Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are changing the rules for writers. With a tool like ChatGPT, anyone can quickly generate long texts, present it to the world as their own, making a quick buck as the market for creative writing collapses.
Or is it that simple?
Clearly, I need to figure this out. I have no answers, but I think we will be ok.
For future reference, I wrote this in early 2023, and I suspect we’re just starting out on a wild ride.
The AI Tools
Talking about AI tools, I mean ChatGPT and Sudowrite, but obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the forefront of what’s coming. But I have to start somewhere.
As of writing this (yes, I am writing this), I’m doing the same thing as when I tested ProWritingAid a while back, meaning I’ve used the tools for 10-15 hours and watched a handful of videos online.
It seems the difference between the tools is that ChatGPT answers my questions, meaning the specificity of my prompt influences the output, while Sudowrite adds built-in tools to guide the prompts into fiction. ChatGPT is currently a free service, while Sudowrite has a free trial word count, then becomes a paid service.
We should realize we have been using AI writing tools for years. The WordPerfect spell checker was AI (I am showing my age now), meaning it streamlined the writing process and increased productivity (if not quality). Even I noticed word count ballooned sometimes during the 80s. For a few years now, Grammarly and ProWritingAid have been great editing tools. ChatGPT and Sudowrite is the next step.
Refusing new tools outright is like arguing feather pens and stone tablets are the only “true” way to write. There’s a lot to deal with here, but the core idea is simple.
Why Do I Want This?
I am writing roleplaying game material for private use and occasionally posting online, and may publish in the future, although it is not a priority. I also write fantasy, which I want at a suitable level for publication, which is a priority. This means I want tools to outline, worldbuild, brainstorm, and write fiction.
Diving into Online Videos
Joanna Penn has talked about AI assisted writing for a while. Me, who’s never a first adopter at anything, was indifferent until Sudowrite popped up in my “promotions” inbox, and I recognized the name from… somewhere. Presumably Penn’s podcast. This was at the same time as ChatGPT went live, but I did not notice until the mainstream media caught up (“the kids cheats on tests!”).
A month or two later, both Sudowrite and ChatGPT popped up on my online video feed, and I was ready to pay attention.
There’s already high-quality streaming content out there. For Sudowrite, Joanna Penn has a few videos, and Elizabeth Ann West has several on behalf of Sudowrite. I can use Sudowrite to brainstorm, outline, and write fiction, judging by what they are doing. I may not get what I want, but if we’re talking about a first draft, something to edit, it’s impressive. West asks the AI for descriptions and dialogue, and AI generates the text. As an example, she rewrote some legal text in the style of H. P. Lovecraft, which was both hilarious and truly terrifying.
In the roleplaying game space, streamers like TheAIWizard and Nerd Immersion have tested and generated Dungeons and Dragons– style content with ChatGPT on the fly, with impressive results. The adventures were cliché, deeply rooted in D&D tropes, and probably on the level of some published stuff. While it did not seem like something I would enjoy running or playing, I can only assume both the tools and prompting will improve.
Very impressive overall.
At first glance, Sudowrite adds value to my uses compared to ChatGPT. I am undecided if I want to spend money on AI help, which is why I’m writing this.
Ok, I’m done snooping on what others are doing. It’s time to check this out for myself. When I first got the Sudowrite ad, I clicked on it. This was before ChatGPT hit the mainstream and I rarely click on ads, but that’s the power of name recognition — Joanna Penn carries weight.
My first test was a scene with a girl, armed with her wand, in a dark cave facing a strange monolith. With a short prompt and a few choices, I write a story about a girl in full Hermione-mode facing this vaguely Lovecraftian-artifact.
My first thought was that it was cool, but then I realized it was potentially dangerous. The girl was awfully like Hermione, waving her wand, even casting “Lumos” or something similar to turn on the light.
As usual, I nodded with concerned approval, then set the tool aside.
Fast forward two months to ChatGPT and Sudowrite popping up on my streaming feed and I return to another test of Sudowrite.
My second test, again based on my fiction, I’ve got this warrior dude exploring a dark temple. I prompt Sudowrite and the AI spits out a vivid description. Out of nowhere, a woman shows up, and my dude imagines the woman naked. Well, sexual tension is the bread and butter of fiction, right? Sudowrite knows how to serve the reader.
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
—2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (1968)
When my Sudowrite trial word count tapped out, I turn to ChatGPT. Like I’ve mentioned, they are very different. The Sudowrite developers focus on writers while ChatGPT feels more like a search engine — or HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), if you will. Meaning I have to ask ChatGPT to produce an outline, describe scenes, and so on.
I did several tests, both for roleplaying games and fiction.
My first test was to explore an idea for a new Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle, expanding my previous London by Night game with more vampires, locations, and plots. To do this, I figured it needed to root the game in Victorian London, as it was the height of London’s power, and its vampires were likely to have strong ties to that era.
So, straight up asking the AI, it confirmed it knew the Vampire: the Masquerade setting. I was interested in what the clans were doing in London. Interestingly, ChatGPT included only Camarilla clans, which I think is appropriate, but only superficial descriptions. To expand, I asked the AI to give me two vampires for each clan, and dig deeper into each set of vampires. Next, I asked for ten Elysium locations — safe havens in the vampire society of this setting — and got locations such as The British Museum and The British Library, which all seemed appropriate.
The AI quickly generated a promising setting. It only required a few questions. However, it was bland. Worse, I do not know if the AI generated the suggestions, pulled from fan sites, or official World of Darkness sources.
For a similar example, track down TheAIWizard’s Grimdark Hogwarts video for a fun exercise.
My second test was work on my fantasy setting, which I use for both games and fiction. I enjoy city campaigns and have two hubs in my world inspired by Venice and Constantinople. I prompted dozens of questions about both cities, focusing on rivaling factions I want to include. ChatGPT gave me ten thousand words in minutes, including city districts, characters, factions, noble houses, taverns, conflicts, villains, and dungeons. All the stuff I would create myself when designing a new city, except I would spend weeks on this, while the AI needed minutes.
Reading through the content, everything was predictable and made sense, although it was bland. However, editing, development, and adding my own twists would bring this to life with only a fraction of work I’ve previously would have needed.
My third ChatGPT test was one of my stories. I’m working on a dark academia magic college story set in my fantasy Venice city. I prompted ChatGPT with a three hundred word outline and asked it to break it into three acts. ChatGPT provided a convenient list of bullet points and act breaks. I asked it to rewrite it as five acts, with tweaks to the sequence and inserted a romance subplot. The AI Rewrote with the Save the Cat beat sheet with no problem. Nothing groundbreaking, but the AI saved me half-an-hour’s work. I wonder what it would do with a two thousand word outline. Or a twenty thousand word outline. What about in a year?
The fourth test was asking ChatGPT to write descriptions using all five senses instead of just telling me the facts, and got four hundred words. Good enough to add to a first draft.
The fifth test was to ask ChatGPT to check some facts. For the test above, I realized I did not know the difference between a dock and a waterfront. Now I do. For the second fact check, I asked the AI how dream magic works in the Pathfinder roleplaying game, and got a long essay. Not actual spells or items I could use at the table, or in-game lore and the principles.
I suppose this is the use that kicked the Google shareholder into a frenzy, and they are right to worry.
The last test, for our purposes here, was writing a moral argument for a villain. The villain saw himself as a moral and good person. I asked ChatGPT for a self-righteous justification from a demon priest, which ChatGPT refused as it was hate speech. Which is true, as this character clearly is hateful. When I pointed out this is fiction in the style of R.E. Howard’s Conan stories (Howard is not really what I am going for in my story but I though it made the intent clear to the AI), I got the arguments for my villain, although still flagged as a potential breach of the user terms.
What About Other Tools? Word? Grammarly? ProWritingAid?
What about other tools? Word has spellchecker and tools for fixing grammar, last time I checked, and Microsoft has invested in OpenAI if I recall correctly.
Grammar tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid, which I consider editing tools — someone described them as “supercharged” thesauruses — are great for fixing awkward sentences for passive voice, adverbs, and sticky sentences. Meaning, we’re still talking about my words. Using a tool like ProWritingAid usually means making cuts as far as I am concerned.
This changed in March 2023 when ProWritingAid introduced an improved rephrasing tool to include sensory details, expanding the text, and so so. This is like some things Sudowrite is doing, although currently on a smaller scale. ProWritingAid no longer just edits my sentences, it may add to them.
The same month, Paizo, publisher of the Pathfinder roleplaying game, announced they stand with writers and artists, which is great.
However, if this means not using AI tools at all, I think we’ll get into trouble. When Microsoft includes more AI tools into Word, and I am betting they will, where can anyone draw a line against AI writing that makes sense?
So, Can I Use This?
Well, yes. The AI generates pages upon pages in no time. Although it may be flat. Or is that just my expectations messing with me?
However, it is something to work with and I can steer it towards what I need. The AI is doing the heavy lifting, creating a skeleton, and sharpening my prompts will improve the output. It is also loads of fun and inspirational.
But do I want to use AI?
Skynet is Coming (and I Feel Fine)
“Don’t write crap!”
— Jo Konraht, 2011
Some believe the emergence of AI generated content will cause a “tsunami of crap”. AI generated books quickly appeared in online stores. Concerned representatives for artists and writers voice concerns. However, this is nothing new. The tech is there, we cannot stop this.
Let’s throw some (vaguely remembered) statistics around. Alleged average sales numbers for books range from less than two hundred copies up to a few thousand. There’s up to a million new books published every year. I can’t check these numbers, but that is not the point.
The point is, the market is already saturated. As creative writers, the market stacks the odds against us. We need to be lucky and the writing exceptional. Better tools for average writers do not change this. If we’re gonna write, getting rich should not be a part of the plan — the odds are better elsewhere.
Let’s throw some quotes around.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
“I think new screenwriters are too worried it has all been said before. Sure it has, but not by you.”
— David Lynch, quoted on the Outstanding Screenplays Instagram account
The point is, drawing on King and Lynch, the world needs your story, and you need to write it. The AI does not change that and does not compete with your story. Only your story is yours, and the computer can’t replace you. Only you can write it.
So this is liberating. It is not about the money or writing an average story. It’s about writing your story.
The tsunami of crap hit us long ago (and I feel fine). As long as AI helps, I don’t mind using it in some capacity.
After this brief period of testing, Sudowrite (or a similar service) is probably the service I want. I’ve spent most time with ChatGPT, because it’s currently a free service, and any paid service needs to add significant value to justify the cost. Based on my 3000 word free trail, Sudowrite may do that, and is worth checking out.
For me, currently, ProWritingAid may have hit my sweet spot, especially with the new rephrasing tools, but this is only the beginning.
How to Use the AI
So now it gets tricky. For some, avoiding AI may seem like a safer bet, the ethical way forward. I agree and I applaud this.
How do I use AI to write my stories? AI for Authors: Practical and Ethical Guidelines by the Alliance of Independent Authors seems like a solid starting point.
Writing this post, I’ve inconsistently switched between “write” and “generated” text, which illustrates my reluctance to embrace AI tools. In the end, I used “write” because I am the guiding the text. It’s something to keep in mind.
How do I do this?
Have I made any progress at all?
For me, working out my policy, straight cut-and-paste isn’t an option, but I realize “rephrasing” tools make this a slippery slope. Second, never compromise on the story. Third, asking the AI to write-in-the-style-of-someone is asking for trouble. Fourth, state the tools I’ve used. I do not know how good plagiarism checks are, but they sure sound useful. Finally, since the average is increasingly easy, I should double down on the embarrassingly personal and weird, the content only I can write.
I am one of the folks that leans heavily into the idea that 90% of everything is crap. For me, the way forward is writing crap with pride, well and personal, and don’t worry about the rest.
What About Editing?
At first glance, the editors are in dire straits. Well, I don’t think so. While the first drafts may become faster, there are some errors spellcheckers won’t catch, and I think the AI will introduce more plot problems than it fixes. The sentences may be better than ever, but with a tsunami coming, anyone who wants to have a shot at writing something great will need editors more than ever. Think about all the books you may have sampled on your e-reader, but ultimately decided not to buy? I bet most of them were beautifully written. Getting a superb editor for your book may help you with that.
I am playing vinyl records as I am finishing up this post, which I find hilarious. Apologies to R.E.M. for twisting their lyrics.
Featured image by Tara Winstead, Pexels Free Images.
So, What Do You Think?
Can we somehow avoid using AI tools for creative writing? Should we try? Is using AI cheating?
When did the tsunami of crap actually hit us? ChatGPT? Ebooks and e-readers? WordPerfect? Gutenberg? Paper? Papyruses? Fingerpaint for the caves?
Am I too positive? Too snarky? Is the sky falling?
Let us know in the comments below.