Right now we’re after a new person to join our gang. One of the things we ask people to do as part of our hiring process is a bit of writing to test their skills. Now, some people object to us asking them to do a task as part of the process. It probably takes a good writer about an hour, and we don’t pay them for it.
But we think it’s actually a fairer way to judge people than looking at CVs or portfolios of writing. You can have a first from Oxford and still be a deathly dull writer. And looking at someone’s portfolio doesn’t always tell you very much: you don’t know how much help they’ve had to write those things. And what if you’re starting out, or switching careers? You might not have a portfolio at all, but still be a talented wordsmith.
To try to eliminate our biases, we do our first ‘sift’ just looking at those bits of writing, without people’s names attached or their CVs. Admittedly, it’s not perfect: we still shortlist a lot of white men who went to the so-called top universities. But last time we did shortlist a care worker who’d never written professionally, and who we probably wouldn’t have considered from just their CV.
So could ChatGPT do better than real writers?
You’ve probably read lots about ChatGPT. It’s an AI to which you give a writing brief, and it comes back with an answer, based on the many thousands of bits of writing it’s been ‘trained’ on. And it’s surprisingly good – so much so that teachers and lecturers are fretting about whether they’ll ever see an original piece of work again.
It struck me that our recruitment challenge was a very good test of ChatGPT, and whether it will put us flesh-and-blood writers out of business, as some doom-mongers in our industry are predicting.
So I gave it the same brief we gave our applicants: in 300 words, tell us the secret of good writing. Then I took ChatGPT’s answer and slipped it into the pile of others our team were evaluating.
So did it get shortlisted? (I know, the tension is up there with The Traitors, right?)
We shortlisted less than 20% of the people who sent in writing – and one of them was indeed ChatGPT.
But I had to cheat a bit. When I first got ChatGPT to have a go, I could tell it wasn’t good enough. So I tweaked the brief, and asked it to write in the voice of one of my colleagues. This made it a bit friendlier, but still not great. So then I asked it to write in the voice of copywriting guru Dave Trott. The result didn’t sound anything like Dave, but it was punchier. I secretly put all three attempts into our shortlisting, but only the pseudo-Trott made the cut.
(You’d have struggled to separate ChatGPT’s other efforts from most of the mediocre versions we didn’t shortlist either.)
So what did we learn?
AIs are brilliant at being average
ChatGPT came up with perfectly adequate answers. But even the best one wasn’t amazing. There were no surprises, no risks. That’s not surprising, either: when you train an AI on thousands of bits of writing, the result will sound like thousands of other bits of writing. Even when I primed it to come up with a more interesting voice, it couldn’t do it. Great writers’ voices are too unusual; you’ll never get to their writing by the law of averages.
That averageness will be fine for many things that get written. But if you’re writing something that actually needs to stand out, like a job application – or your company website, or your sales pitch – it’s not going to cut the mustard. Even ChatGPT’s name is a bit clunky and dull. Our team would definitely have done better.
It reminds me of when people started using an AI tool called Textio to ‘hone’ their job applications. The algorithm helped people create something credible, but not something distinctive. In the words of their CEO, ‘a good writer always beats the algorithm’.
ChatGPT doesn’t challenge
I think part of the reason why ChatGPT struggled is that it accepted the brief at face value: it wrote 300 words on the secret of good writing.
Now, that’s what we asked for. But good writers know when to challenge the brief. Often our good applicants write much, much less than 300 words – and they stand out. Occasionally someone says there’s actually no secret to good writing. And they stand out. Someone tells us that it was reading the back of a cereal box when they were eight that taught them the secret of good writing. And they stand out. Sometimes someone keeps repeating the same bloody sentence. And they stand out.
But ChatGPT isn’t thinking about the brief at all. It just comes up with an answer that follows the pattern of other answers. That means it did the job, but it would never get the job.
For now at least, decent writers’ jobs are safe. But for the bang-average ones, maybe it’s time to retrain as a coder.
Chat GPT’s best answer
The secret to good writing is simple: tell a good story. At its core, writing is about communication and connecting with your audience. And the best way to do that is by telling a story that resonates with them.
Good writing is about more than just stringing together a bunch of words and hoping they’ll stick. It’s about creating a narrative that engages the reader and makes them want to keep turning the pages. It’s about using language to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, and using structure to guide them through the story.
But telling a good story isn’t easy. It requires a combination of creativity, talent, and hard work. You need to be able to come up with fresh and interesting ideas, and then be able to execute them in a way that captures the reader’s attention.
One way to improve your writing is to constantly expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives. Read widely, and pay attention to the way other writers tell their stories. Analyze what works and what doesn’t, and try to incorporate those lessons into your own writing.
Another key element of good writing is simplicity. Don’t try to impress your reader with big words and complicated sentence structures. Instead, focus on using clear and concise language that gets your point across quickly and effectively.
Finally, don’t be afraid to revise and edit your work. No one gets it right on the first try, and the best writers are always willing to go back and fine-tune their work until it’s the best it can be.
So if you want to be a good writer, start by telling a good story. Use your creativity and talent to come up with fresh ideas, and then work hard to execute them in a clear and engaging way. Be willing to revise and edit your work, and always be open to learning and improving your skills. With these things in mind, you’ll be well on your way to crafting compelling and engaging stories that will captivate your readers.