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Would You Autocomplete Your Novel?

Updated: Jan 26, 2019

A few months ago, a new feature appeared on my e-mail—autocomplete. I’ll start typing, and it will suggest the rest. It’s certainly a way to be more efficient, but I wondered if this will make communication too generic. Then again, when it comes to professional correspondence, isn’t that what we strive for? You don’t write, “I used the paper clip button and selected a file from my computer so that you should get the photo when you get this message.” You write, “Please find photo attached.” People get dozens, sometimes over a hundred, messages a day. So when it comes to business correspondence, the more succinct and easily absorbed a message is, the better.

But what happens when this technology isn’t just limited to e-mails? I read an article in the New York Times last month about how Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is writing a novel using artificial intelligence that suggests how to complete sentences based on what he’s written. It’s an interesting experiment, but how could this sort of technology influence the process of writing? If used for too long, could it even alter an author's ability to think of ideas? That may seem far-fetched, and yet imagine trying to get somewhere you've only been to once or twice before...without GPS. Do we still pay attention to all the turns and visual cues in case we need to make the same trip without technology?

It seems likely that autocomplete technology will become the norm for most word processing programs, or at least a widely available feature, in the future. When it comes to books, commercial fiction seems to be at the greatest risk to be altered. These novels are generally written to be fast reads, so they tend to avoid complex and unexpected phrasing. Often when reading genre fiction I find my mind has already completed a sentence before I turn the page. I remember the first time I read a romance novel, I couldn’t believe I finished a 400-page book in about a day.

That isn't to say that there aren't many very talented commercial fiction writers who work hard to develop their craft and produce great novels. In fact, they make well-written commercial fiction look far easier to write than it is. It's this false assumption that commercial, particularly genre, fiction is easy to write combined with the assumption that enough of its readers are less discerning, that make it susceptible to technology.

To a degree, even without AI assistance, we’re all influenced by common phrasing, even when we avoid clichés. So it’s not surprising that a computer could tell us what words to write next. I suppose the computer could even help us avoid word repetition and clichés. In fact, I wonder if there will come a time when writing without autocomplete will be as antiquated as writing on a typewriter, or writing without spellcheck.

Which makes me wonder, where is the line of creativity? If you create the software that autocompletes sentences for your novel, is it wholly your work? What if you use software created by someone else which suggests common phrasing? Will we lose original ideas? Will our vocabularies shrink as we allow the computer to select the most common words and phrases for us? Or will we find that the more technology tries to create for us, the more we’ll reject it (RIP Clippy). Is our appetite for the surprises of originality and new ideas strong enough to combat overly-processed, computer-generated "fast food" literature? I suppose time will tell, but great books have survived this long, so I think the chances are good.

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