You may have heard about a site called ChatGPT, where you can try out an artificial intelligence (AI) writing tool. Depending on the user, the technology (created by OpenAI) has generated a combination of excitement and fear.
Almost like magic, you can give it a prompt and, within seconds, the chatbot will spill out prose about any subject imaginable, in the style you request. You can even ask it to sprinkle in some typos and grammatical errors if that suits your purpose.
Seventh-grade theme paper about the significance of the Battle of Hastings, complete with a run-on sentence or two? Piece of cake. Outline for a dystopian mystery novel set in Victorian England? No sweat. Presentation on the importance of widgets for your next Monday meeting? Take the weekend off — you’ve got it covered.
And since it’s original copy, more or less, teachers, editors, or your employers theoretically can’t track it down anywhere on the Internet. But just how good is it? Can a chatbot really fool you into thinking a human wrote it?
More to the point: Can I get it to produce decent enough blog copy that I can retire to a tropical beach somewhere and let the chatbot do the work? (Ha ha, just kidding — I think.)
Chatbot has a pretty high opinion of itself
I first asked the chatbot to write a headline for a blog post written by itself about how to be a good travel writer. Here was the headline it produced:
“Discover the World Through the Eyes of a Skilled Travel Writer: My Top Tips and Techniques for Captivating Content”
The chabot was nothing if not confident, so I requested its top travel writing tips and techniques. A few moments later, I had a pretty impressive top ten list that wandering scribes could follow:
Chatbot: “Here are some tips and techniques for travel writing:
Start with a strong introduction: Your introduction should grab the reader’s attention and give them a sense of what the rest of your piece will be about.
Use descriptive language: Use descriptive language to bring your experiences and observations to life for the reader.
Include personal anecdotes: Personal anecdotes can add depth and personality to your writing, and help the reader connect with you and your experiences.
Use a clear and organized structure: Organize your piece in a clear and logical way, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This will help the reader follow your story and keep their interest.
Research your destination: Research the destination you are writing about to provide context and background information for your readers.
Vary your sentence structure: Varying your sentence structure can help keep the reader’s attention and make your writing more engaging.
Edit and revise: Take the time to edit and revise your writing to ensure that it is clear, concise, and free of errors.
Include quotes and conversations: Including quotes from locals or conversations you had with people during your travels can add authenticity and depth to your writing.
Use sensory details: Use sensory details to help the reader experience your destination through all of their senses.
Conclude with a strong closing: End your piece with a strong closing that ties everything together and leaves a lasting impression on the reader.”
Now for the true tests
By now I was intrigued: Chatbot had the travel-writing fundamentals down, and expressed them well, but how would it do when called upon to produce more creative prose?
So I decided to test its skills.
I first asked the chatbot to write a professional-sounding travel article about places to go in Portugal.
Moments later, it began to spill out a Wikipedia-type piece that offered a standard list of ideas for Portugal. Serviceable enough, perhaps, with good editing, but that would require striking out an array of repetitious words and phrases, as well as worn-out superlatives — “beautiful,” “great,” and “charming” among them. (Admittedly, these are the bane of many would-be travel writers.)
“Stunning” was a particular chatbot favorite, along with the phrase “a number of…”
Here is the result (I’ve bold-faced the repetitive and clichéd words and phrases):
“Portugal is a beautiful country located on the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. With its mild climate, stunning beaches, and rich history and culture, it’s no wonder that it’s a popular destination for travelers. Here are some of the best places to visit in Portugal:
Lisbon: The capital city of Portugal, Lisbon is a vibrant city with a rich history and culture. It’s known for its historic neighborhoods, such as the Alfama district, which is filled with narrow streets, colorful houses, and charming squares. Lisbon is also home to a number of world-class museums and galleries, including the National Museum of Ancient Art and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.
Porto: Located in the northwest of Portugal, Porto is known for its stunning architecture, including the iconic Dom Luis I bridge and the Palácio da Bolsa. It’s also home to a number of great restaurants and bars, as well as a vibrant nightlife scene. Don’t forget to try some of the city’s famous port wine while you’re there!
Algarve: Located in the south of Portugal, the Algarve region is known for its beautiful beaches and stunning coastal scenery. It’s a popular destination for sun seekers and water sports enthusiasts, with a number of great beaches to choose from, including Praia da Rocha and Praia da Luz.
Sintra: Located just outside of Lisbon, Sintra is a charming town known for its stunning castles and palaces, including the Pena National Palace and the Castle of the Moors. The town is also home to a number of beautiful gardens and parks, making it a great destination for nature lovers.
Madeira: Located off the coast of Africa, Madeira is a beautiful island known for its stunning landscapes and year-round mild climate. It’s a great destination for hikers, with a number of trails through the island’s lush forests and along its rugged coastline. The island is also home to a number of great beaches, as well as a number of charming towns and villages to explore.
No matter where you go in Portugal, you’re sure to find a wealth of stunning landscapes, rich history, and delicious food and drink. It’s a truly unique and wonderful destination that should not be missed.”
Looking for more detail, I next asked the chatbot to write a descriptive travel article about the Alfama in Lisbon. Again, it was packed with clichés, this time zeroing in on “breathtaking views.” Here are the opening and closing paragraphs it produced (in between were some examples of the Alfama’s “rich history” and “vibrant cultural scene”):
Opening: “The Alfama is a charming and historic neighborhood located in the heart of Lisbon, Portugal. With its narrow, winding streets, colorful houses and breathtaking views of the city, the Alfama is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the city.”
Closing: “Overall, the Alfama is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Lisbon. Its rich history, vibrant cultural scene, and breathtaking views make it a truly unique and memorable place to explore.”
Maybe first-person would work better
Chatbot wasn’t faring too well with third-person writing, so I asked it to write a first-person descriptive travel article about adventures in Porto, Portugal. Perhaps not surprisingly, Porto turned out to be both “stunning,” “breathtaking” and more. Here’s the result, again with highlighting:
“As I stood on the banks of the Douro River, taking in the stunning views of the city of Porto, I knew that this was going to be a trip full of adventure.
The first thing that struck me was the vibrant color of the houses that lined the hillsides. Bright shades of yellow, orange, and red seemed to glow in the sunlight, giving the city a lively and welcoming atmosphere.
As I explored the winding streets of the city, I was struck by the mix of old and new. The historic Ribeira district, with its narrow cobblestone streets and quaint houses, was filled with charming restaurants and lively bars. But just a short walk away, I found myself in the bustling downtown area, with modern buildings and bustling shopping districts.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Porto Cathedral, a stunning Gothic masterpiece that dates back to the 12th century. The intricate stone carvings and stained glass windows were truly breathtaking, and the views from the top of the cathedral were breathtaking.
But my favorite adventure in Porto was a visit to the Douro Valley, where I took a boat ride down the river and sampled some of the region’s famous port wine. The rolling hills and stunning views of the valley were breathtaking, and the wine tasting was the perfect way to end a day of exploring.
Overall, my trip to Porto was an unforgettable experience filled with beautiful sights, delicious food, and plenty of adventures. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of this amazing city.”
Out of breath yet?
The clichés and overused repetitive words and phrases were mounting up, so I asked the chatbot to write a first-person travel article on the island of Madeira that avoids clichés. The result was, well, filled with clichés and repetitive words and phrases (highlighted):
“As I stepped off the plane and into the warm, humid air of Madeira, I knew I was in for a treat. This small island off the coast of Portugal [[sic]] has long been known for its stunning natural beauty and unique culture, and I was excited to explore every inch of it.
The first thing that struck me about Madeira was the lush vegetation that seemed to cover every surface. From the moment I arrived, I was surrounded by a tapestry of vibrant green trees, bushes, and flowers. As I made my way through the winding streets of Funchal, the island’s capital, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer abundance of life that seemed to be everywhere.
But Madeira is more than just a paradise for nature lovers. It’s also a place with a rich history and culture that is deeply ingrained in the local way of life. Everywhere I went, I was struck by the warmth and kindness of the people I encountered. Whether I was chatting with a shopkeeper, or simply enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, I always felt welcome and at home.
Of course, no trip to Madeira would be complete without exploring the island’s stunning natural beauty. I spent my days hiking through the rolling hills and valleys that make up much of the island’s landscape, marveling at the breathtaking views that seemed to be around every corner. I also took the opportunity to visit some of the island’s more iconic landmarks, like the Cabo Girão skywalk and the Jardim do Mar beach.
But even as I soaked up all that Madeira had to offer, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of peace and relaxation that seemed to permeate everything on the island. Whether I was lounging on a sandy beach, or simply enjoying a leisurely walk through the streets of Funchal, I felt a sense of calm and tranquility that was unlike anything I had experienced before.
As my trip came to an end and I prepared to head back home, I knew that Madeira had left a lasting impression on me. It’s a place that is truly unlike any other, with a combination of natural beauty, rich culture, and welcoming people that is truly one of a kind. I can’t wait to come back and explore even more of this amazing island.“
Quotes from the locals
As the chatbot suggests in its trips and techniques for travel writers, adding some quotes from the locals can add authenticity and depth to your story — though, oddly, I had to ask it to do just that: “Write a descriptive travel article on Lisbon that includes quotes from local residents.”
Though some of the resulting quotes seem overly gushy and artificial, this piece did exhibit a little more flair. That’s not to say it was devoid of repetitiveness and clichés (highlighted), or that parts of it still read like something out of an encyclopedia:
“Libon, the capital of Portugal, is a vibrant and historic city that is known for its lively culture, stunning architecture, and delicious cuisine. Located along the Atlantic coast, the city is known for its mild climate and beautiful beaches, making it a popular destination year-round.
One local resident, Maria, says, “Lisbon is a city that is full of life and energy. There is always something going on, whether it’s a music festival, a street fair, or just people enjoying a leisurely stroll through the city. The people of Lisbon are friendly and welcoming, and there is a real sense of community here.”
One of the city’s most iconic landmarks is the Jerónimos Monastery, a stunning example of the Portuguese Gothic style of architecture. The monastery, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is home to the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who discovered a sea route to India.
Another local resident, João, says, “The Jerónimos Monastery is one of my favorite places in Lisbon. It’s such a beautiful and peaceful place, and it’s fascinating to learn about the history of the city and the role that the monastery played in it. I love to spend a few hours wandering through the gardens and exploring the different rooms and chapels.”
In addition to its rich history, Lisbon is also known for its delicious cuisine. The city is famous for its seafood, and there are many restaurants that serve fresh fish and shellfish dishes. Another local favorite is pastel de nata, a small pastry filled with a creamy egg custard and dusted with cinnamon.
According to local resident Ana, “Lisbon has some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. The seafood is always fresh and delicious, and the pastel de nata is a must-try. There are also so many great restaurants and cafes to choose from, so you can always find something that suits your taste.”
Overall, Lisbon is a vibrant and lively city that is full of culture, history, and delicious food. As local resident Maria says, “There is always something new and exciting to discover in Lisbon. Whether you’re interested in history, art, or just soaking up the city’s lively atmosphere, there is something here for everyone.”
On the other hand…
As I continued my requests, I started getting back somewhat better copy.
When I asked the bot to write a descriptive travel article on sampling Portuguese cuisine and how it reflects the culture, I got the response below. While I would cut or change certain words and phrases (highlighted), as a short piece — such as a sidebar to a longer piece — it was better than many press releases I’ve read:
“Portuguese food is a delicious blend of Mediterranean and Atlantic influences, with a strong emphasis on seafood and hearty, rustic dishes. When traveling in Portugal, be sure to sample some of the country’s most iconic dishes, which will give you a taste of the rich culinary history and cultural traditions of this beautiful country.
One of the most famous Portuguese dishes is bacalhau, or salted cod, which is a staple of the country’s cuisine. Bacalhau is often prepared in a variety of ways, including baked with potatoes and onions, or served as a fritter. It is a symbol of Portugal’s long history of fishing and maritime trade, and can be found on the menu of nearly every restaurant in the country.
Another must-try dish is cozido à portuguesa, a hearty stew made with a variety of meats, vegetables, and spices. This dish is a reflection of the country’s rural roots, and is often served at family gatherings and special occasions.
If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to indulge in some pastéis de nata, flaky pastry tarts filled with creamy custard and dusted with cinnamon. These tasty treats are a Portuguese specialty, and can be found at bakeries and cafés throughout the country.
No trip to Portugal would be complete without sampling some of the country’s delicious wines. The Douro Valley, in northern Portugal, is home to some of the country’s finest wines, including port, a sweet, fortified wine that is a hallmark of Portuguese culture.
As you can see, Portuguese food is deeply rooted in the country’s history and cultural traditions. Whether you’re savoring a plate of bacalhau or sipping on a glass of port, sampling the local cuisine is a great way to get a taste of the real Portugal.”
This is just the beginning
After writing this, though, I realized I was being a little tough on the chatbot — analyzing a fledgling artificial intelligence tool as though it were a real live professional travel writer.
If it does even this well at a very early experimental stage, what kind of copy will it produce when it starts to iron out the kinks? Are travel writers — or other kinds of writers for that matter — safe from a bot invasion?
Assuming that this and similar programs will only continue to improve, my advice to professional writers of all types is be afraid…be very afraid.
But not yet.
Not a Bot is an allegedly skilled travel writer who may or may not be human but always produces captivating content on demand.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Photo: Praça do Comércio, Lisboa © Arq. Turismo de Portugal
I am ready to go to Portugal! Very entertaining, Clark. — Chrissy.
Reply: Thanks, Chrissy! I’m glad the bot wrote convincingly about the breathtaking beauties of Portugal, which really is a very nice place.
“Sobering. Chilling.” You have done us a real service with this piece, Clark.
Also Not a Bot — Steve Anzalone
Thank you, Not a Bot — aka Steve. It is a bit (a bot?) sobering and chilling. Welcome to the Brave New World of AI.