In all the hot discussions of the capabilities of generative AI and machine translation among failed creatives, wannabe tech bros (minus the tech degree), and those general bullies who abused the creative and clever kids at school, this is probably the most fundamental thing that gets left unsaid.
You can’t make a stunning, high-fashion, Instagram-ready purse out of a flea-bitten, death-soaked sow’s ear. This applies no matter whether it was (de)generative AI or an incompetent human behind the original.
Sure, a sow’s ear is going to be sufficient for some. Inexplicably, some people are really into dead things as fashion accessories. That’s fine. Not my abusive and cruel circus, not my sentient and unjustly imprisoned monkeys.
Gross animal metaphors aside, I’m only interested in what happens when a savvier client knows what they have is not good enough and wants to make it better.
To avoid misunderstandings, let’s clarify what I do and don’t mean by bad:
What I don’t mean:
- Anything not presented as remotely finished in the first place.
What I do mean:
- Anything substandard presented as only needing some changes, yet otherwise finished.
Any creative asked to edit or fix existing work must make a professional assessment of whether that work has good bones, ready for resurrection … or if it’s better off cremated.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s amazing what a little formaldehyde and makeup can do to bring beauty to the dead on arrival. But more often than not, we’re better off starting from scratch.
… Now, would that mean having a baby? Or summoning a fresh and healthy familiar or elemental? Sorry, I’m playing Baldur’s Gate 3 and my vampire rogue and dashing wizard just got into necromancy. Not heard of Baldur’s Gate 3? OMG, you’re missing out. It’s based on Dungeons & Dragons, if you’ve heard of that. Magic, demons, pacts with devils, and all that stuff.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand the processes that go into producing excellent as opposed to bad or simply lacklustre creative work.
We must dive into every detail, pixel, and semicolon to work out what must be added, removed, amended, and redone to make things right. In other words, we need to go through the exact same process we’d use to do things properly from the start.
Jobs described as an “edit” or “quick fix” can take longer than starting from fresh. Why? Ah, because we question ourselves throughout, working hard to decode all ambiguity, limiting our changes, avoiding offence, and justifying the most obvious of changes in case someone objects.
Isn’t it good to have a basis, you might ask? Inspiration? No, because that’s not a problem to start with. While those tools might be handy for some, they’re useless to established, top-tier creatives.
The art of good creative work does not lie in magically adding the details any savvier outsider can spot – it lies in a refined creative process followed from start to finish. When the creative is given the freedom to follow their own process, that will naturally generate all those details any savvier outsider can spot.
So you know, we all make mistakes. As a copywriter, editor, and translator, I’ve made my fair share. I’ve accepted project fees to “edit” substandard translations that needed a full rewrite. I’ve accepted hourly rates to raise corpses from copy that never had bones to begin with – leaving nothing but a gross pile of guts, viscera, and loose intestines where my new zombie summon should be. That turned out to be messy and traumatising.
This message is as much for my fellow creatives as it is for the prospective clients who might overestimate the mileage of AI-generated rough drafts or what can be repurposed from their latest outsourcing mistake.
So to reiterate everything with a well-positioned bold repetition of this post’s core message, shortly to be followed by some snappy one-sentence statements separated by line breaks that offer some practical advice that almost sounds like an immediately actionable life lesson:
It is easier to start from scratch than it is to edit and fix something bad.
Better yet, hire a top-notch human creative from the start.
Life’s too short to waste it touching up buzzword-heavy, floppy-fingered AI fever dreams.
Life’s also too short to waste it trying to fix human incompetence.