tl;dr Robots can’t write and apps that check your writing are shit.

I caught a snippet of a piece on BBC Breakfast this morning (19 June) about two human debaters holding a debate against a machine. According to a journalist who was in the room* “the machine lacked linguistic precision and argumentative clarity”, exactly what I would have expected. It immediately made me think of the top secret project that the father is in charge of in the bonkers and brilliant novel Where’d you go to Bernadette. The TED Talk element of the book, given by the father on the subject of the robot is brilliant – look it up, thank me later.

Anyhoo, the piece on Breakfast was very relevant and timely for me as I’ve had cause to look at/think about (rage against!) artificial intelligence (AI) in copywriting. I’m well aware of plagiarism/content duplication tools but I’d never thought about ‘apps to make you write better’. The subject came up in conversation** and before that I’d never even thought about. Well, it turns out there are a few apps and browser extensions, free and paid for, that can highlight what is right and wrong in your writing. They mark up readability, use of passive voice, and complex sentences for example. But, and it’s a big but they absolutely don’t have the ability to mark up copy that makes no logical sense. I tested one, with well written copy in Plain English – which it marked up with flags. I then ran some nonsensical copy through and it brought it up one or two words. Just to reiterate this copy made no sense in English whatsoever and the app did not flag this. A human would have said “a bot wrote this”, or “a non native” wrote this, or potentially the more accurate “this is shit”.

I might be slightly narked at the prospect of my skills being redundant in the same way burger flippers in the US might be at the introduction of Flippy the burger flipping robot. But am I only raging because I’m scared a robot will take my job? No, I’m raging because some people believe these apps to be true and accurate and better than us at reading and deciphering good from not so good. It’s even more important in this era of ‘fake news’ that we have the skills to be able to read well and to really comprehend words.

In my opinion, for now, humans need to write for humans. Key to good copy, particularly sales and marketing copy is putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient. Keep them front and centre. What matters to them? What solution can you provide? Write with them in mind. A human will be reading the copy so write for the human.

* https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/18/artificial-intelligence-ibm-debate-project-debater

** not strictly true, but I’m not going to divulge the actual details of a ridiculous conversation about quality versus shoddy writing