Why AI won’t replace human editors – and AI agrees

Spend half a second on LinkedIn at the moment and you’ll find endless posts about the wondrous capabilities and/or ominous threats of ChatGPT and other AIs (and, by this point, endless posts like this one about how many such posts already exist). So I’ll keep this musing as brief as possible, because all I really want to say is this: to me it is patently obvious that AI won’t replace human editors – probably ever. Not convinced? Read on to the end of this post to find out what ChatGPT itself has to say on the matter.

I believe that just as edtech will never fully replace teachers and medtech will never fully replace midwives, writers and publishers will always need and want other humans – with all their marvellously messy interactive ingenuity – to walk with them on their publishing journey. AI will become more and more sophisticated over time, but it will probably never be authentically human. And so when it comes to complex communication – one of the most quintessentially human activities – writers and publishers will always want support from human editors in some shape or form.

To be clear, this is not an AI-bashing post. Just as freelance human editors both collaborate with and compete with each other, we will need to both collaborate and compete with AI tools as they develop: we will need to collaborate by keeping abreast of what these tools can offer us and our clients, and we will need to compete by communicating what we can offer our clients that AI cannot.

The current state of AI ‘copyeditors’

Adrienne Montgomerie has recently been publishing a series of excellent posts in which she interrogates in detail the current copyediting capabilities of AIs (such as ChatGPT, Grammarly and Word’s Editor). The results don’t look good for the AIs. However, they did come out of Adrienne’s tests with a few wins to their credit. Put this together with the potential for trained editors to develop and market their own AIs (just as editors have already developed specialist editing tools, such as PerfectIt) and it is clear that more sophisticated editing-focused AIs are likely to emerge.

Why AI won’t replace human editors

But I believe that human editors will always have a role – and moreover the superior one – alongside AI editing tools. There are two principal reasons for this, one based on history and one based on our insatiable human desire for more.

AI as natural evolution

The profession of ‘editor’ is a relatively new one, but humans have been collaborating to create chunks of text for various purposes – governance, professional, commercial, personal – for much longer. Human editor-type people have adapted to – and indeed ultimately embraced with enthusiasm – writing mediums and tools beginning with bone and clay and moving on through inks, the printing press, typewriters, computers, word processors, the internet and specialist editing software (such as the aforementioned PerfectIt and macros).

A caveman writing on a stone tablet with stone tools

AI will just be one more stage in this process. Yes, the landscape will continue to change in terms of the tasks editors carry out and the way we do them. Yes, some clients who require an editorial service with a narrow scope will use AI alone because of the cost and time savings it can offer in specific well-defined workflows. But just as word processing sped up and removed some manual and repetitious editing tasks, freeing editors up to engage more closely with the essence and content of a text, so I believe AI will allow us to continue this evolution towards ever more deep, meaningful editing.

AI plus

We humans always want more. As such, I suspect that clients will want the efficiencies and consistency offered by AI as well as and guided by what Adrienne Montgomerie calls the ‘ultimate supercomputer’: the human brain, with its ability to digest ‘all the rules, exceptions, variations, subject standards, regionalisms, and nuances’ that circumscribe the act of writing. As such, even if clients could use AI alone to edit their texts, many of them will prefer to hire human editors, who will have the expertise to instruct the AI (and then provide all the complex editorial refinements that only humans can deliver). I fully expect that in five or ten years’ time, organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading will be offering specialist courses in how to build AI into editorial processes. In short, a whole new area of know-how will be created for human editors to deliver.

This complementarity between humans and AI – what might be called ‘AI plus’ – is already playing out in equivalent ways in industries all around us. Witness the rise of small-craftsperson platforms such as Etsy, where technology is being used to bring the artistic creations of numerous micro-businesses to a wider audience. Or the fact that, despite the ubiquity of ready-made, off-the-shelf furniture, the bespoke market is continuing to grow at a healthy rate (incidentally, with pieces now often incorporating Internet of Things and AI technologies). We can buy a chair in a fairly generic design, made in a factory with (hundreds of) thousands of other items. But, if our finances allow, many of us will instead choose something more personalised, made by identifiable human craftspeople from a carefully thought through design, using materials we choose within a company whose ethos we support. We do this because we value the ability of other humans to lend their expertise to our ideas and help bring them to life. We do it because we value the ineffable quality of authenticity that humans bring to things.

What does AI say about whether it will replace human editors?

I’m going to give the last word to AI. Here are ChatGPT‘s responses (presented verbatim) to a series of questions I asked it. Take from them what you will.

What is copyediting?

ChatGPT: Copyediting is the process of reviewing and correcting written content for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other language usage errors. It also includes ensuring that the text is clear, consistent, and follows a specific style guide. Copyediting often involves making suggestions for rephrasing sentences or entire paragraphs to improve clarity and readability, as well as checking for factual errors and inconsistencies. The goal of copyediting is to ensure that the final text is polished, accurate and ready for publication.

Are you a copyeditor?

ChatGPT: No, I am not a copyeditor. I am a language model that can assist with writing, answering questions, and generating text based on the input provided to me. I can help with grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, but I am not a professional copyeditor.

How can you help professional copyeditors?

ChatGPT: As a language model, I can assist professional copyeditors in a variety of ways. I can help with proofreading and editing written content, suggesting alternative word choices and phrases, and identifying grammatical errors. I can also assist with fact-checking and providing research on specific topics, as well as helping to ensure that the writing adheres to a specific style guide. Additionally, I can help with generating new content, such as summaries or outlines, which can save time for the copyeditor. Overall, my abilities can help to streamline the editing process and improve the overall quality of the written content.

Do you think that one day you might replace professional copyeditors?

ChatGPT: As a language model, I am designed to assist with a wide range of tasks related to language processing, but I do not have the ability to replace human copyeditors. While I can assist with proofreading, editing and generating new content, I lack the human creativity, intuition and critical thinking that are necessary for professional copyediting. Moreover, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in copyediting, and a human touch is always needed to make the final call on certain matters. Additionally, copyediting is not just about checking grammar and syntax, but it also includes making sure that the text is written with a specific tone, style and audience in mind, which requires a human understanding of the context and the meaning behind the words.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel works with non-fiction clients around the world to help them deliver some of their most prestigious publications in areas such as charity and peace work, digital and technology, and business and leadership. An editor since 2007, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

7 Comments

  1. Miranda Bethell on January 20, 2023 at 1:11 pm

    Excellent! Thank you for the informative and encouraging article, Hazel!

    • Hazel Bird on January 20, 2023 at 2:10 pm

      You’re welcome, Miranda! I went into the post feeling pretty encouraged myself, but it was an interesting twist to find myself feeling even more so after my talk with ChatGPT!

  2. Adrienne Montgomerie on January 20, 2023 at 8:08 pm

    Did you just call ChatGPT the Ikea of the writing world? LOL!
    Thanks for contributing to the conversation. I note with interest that ChatGPT has a pretty high esteem of its ability to detect grammar and other copyediting concerns, per your conversation reported above. While I’m glad that our developing AI has self-confidence, I think we might be wise to let “halp” with crayon on a manuscript at a little table beside us for now.
    Even the fact checking, it’s pretty poor at — leading some to call it the mansplainer of AI because of the way it confidently spews fabricated facts (even so simple as saying X issues Y degrees, in my trials; which they don’t). This might be one little developing neural net that we shouldn’t “pass for success.”
    (Thanks for the shoutout, too.)

    • Hazel Bird on January 21, 2023 at 1:12 pm

      Hehe yes, I guess I did!

      Really interesting to read your reflections (given I’m sure you’ve spent more time interacting with ChatGPT than me). Especially regarding the fact checking – I’d have expected it to do better there given that Google is now pretty good at spitting out appropriate answers to (vaguely worded) questions. I guess though that there’s a big difference between AI presenting a page a human wrote with appropriate keywords that match a query, and AI writing something original itself from multiple sources.

      So yes, our little AI does seem to need to spend a bit more time ‘halping’ at digital kindergarten!

  3. […] Bird, Hazel Why AI won’t replace human editors—and AI agrees: https://www.wordstitcheditorial.com/why-ai-wont-replace-human-editors-and-ai-agrees/ […]

  4. Audrey Winterbottom on January 21, 2023 at 6:48 am

    I am still waiting for the promised paperless society.

    • Hazel Bird on January 21, 2023 at 1:13 pm

      It does seem that our collective predictions about the future tend to fall short by a few decades, doesn’t it?!

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