Let it never be said that I don’t try creative writing. I wrote some of this last year, but I only just now got it to a point where I felt like sharing. I hope you enjoy!

-PWC

Original illustration by Peter W. Carrillo

Seven feet tall some say he stood. With shoulders bigger than anyone had the rights to have. His real name was Hubert but we all called him Sam for short. To this day, I don’t know why. They say he walked into the lumber camp one day with his own ax. One big enough to cut down trees in a single blow and with a handle all carved into what looked like runes and sigils. He was there, supposedly to ask for work, but he didn’t really have to ask. He was almost given the job before he came in the door.

You see, there was a huge old tree there in the forest way out beyond where the lumber camps were. We’d had a hiker come out and tell us about it, and you can bet the bosses were just salivating to have it down. They sent teams of folks out there to try to cut the thing down, but try as they might, hardly anything left a dent in the bark. All our tools would break when we hit the thing, and it just refused to go down. So for years, it became a test for all of us. Each year, a strong worker would grab an ax, say he was going to fell the tree, and head out there. Of course, a whole crew of people went along to see because we all thought, maybe. Maybe this time, that old tree would go down.

And of course, the same thing happened every time. The strong man would get everyone’s attention, make a huge speech, and the crew would cheer him on. He’d take a few practice swings with an ax, and you could feel the energy crackling like a wildfire. The tree would, as always, stand dark and silent dwarfing the challenger who dared to swing his ax in defiance of the old powers. Then the moment would come. The stroke would fall. The ax would break to the sound of disappointed groans from everyone gathered there, and another challenger would walk away defeated by the old tree. Whatever that thing was made of, the bosses started to see it as a personal challenge, and they started to think that if someone could get it down, they could make a fortune.

And so, their greedy eyes turned to Sam, to his size, and to his strange ax, and they gave him the job almost before he walked in the door. Of course, they were smart enough, so instead of sending him right out to the old tree, they tested him first and put him to work with a crew. The first day, the crew that went with Sam felled more trees than we had in a week of being out there. The second day, they did the same. And it wasn’t just Sam that did the work. Those around him seemed to be so inspired, they did the work of two people when he was there.

We damn near cleared a whole forest that year (replanting, of course. Regulations and all), and the lumber company was starting to make a fortune. The bosses were getting fat, the workers were getting strong, and it seemed like we were undefeatable the whole second half of the year after Sam came along. He just had something about him. Seemed invincible. A natural born leader. And somehow he was just a worker like the rest of us.

Eventually, the time came to really test Sam’s mettle. It was late in January, and that time up in the mountains, things started to get cold. Snow fell. Enough to chill you and to get everything soggy, but never enough to really slow anything down. That January, the bosses called Sam into their office to give him a nice long talk. I don’t know what they said to him, but he walked out an hour later with his face set like iron. All of us knew something big was about to go down.

The next day, Sam was the first one in, but he wasn’t going to go out with the crew. Instead, he took his strange ax and got himself a sharpening stone. We had some standard-issue stones we all used, but like everything else with Sam, his was different. Bigger looking, and it had a strange mark on it too. He spent the day sharpening that ax on that stone. Every time he slid the stone along the blade, sparks would fly, and it looked like Sam was gonna burn down the whole camp. Fortunately, everything was so wet and sodden that nothing caught fire, and the sparks winked out as they hit the ground.

By the time Sam left that day, the ax was polished like a mirror and sharp enough to draw blood if you ran a thumb along it. Trust me, one of the men tried. He got stitches in addition to an almighty berating by Sam who started the process again the next day to make sure the blade was still as sharp as can be. When the ax was ready to go, Sam told all of us to never touch it and that he’d be back in the morning to fell that big old tree.

And so we gathered there, before the dawn, on the coldest day of that winter so far. We were expecting something big, but a feeling of apprehension ran through everyone like an electrified coil. Something was gonna happen, but to a man, none of us knew what. Then Sam walked in looking for all the world like an executioner. His face was grim, his eyes were cold, and he didn’t greet a single man there with a smile. Instead, he only said three words that were as much a warning as anything else. “I’m going alone.” With that he picked up his ax, the blade still shining in the cold morning light, and he walked out.

None of us knew what to make of that, but not a one of us was about to follow him. Whatever path he was heading down, none but he could walk it. We all just sort of stood around the camp in the cold waiting silently to see what would happen. Turns out we didn’t need to see anything. We could hear the whole thing.

The first crack was loud as a cannon. An almighty boom that echoed around the hills. The second was a thunderclap that broke over everyone and made the men shudder and wince. The third was the distinctive sound of splintering wood, but it was amplified so loud that it brought boulders rolling down the hills and caused a minor landslide. The sound echoed around for a long time after that, and eventually blew away on the wind. Everyone in the camp stood dumbfounded for a minute just looking around at the hills and at each other. Then we all started to run. Command or no, we had to see what Sam had done.

When we got to the old tree, we saw that it was down. Toppled from a broken stump in three blows. The shining head of an ax was embedded in the tree. We found pieces of a carved wooden handle around the stump. None of us ever saw Sam again.

Passive voice misuse

But I wanted to use it that way!

Here’s something to keep in mind: there are plenty of writing tools out there, and most of them are complete garbage.

One that stands out from the rest by not falling into the garbage category is Grammarly. It really is a useful tool that helps speed the proofreading process along. It’s a lot like the built-in grammar checking tools for Microsoft Office and Google docs, but it’s in a cleaner, easier to use package. That being said, it does have one thing that just bothers me: the way it talks about passive voice.

If you’ve spent any time learning to write or reading advice about writing, you probably already know that there’s an incredible amount of hatred for passive voice out there. For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen that, give it a quick Google search and come back here.

If you need a definition, here you go: passive voice is when you switch the subject and the object of a sentence around the verb. For example, an active sentence looks like this:

Jimmy threw the ball.

Jimmy is the subject, threw is the verb, and the ball is the object. In English, the subject and the object can be switched, giving you a sentence like this:

The ball was thrown (by Jimmy).

That’s what passive voice looks like. The parentheses around by Jimmy are there because the sentence is still grammatical without that part.

Passive voice is a little more complex than that, but that’s a decent enough definition for now. So passive voice is grammatical, it’s possible to do in English, and there are a few reasons you might want to use it. If the subject isn’t known, for example, you might get a sentence like this:

The bank was robbed last night and the thieves are still at large.

I doubt even the most curmudgeonly grammarian would bat an eye at that one. Another example might be if you’re writing something like a scientific paper that focuses on the process rather than the subjects:

The test was conducted on 120 participants.

You actually have several occasions where passive voice makes more sense in writing than active voice. From what I can tell, the hatred for passive voice is more of a writerly meme than anything else. Some of the hate is because it can be used to hide responsibility. You might think of a politician’s “mistakes were made” instead of “we made mistakes,” but if you really think about it, that use of passive voice isn’t all that common.

But I started this post with Grammarly, and I should probably tell you why. Whenever you use passive voice (whenever passive voice is used?), Grammarly marks it as “passive voice misuse” regardless of context and intent. Here’s the thing: as I just showed, there are a few times where passive voice isn’t misused, and where it actually makes more sense to use it.

What really gets to me is that all this does is perpetuate a writing myth that probably should have died a while ago. Sure passive voice can be misused, but not every case of passive voice is a misuse. Ironically enough, Grammarly’s own blog talks about the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, Grammarly is a wonderful writing tool and probably the only one I would recommend, but can we stop pretending passive voice is bad?

-PWC

AI Writer

He’s coming for your blog

At some point last year, I wrote about writing assisted by technology, but what happens when the technology is writing everything?

I read something recently on Forbes about AI starting to write content. Apparently, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a few other online publications are using AI to write some of their content for them. Before you starting ringing the alarms bells and deciding nothing is safe from automation, take a deep breath and read on.

The trouble with the headline is it was written like this: “Artificial Intelligence Can Now Write Amazing Content.” That’s a big “yeah, right” from me. Science and tech journalism is never great, but this was one of the more overstated pieces I’ve seen in a while.

What the headline leaves out is that AI can currently write sports content, can compile financial reports, and can write local news stories. All of these follow a who, what, when kind of formula, so yeah, AI can easily write that stuff. The thing is that’s not “amazing content.” If anything, that’s the kind of content that gets churned out for no other purpose than to have content. It’s not written for thinkers, for readers, or for anyone really interested in learning anything new.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of content, but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a far cry from amazing. What really characterizes amazing content is not whether it can get the facts straight. That’s an important part of it, but amazing content is far more about the ideas that are presented and the effect they will have on the reader. To put it simply amazing content is content that reads like one person talking to another.

But that’s just my take on things, so let’s take a look at the actual amazing content that this kind of AI can supposedly write. AI-Writer.com lets you actually take their bot for a test drive, so I gave it the headline “how to write a good blog post” just to see what it came up with. Oh boy. Here we go.

The contours are very useful and probably your life story number 1 when you master how to write a good blog.

Here’s how to build trust and ultimately how to write a good blog.

To keep your efforts more consistent as you learn how to write a good blog, it is a great idea to create an editorial calendar.

Generally speaking, your job when creating a blog is to share information that no one else shares or information that people would like to pay for, but you give them for free.

And that’s not even the most egregious part. Nope, that goes to this one that formed the conclusion:

You can decide on your final title before writing the rest of your message ( and use your header to structure your outline ), or you can write your blog with a working title and see what fits when you’re done.

Writing headers for blog entries is an art as well as a science, and probably it justifies its own post, but for now all I would recommend is to experiment with what works for your audience.

So, you have done your research, set up a headline ( or at least a working title ), and now you are ready to write a blog.

Often, people simply don’t have the time, willingness or ability to concentrate on long blog entries without visual stimulation.

But if you need a little help to break the blank page or invent blogging topics, we have created a handy set of tools to make your creative juices flow.

Zero coherence, awkward phrasing, nothing connects. Sure, the sentences are grammatical, but there is SO much more than that to be an effective writer. Amazing? I don’t think so.

And the worst part of all of this is that the bot is really just scraping content from other sites. It’s pulling originally written content, and changing a few words here and there. I’m not sure how other AI writers work, but if that’s what all of them do, that sounds like plagiarism to me. Maybe that’s a philosophical question for another day, but it doesn’t seem right or ethical to me.

I said it the last time I wrote about robots trying (and failing) to write, and I will say it again. There will never be a tool, a hack, or an AI that will come along that will help you write better. Good content is just work, practice, and a person who’s put in the hours, and no AI is going to be better at content creation than a person.

But there’s another question waiting behind this one: why would you want the kind of content that an AI can churn out? Unfortunately, everything from major news publications to professional industries have this bad idea that content is an end in itself. It constantly needs to be there and constantly needs to be refreshed.

The result is tons and tons of mediocre content that serves the SEO bots on Google but doesn’t take into account the human being on the opposite end of the screen. That person (bless their heart) who is unfortunate to be on the receiving end of content for content’s sake is not having a good time and will probably leave with a negative impression—especially if they came across that content trying to answer a real question.

In general, I think you should put your reader’s needs above everything. Ann Hadley even calls this “relentless empathy” for a reader, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a better way to say it. The point is, AI can produce more content and it can constantly refresh a webpage, but that content will never rise above mediocrity. It can’t empathize with a reader, it can’t know what they need, and above all, it can’t care about any of that.

So no, Forbes, AI cannot write amazing content because amazing content shares complex ideas and connects to people. It can produce marginally readable content that no one wants to read. No one needs more of that around.

-PWC

King of the Golden Hall

The Tolkien Society puts on a themed reading day every March 25th (the day that the ring was destroyed and Barad-dûr fell if you didn’t know that already), and this year’s theme is Tolkien and the mysterious. Since Tolkien wrote a full-sized, believable world, there is plenty that is and will be mysterious in Middle-Earth. So there’s plenty to choose from. My personal favorite on this theme is Théoden’s healing by Gandalf, some of which I’ve excerpted below:

‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you harken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give those that despair. Yet counsel I could give and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’

Slowly, Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman [Éowyn, by the way] hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf Knocked.

‘Open!’ He cried. ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth!’

The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill.

I’m skipping ahead a little because of copyright reasons. I’d love to quote the whole thing, but I can’t. May I suggest reading the book?

‘Now, lord,’ said Gandalf, ‘look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!’

From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into the distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the east was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.

‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.

There’s more, of course, and I’d write it all for you if I could. So why this passage for the theme of Tolkien and the mysterious? Arguably, one of the most mysterious things in Tolkien’s legendarium is the power that words have in Middle-Earth. If oaths are made, they have to be kept, and, somehow, words have the power both to harm and to heal given the right circumstance. In this context, the thing that’s poisoning the mind of Théoden, in addition to his leechcraft, is Grima Wormtongue’s counsel. His words. And Gandalf’s healing comes, again, with counsel and with words. Even the beginning of Gandalf’s work here starts with him asking if Théoden will listen. If you pay attention, references to words are just littered throughout the passage. Wormtongue’s name is a great example, of course, but there are more subtle references than that.

What makes the mystery is how all of this works. Tolkien never set about to write a magical system that is all-encompassing, but what he did believe in (being a linguist and all) was the power of words. I’ll admit that this is not the single most mysterious thing in Tolkien’s legendarium, but it’s an interesting thing to notice that, most of the time, any magic in Tolkien’s works is either confined to objects, like the one ring or Andúril, or to words like we see in this passage. What’s interesting to note here as well is that Théoden’s healing happens in a sort of call and response. Gandalf offers the word, but Théoden also has to listen. You get the feeling that a great choice was made and Théoden’s choice to listen is what pulls him out of the darkness.

What I think Tolkien is doing here is getting us to share in some of his own appreciation of language. Obviously, in the real world, words have no magic to them, but they can harm or they can heal. Maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, certainly. This passage is Tolkien inviting us in to share in enjoying that mystery with him. Personally, I think it’s always worth considering what words can do, how they can shape you, and how they can definitely hurt or heal depending on their intent and the person speaking those words. Maybe Wormtongue is just the ultimate bad advice guy, but maybe he’s also the representation of how some folks just try their hardest to bring everyone down with what they say.

I hope you all have an excellent Tolkien reading day!

-PWC

not everyone can write

…or should, for that matter.

There’s a persistent myth I’ve run across several times both when I was a teacher and now in my professional life, and it goes a little something like this: writing is a learned behavior, everyone writes because of social media, email, texting etc., therefore everyone is a writer! In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be fair, the first two statements are true: writing is definitely something that anyone can learn, and with how much information is passed through the internet, words and language are just in use quite a lot more than they might have been before, but that absolutely does not make everyone a writer, and the idea that it does is bad for anyone interested in writing as a trade.

So first a disclaimer, I don’t see any reason to support the idea that writing is a lofty, artistic thing that only a few privileged people can attain. That’s clearly not the case because anyone can learn to write. But the keyword there is learn. The problem I want to focus on is the claim that everyone who can or does write is a writer. It gets a little bit like saying everyone uses a computer, so everyone’s a computer scientist. Obviously, that’s just not the case.

The same thing is true of writing. Sure, everyone uses words and language, and nearly everyone can string a few sentences together, but that’s not the same thing as being a writer. The difference between someone who can put sentences together and a writer is that a writer is someone who has trained, studied, and honed the craft of writing. Not everyone has done so, not everyone has the time, and most people don’t have the inclination. I’m not even really talking about formal education or training, either. You can be a self-taught writer too, but the point remains: writers are people who study and people who practice. More importantly than definitional discussions though is that the idea that everyone is a writer actively works against anyone interested in writing professionally.

Here’s what I mean: employment prospects, job security, and pay are all directly linked to how specialized your work is and how easy your position is to fill. This is the reason an engineer who works on producing a car gets paid more than a mechanic who works on it later. Nothing against mechanics, but the engineer is a more specialized position. The same is true for writing. It is a specialized position that not everyone can fill. This idea that everyone writes or everyone can write, only makes writing professionally seem like a less specialized skill than it actually is. This hurts employment prospects, pay, and it gives a false impression of the overall value that professional writers can bring to almost any industry.  

All of this doesn’t even bring up the topic of writing as an art. That’s a muddier puddle than I really want to step in, but it’s worth considering alongside the broader topic of writing as a trade. I’m not convinced that everyone can produce literary art, either. I’m not even convinced that I can, really, but the idea that everyone is a writer might not be really helpful for the literary world. I don’t claim to know as much about that, but I do know there’s a lot of garbage literature out there. I know that’s a personal taste thing, but I wonder if we wouldn’t get better literature if we didn’t have the everyone’s a writer mindset.

Unfortunately, I hear this sentiment about everyone being a writer expressed by writers a lot, and I just don’t think it’s doing us any favors. It’s a nice idea, I suppose, but I’d rather see writers standing up for themselves and for the time, effort, and practice they’ve put into the craft. So if you’re a writer or if you’re studying to become one, claim it. You don’t have to be arrogant about it, but you’re working on a skill that is important and that not everyone has. That should be a source of joy and pride for you.

-PWC

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I didn’t like the latest Star Wars movie any more than the next person, but have we all gone insane?

That’s the only question I’m left with after learning that there’s an actual Change petition to remove The Last Jedi from the Star Wars canon and remake that episode of the saga. And it has actual signers (?!?!). Add to that the fact that apparently some of the actors have had twitter threats, and I’m not sure what else to say other than people are damn weird. Aside from that, this does raise an interesting question: who owns the movie? Obviously, the answer is the creators. In this case, Disney, the company that made the movie; however, the only possible explanation for this awful behavior on the part of the fan base is that these people feel as if they own the movie: as if it was made directly for them and the way The Last Jedi was written was in some way a violation of their property.

Here’s the thing: we can responsibly critique any media that comes out in terms of the overall storytelling, the story’s reflection of reality, the ideas it’s putting forward, etc., but at the end of the day, the creative choices are up to the directors, writers, and other people responsible for producing a movie. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything a group does, but– and there’s no way to say this kindly– it’s not up to you. At least, not entirely. Audience is important of course, and I don’t think the creators of The Last Jedi were expecting the kind of backlash they got from some of the franchise’s most dedicated fans; however, I also don’t think they set out to ruin or violate (that term gets thrown around too much in these conversations, but it is the term used) anything. What they set out to do, however misguided the attempt, was to further the story. In order to do that, characters had to develop, and, ultimately, they had to leave to make room for the new set of characters.

Now, we can talk about whether that was done well or not, but throwing a tantrum and getting people to sign an actual Change petition in order to rewrite something is ludicrous. The troubling thing to all of this is that, for some, this is probably a justifiable move. After all, as the fans, a company has to do everything they can to cater to us, right? Nope. Again, we don’t have to like the choices, but there are probably more constructive things we could all be doing with our time. To sum up: let the creators create. Sometimes they’ll make stupid decisions, but that’s their call. As fans, it’s up to us to behave responsibly: if we don’t like something, we can talk calmly and rationally about what it was that we objected to. Creating and signing a petition, however, that’s just stupid. As for the twitter threats, just don’t.

-PWC

 

Not a robot

Sometimes spam comments lead to some interesting thoughts.

I’m not a particularly frequent blogger on this site. I would sure like to be, but I have other things that are often a constraint on time, and since that’s the case, my blog writing tends to be a little on the slow side. I could probably update more, but I once tried to blog every day for a month. I quickly found that the quality of what I was writing was in steep decline as I tried to keep up with that pace, so since then, I’ve been a consistent writer, but a fairly slow one.

The only trouble with that stance (if you keep a blog like I do) is that you’ll eventually run into the kind of spam comment that goes something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed you don’t update frequently. Here’s some advice/software program/educational tool/etc. that you can buy from me!” Usually, they aren’t even that clear. I got one of those recently, and it was for a tool that helps writers produce articles. The interesting part is that it’s essentially an AI writer for blog posts. As someone who is fascinated by both the English language and technology, this had me intrigued.

Essentially, the “tool” is an automatic thesaurus. I had to find a free version since I wasn’t about to pay $50 dollars to satisfy my own curiosity, but the one that I found allowed me to type into one box, submit what I typed, and change small bits of the text. For Example, I took the first paragraph of this piece as the input, and here’s what I got back after submitting it:

I’m not an especially visit blogger on this webpage. I might beyond any doubt want to be, yet I have different things that are frequently a limitation on time, and since that is the situation, my blog composing has a tendency to be a little on the moderate side. I could likely refresh all the more, yet I once endeavored to blog each day for multi month. I rapidly found that the nature of what I was composing was in soak decay as I attempted to stay aware of that pace, so from that point forward, I’ve been a predictable author, however a genuinely moderate one.

Hmm. Perhaps the paid version is better than the free one, but I sincerely doubt it. Here’s the thing: first, writing advice is always and will always be to use the words you know. If you have a limited vocabulary, reading more and reading with a dictionary can help. Second, no bot, no AI, and no writing tool is going to get results that anyone wants. Human language is incredibly complex and far too nuanced for any technology, so these kinds of “re-writing” tools are just going to make any piece of writing worse than it would already be.

The sad part is that these tools are marketed toward freelance writers a lot of the time. Sometimes writers get paid by the word, so I can imagine it would be tempting to use something like this as a way to lengthen a piece and get a slightly bigger paycheck. The thing is, someone is going to read the piece later, so even if there are a few more words, there is going to be some editor somewhere that will read it and realize it doesn’t make any sense. My piece of advice? Stay away from tools like this, write on your own, and work on finding your own voice.

-PWC