instills artists with a cautious and patient attitude toward their craft.

The advent of new technologies, whether they be more abundant raw media or tools that enable works to be created more quickly or easily, ushers in a new era of fluidity, experimentation, and improvisation. The mindset shifts from, “I must get this right the first time because if I don’t I won’t have a second chance” to “Since drafts are fast, cheap, and easy to create, I’ll throw as many of them at the wall as possible and see what sticks.”

Technological advancement and automation, in other words, both facilitate and encourage a different creative orientation: one that thrives on rapid iteration and experimentation, and that is less inhibited by the fear of failure and more inspired to see what works by trying. The contrast is stark: traditional methods, often perceived as high-stakes gambles in which a linear path is followed towards a single polished and finished product, give way to a more dynamic and forgiving approach that emphasizes creating drafts or prototypes rapidly so that they can be evaluated and revised as needed. In this new landscape, every attempt, regardless of its outcome, is valued as a constructive step in the artistic voyage, even if it is thrown away in the process.

Each time technology has shifted the creative journey from a manual, meticulous process to one that’s more automated and exploratory, the skills needed to excel as a creator have also evolved. To illustrate this recurring pattern more vividly and concretely, we’ll now explore how new technology has influenced the creative process to develop in the direction of rapid exploratory improvisation in the realms of visual art, inventing, and writing.

The Artistic Odyssey: From Brushes to Bytes

Artists who work who brush and paint on canvas know the heart-sinking feeling that comes from a single misplaced brushstroke. Digital art turned that fear on its head. Tools like Photoshop have become the new paintbrush and canvas, where mistakes are just a click away from correction. It’s like having a safety net, allowing artists to jump higher and take bigger creative risks. The delete button and layers are like superpowers, encouraging a barrage of experimental iterations at almost no cost.

Today digital cameras and photo editing software let even beginners create something stunning. Creating art doesn’t have to require painstakingly crafting each stroke anymore. The latest AI-based text-to-image generators don’t even require you to do more than put your visual concept into words. It’s a party where the theme is exploration and experimentation, and everyone’s invited.

Although creating art still requires skill, what those skills are has shifted significantly. In the traditional world, you needed a steady hand for brush techniques, an eye for color mixing, and the patience of a saint. But in the digital realm? You need to master software, make quick decisions, understand how digital elements work together, and pick the best out of many creations.

This shift is a story that’s been unfolding for ages. Think about it:

  • Cave Paintings: The prerequisites were basic hand-eye coordination and using what nature provided.
  • Photography: When cameras rolled in, drawing skills were replaced with framing skills and the ability to capture the essence of a moment.
  • Digital Era: Now, artists need to be tech-savvy, quick on their feet, and ready to juggle multiple ideas at once.

In the art world’s ongoing evolution, we’ve witnessed a profound shift from precision and planning to a realm of boundless improvisation and high-level creativity. Each technological leap, from primal cave paintings to today’s dazzling digital creations, has not just changed the tools artists use but revolutionized their entire creative approach. Artists now thrive in an environment where experimentation is celebrated, and risks are embraced. This journey through art’s history underscores a broader narrative: in creativity, as in technology, embracing change and adaptation leads to unimaginable possibilities. The future of art, it seems, lies in the joy of exploring the unknown, where the only limit is our imagination.

Crafting the Future: How Technology Transformed Invention

Cast your mind back to the inventors of old – the tinkerers, the craftsmen, the ones who spent hours hunched over workbenches, turning the cogs of innovation. They lived in a world where creating a single prototype could take months and a small error might mean starting from scratch. Thomas Edison, who famously said that “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” spent over a year and tested over a thousand materials before finding a suitable filament for his first commercial light bulb.

Fast forward to today, and the picture is vastly different. Now, evolutionary algorithms and sophisticated simulation software enable inventors to conjure up designs and evaluate them in mere seconds. As a specific example, consider Moderna, which used AI to sift through a myriad of molecular structures and genetic sequences at an unprecedented pace to develop its COVID-19 vaccine in record time. This approach radically transformed the vaccine development process, which traditionally could take years, into a matter of weeks. Even if 99% of genius is still perspiration, in the age of AI most of that perspiring is done by machines.

As a result of this radically increased ability to explore inventive pathways more quickly and inexpensively, the skills that once defined an inventor have evolved dramatically. The old ways required manual dexterity, a deep understanding of materials, careful budgeting, and cautious risk assessment. Today’s inventors need a different toolkit. They must be adept at coding, have a broad vision for interconnected systems, collaborate virtually, and be masters of rapid iteration and feedback.

From the earliest use of simple tools and levers to today’s high-tech landscape, each stage of technological advancement in invention has demanded new skills and approaches:

  • From Hand Tools to Mass Manufacturing: The journey saw a shift from manual dexterity to skill at designing interoperable parts that could be manufactured automatically.
  • From Mechanical Engineering to Software Development: Engineers shifted from structural design to describing functions to be performed by a computer in a language the computer could understand.

Thomas Edison’s famous perspective on failure and invention takes on new meaning in today’s digital age. Inventors can now “fail” faster, cheaper, and more efficiently, propelling them more quickly towards successful solutions. What once took years and thousands of dollars can now be achieved in minutes at minimal cost.

This remarkable shift in the inventing process is more than just a change in methodology; it’s a complete reimagining of what it means to create. Inventors can now generate new designs with AI, simulate them in software, and even test them using physics simulators, all without the need to construct prototypes in the real world, except for the most viable candidates. Once again, we see a paradigm in which creators sculpt ideas like clay — a clay which is becoming both increasingly malleable and increasingly available in nearly-limitless supply.

Writing in the Age of Algorithms: Engelbart’s Vision Realized

Once upon a time, writing was a labor of love and patience. From the careful strokes of quill pens to the deliberate clack of typewriters, each word was crafted with a mix of skill and contemplation. Fast forward to today, and the scene has dramatically shifted. The dream of pioneers like Douglas Engelbart, who envisioned over five decades ago that interactive word processors would enable an experimental and fluid style of writing, has long been a reality. Now, we’ve gone beyond even Engelbart’s imagination to an era in which Large Language Model (LLM)-based writing tools are transforming writing from a solitary, meticulous task into a dynamic process in which entire drafts can be created, evaluated, and even discarded with the fluidity and speed of digital photography.

Imagine a writing partner that never tires, constantly offering fresh perspectives and ideas. That’s the role LLM-based tools have come to play in the creative process. These AI-driven assistants aren’t just about drafting and editing at lightning speed; they’re co-creators in the truest sense, enabling a level of experimentation and improvisation that was previously unattainable for the solo writer.

The contrast with earlier writing methodologies couldn’t be starker. In the days of writing by pen or typewriter, writers painstakingly weighed each word, and retyping a page for a single error was the norm. Now, LLMs empower writers to quickly generate multiple drafts, experiment with various narratives, and even embrace the drafts destined for the trash bin as crucial steps in the creative journey. For instance, in journalism, the emergence of AI-driven tools for creating initial drafts has shifted the focus of human journalists from crafting each story from scratch, word-by-word, to refining stories and enhancing the depth and quality of the final content. Writers are focusing more on managing and editing, and less on wordsmithing.

This technological evolution has led to a significant shift in the skills a writer needs to succeed. Until very recently, writing required meticulous structural planning, rigorous grammar mastery, intensive manual research, and exhaustive time management. Now, AI is making it possible to write by focusing on developing the skills of formulating the concept and structure of the written work, adapting and responding to rapidly changing suggestions from AI, interpreting data to grasp reader engagement, collaborating effectively with AI tools, and engaging in rapid prototyping and iterative improvements of drafts.

This transformation in writing reflects a broader trend seen throughout history:

  • From the basic symbol recognition and storytelling of cuneiform and hieroglyphs to the fine motor skills required for parchment and quill.
  • The advent of the printing press marked a shift towards mechanical production skills, while the arrival of the typewriter and later the word processor ushered in an era emphasizing typing accuracy and digital literacy.
  • Today, LLM-based writing tools are redefining the essence of writing, emphasizing the ability to work synergistically with AI, rapidly iterate ideas, and think more in terms of overall narrative structure rather than individual line craftsmanship.

In this new age of writing, we are witnessing a metamorphosis from the solitary, methodical craft to a vibrant, fluid art form. Writers are no longer just artisans of words; they are explorers in a vast landscape of ideas, where AI acts as both compass and companion. This shift mirrors the larger movement in creative fields, where technology is less about replacing human creativity and more about expanding its horizons.Writers in the AI age can perform the equivalent of snapping a digital photo to create a written work, and of snapping many such photos rapidly and iteratively in a process that focuses more on idea formulation and draft evaluation than on manually forming the linguistic equivalent of each brush stroke on a canvas.

Writing at the Dawn of Generative AI

A compelling pattern emerges from the histories of visual art, inventing, and now writing as they have responded to the introduction of new technology: the evolution from meticulous, manual craftsmanship to rapid, exploratory innovation. This pattern, echoing across various creative fields, is now beginning to unfold in the world of writing, propelled by AI-driven tools.

In the digital age, writers are experiencing a shift that may be experienced as liberating, devastating, or a combination of both. The once labor-intensive process of carefully crafting each word and sentence is giving way to an era of boundless creativity, where drafting and revising entire documents are as quick and effortless as taking a digital photograph. This new approach in writing doesn’t just increase speed and efficiency; it enables a transformation of the creative process itself into a dynamic and fluid one which focuses on high-level ideation followed by evaluation of machine-generated text (whether at the sentence, paragraph, or document level), manual refinement by the writer, and iterating over the same process until the final product is achieved to the writer’s satisfaction.

These AI-based writing tools, by making it possible for the first time to generate specific text that instantiates a human writer’s ideas, can play the role not only of rote assistants but also of collaborators that bring a new dimension to the writing process. They encourage writers to experiment with ideas, to play with narrative structures, and to explore different styles without the fear of time lost or energy drained. This is a world where the first draft is no longer a painstaking effort in which the goal is perfection but a starting point for a journey of creative exploration.

The implications of this shift are profound. Writers are now empowered to focus more on the big picture – the overall narrative, themes, and concepts – while the AI takes care of the linguistic heavy lifting (or at least the first rough cut of it). This partnership with AI is enabling writers to push the boundaries of their imagination, to explore new narrative possibilities, and to engage with their audience in unprecedented ways.

Embracing AI: A New Frontier for Writers

I know many writers — and I count myself among them — who experience a feeling of loss at even the thought of ceding the responsibility for writing each individual word, of finding le mot juste, to a machine. Yet the beauty, power, and liberating potential of AI is that it is fully within the control of the human writer to decide if, when, and how to integrate AI into that writer’s creative process. One might, for example, write an entire draft manually from scratch, the old-fashioned way, and then turn to an AI tool for feedback, suggestions for revising individual sentences, or ideas for analogies or metaphors. Once you view AI as merely a new, yet particularly powerful, tool in your writer’s toolkit, you might find that you no longer fear being replaced by AI or losing your voice to it, but instead feel empowered to leverage it to enhance your writing in ways that were never before possible.

At the same time, it is important for every writer to recognize that, despite the choices that any individual writer makes, economic forces of supply and demand are likely to drive significant use of AI-based writing tools to generate content that is guided by the mind and hand of a human writer, but in which AI generates a significant portion of the individual sentences, paragraphs, sections, and even more. Those writers who rely on writing to earn their living will, therefore, need to learn how to use AI in the process of writing in order to remain economically competitive, just as graphic artists have needed to embrace high-level tools such as Photoshop and, more recently, AI-based image generators.

Despite the fears of a rapid race to the bottom that this might elicit, the good news is that we’re already seeing the signs of a backlash against the sea of bland, voiceless, and indistinguishable AI-generated text that has been flooding the market ever since the introduction of ChatGPT. Although there will, no doubt, be a place for this written equivalent of gray goo, many individual readers and corporate consumers of text will demand and require something with a more personal touch.

That’s where you, as a writer who has already mastered writing the traditional way, can shine once you’ve also learned how to engage with AI as a writing partner. Those who have both sets of skills, and who can mix and match them skillfully, wisely, and as needed to fit the requirements of a particular audience, will not only remain immune to replacement by AI and by low-skilled humans using AI, but will also experience the exhilaration that comes from expanding your creative capacities and options in ways that enable you to express yourself more easily, fully, and even joyfully. If you embrace AI as a tool that enables you to transform your ideas into words more rapidly and easily than ever before, while retaining everything about yourself that has brought you to this point, I think you’ll come to share my feeling of excitement at being a writer at this inflection point in history.

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