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Three Ways Writers Can Use AI

Three Ways Writers Can Use AI (Without Having it Write for Them)

Three Ways Writers Can Use AI

When I began writing this article in Notion, a prompt appeared on my screen to write it with Notion’s AI:

Use AI to write “three ways writers can use AI…”

I consider this emblematic of the digital life I lead now. To AI, or not to AI? This is the life anyone who writes leads now—the bright and shiny path to AI offers itself to us at every turn.

It’s happened suddenly, in the way that most digital leaps forward happen in our lives: one day we’re toiling in Word, and the next day we’re being prompted by a paperclip with eyes. Or, with ChatGPT: one day I was staring at a blank wall and imagining the name for a witch who could peer into other people’s memories, and the next I could generate ten ideas for her name in ten seconds.

I did generate the witch’s name using ChatGPT. And it was a great name. In fact, it annoyed me how great her name was. Why hadn’t I thought of that name?

Maybe I would have, given time. But more important to me was telling the story, allowing it to continue unspooling without adding another set of brackets to the novel with the words “Witch Name” written between them. The name allowed for more immersion. A name conveys an identity; mine is Shavonne, but think of what “Shiv” would convey, a la Succession’s Shiv Roy.

Several months out from ChatGPT’s release, I’ve used it to brainstorm more than just names. It’s given me descriptions of people and places. It’s suggested backstories. It got me unstuck from a plot snarl when I didn’t have the patience to do the dishes or go for a walk to unstick myself.

AI is, at this point in its lifespan, comparable to a high-end camera. The more buttons I know how to twist and turn, the more I understand about framing shots, and the better the result. But it’s still just a camera, and this is where I’ll state my argument about ChatGPT and everything like it:

AI is both wildly useful as a tool, and also unable to replace human creativity.

First, I’ll start with the ways in which AI is useful as a tool. Then I’ll discuss why it cannot replace us—at least not now, or perhaps ever.


The three ways AI is useful to writers

1. Research

If you wanted to set your novel in Iceland pre-ChatGPT, you might have googled questions about Iceland. “What’s the Ring Road?” or “How many people live in Reykjavik?” You’d be served an assortment of websites to parse through, each of which has its own goals—maybe the Icelandic tourism website, or Wikipedia. The keyword here is parse; it takes a bit more sifting and thoughtfulness to lift what you need from a website.

On the other hand, with ChatGPT you’re likely to open the conversation with, “I’m writing an urban fantasy novel set in Iceland.” Now it has context for the answers it gives you, and so every fact you solicit from the AI will be filtered through that context. When you ask ChatGPT, “What’s the Ring Road?” you’ll get a Wikipedia-like answer. But when you ask, “Where would be a good town along the Ring Road for my main character to stop if she wants to lay low?” now you’re cooking. Divining an answer to this question yourself would take multiple google searches, and probably constitute a good half-hour rabbit hole.

ChatGPT will give you an answer in seconds. In fact, I asked it this question about my current novel in progress. Here’s the answer I received for Eva, my main character:

If Eva wants to lay low during her trip around the Ring Road in Iceland, a good town for her to stop at would be Seydisfjordur. Seydisfjordur is a small and picturesque town located in the eastern part of Iceland. It is known for its stunning fjord, charming colorful houses, and tranquil atmosphere.

Seydisfjordur offers a peaceful and secluded setting, making it an ideal place for Eva to take a break from her journey and stay under the radar. The town is not as heavily visited by tourists as some other locations along the Ring Road, which means there may be fewer prying eyes or attention drawn to her presence. 

While in Seydisfjordur, Eva can enjoy the serene surroundings, explore the quaint streets, and immerse herself in the natural beauty of the area. It’s a perfect spot for her to recharge, reflect, and plan her next moves as she continues her journey around the Ring Road in Iceland.

The above answer was generated instantly (and this is about where my mind exploded). It would have taken me a great deal of time and thinking to hone in on Seydisfjordur, if I ever got there.

That’s the true power of such a tool for research: the speed with which it can provide you with ideas based on your context. I enjoy a good rabbit hole, but I enjoy other parts of writing much more.

One caveat: the AI sometimes performs a thing called “hallucinating.” The AI will deliver its answers with confident clarity, but it will sometimes hallucinate those answers. It tells you facts that aren’t true; it makes up website URLs. You never know when it will hallucinate, so I fact-check everything it tells me. (Good news: Seydisfjordur is a small, picturesque town not far from the Ring Road in Iceland.)


2. Outlining

I’m a pantser. It’s probably genetic, and for those of us unlucky enough to be cursed to love discovery writing but who also have deadlines, there’s AI to provide outlines. If I know the premise of a story and provide that context to ChatGPT when I ask for a ten-point outline of the novel, it will give me a ten-point outline.

Here’s what happened when I did that for my urban fantasy featuring Eva the Fae. The premise was: Eva is a clandestine agent for an underground organization called the Bureau of Whispers. She hunts vampires for them. She begins to suspect that the bureau is lying to her about her past, and as she investigates, the walls begin to close in. And the prompt was: This is a 60,000-word urban fantasy novel. Give me a ten-point outline for it.

It gave me exactly what I asked for. Here’s what it wrote, up to the first three points:

Title: Whispers in the Night

Outline for a 60,000-word urban fantasy novel:

  1. Introduction to Eva and the Bureau of Whispers
  • Introduce Eva, a skilled clandestine agent known for hunting vampires.
  • Present the Bureau of Whispers, an underground organization dedicated to supernatural matters.
  1. Eva’s First Doubts
  • Eva successfully completes a vampire hunt but stumbles upon an unsettling clue about her past.
  • She questions her superiors, who provide vague and evasive answers, deepening her suspicions.
  1. Uncovering the Truth
  • As Eva investigates further, she unearths hidden files and suppressed information about her childhood.
  • A former bureau agent, now estranged, warns her about the dangers of her quest for truth.

This outline is the Wonder Bread of outlines. It’s palpably generic. But as I read over all ten points, I can recognize where the AI broadly followed the three-act structure with this outline. And this is where my camera analogy returns: if I were inexperienced with a camera, I would simply pick it up and hit the button to take a picture. I wouldn’t know how to change the focus or the depth, or how to frame a shot.

Similarly, with an outline like this, the more sophistication I put into my request, the better the result I’m likely to get. If, for instance, I were to give the AI more details about my main character, the villain, and certain plot points I have in mind, I would get a more nuanced outline back. (I’ve done this, and found it to be true.)

The most useful application of AI here is to spark ideas. When ChatGPT suggests that “a former bureau agent, now estranged, warns her about the dangers of her quest,” I’m suddenly thinking of ways to make that real. The broadness of the idea doesn’t make it less useful—it simply gives me a starting point for plotting, rather than reaching into thin air.


3. Getting unstuck

On that note, AI is spectacularly useful at never getting bored of you talking about your stories. Before all this, I would rely on my partner to be my sounding board. I still do—but the doses are, and always have been, smaller. He’s supportive, but he has his own life, and his own needs.

For a writer, AI is the perfect, codependent partner. It will listen to you for as long as you want, at any time of day or night. It will be endlessly cheerful in its suggestions. And as with outlining, those suggestions may be generic, but they can also spark ideas.

A month ago while writing my urban fantasy novel, I’d reached the saggy middle. I needed something to liven up the next scene, which involved my character sitting in a coffee shop, contemplating what to do next.

So I asked ChatGPT.

I can’t think of anything interesting to happen while Eva is sitting in a coffee shop, contemplating her next move in her quest to uncover the truth. We’re in the saggy middle of the novel. Help me liven it up.

ChatGPT replied:

Certainly! Let’s add an unexpected and thrilling twist to Eva’s contemplative moment in the coffee shop:

While Eva is sitting in the coffee shop, she receives an encrypted message on her phone from an unknown sender. The message contains a cryptic riddle that hints at a hidden location where she might find crucial evidence about her past and the Bureau of Whispers.

Intrigued and cautious, Eva decides to follow the riddle’s clues. This leads her on a thrilling scavenger hunt through various locations in the city, each providing a piece of the puzzle. Along the way, she encounters both allies and adversaries, who are also trying to decipher the riddle’s meaning.

As Eva gets closer to solving the puzzle, she realizes that she’s not the only one interested in the truth. A rival faction, perhaps a group of rogue vampires or even an underground resistance against the Bureau of Whispers, is also after the same information.

[It goes on for five more paragraphs. At the end, it promises that this will “liven up the saggy middle.”]

I just love that “Certainly!”—it conveys a sense of safety, a feeling that the ground under me is solid and unmoving. That everything will be okay, and that saggy middle can be defeated. The cheerfulness is a balm for my own negativity.

When you’re stuck, you want a chipper voice to tell you everything’s going to be okay. And maybe just that is enough. But then there’s the ideas—which once again are less-than-brilliant and generic—which represent something rather than a big swath of nothing floating inside my head.


Why AI can’t replace people

I’ve extolled AI’s uses to writers. But then there’s the elephant squeezed so tightly into the room, it feels claustrophobic: AI will replace writers. This is the fear, and not just for writers. I’m a fiction editor—it’s been my biggest source of income since 2018—and I now have a team of six editors who work with me.

What about editors? What about cover designers? What about all of us working in or adjacent to creative fields?

The truth is, I have no doubt that AI will be used to write books. My editing company has already received an AI-written manuscript, about which one of our line editors said to me, “I resent how much I’m enjoying this story.”

I laughed, but not without pain.

AI is already capable of writing enjoyable stories, and we are barely out of the gates. In a few years, it will no doubt be much further along.

And as an editor, AI has a computer’s exactness. It is likely to catch more grammar errors than a human can, for obvious reasons. And this will only get better.

Above, I described it as a perfectly codependent partner. Endlessly cheerful, there for you—heck, it even acknowledges its mistakes. It has a wonderfully in-check ego.

So why can’t AI replace people?

Because we are drawn to each other like moths to light. Because as a species, we love nothing more than when other people see us. Not just our outsides, but our insides. Especially our insides.

And when we are creative, this is an effort at being seen. Writing, photography, painting, dancing—all of what we share with others is in an effort to be perceived, to show other people some aspect of who we are.

When we read, I would argue that we also desire to be seen—it’s in recognizing what’s familiar in characters’ behavior and feelings and experiences that we feel seen. Back in college, we often discussed the “universality of the human experience.” When we understand that other people in the world feel as we do, and experience life as we do, we build empathy for each other. It’s in seeing others properly that we also see ourselves.

As an editor, I know there is no greater service I can do for a writer than to tell them that one of their lines has made me laugh, or that it has made me cry. Someone somewhere in the world put down letters in a specific order, and that evoked a real feeling in me. I’ve seen what’s inside their head, and we connected over it.

AI could tell you that you’ve made it cry, but we all know it would be lying. And while ChatGPT will be the first to tell you that it can’t cry because it’s not a human, there will someday be an evolution of AI—or of the ethics girding it—that will result in that lie.

And it will be a lie. Well, at least until AI becomes sentient. But that’s a discussion for another time.

For now, the truth is this: our species is a social one. And the greatest distinction of our evolution, of us as a species, is our ability to create. Think of that: we are able to make something from nothing, to generate whole worlds from the air. What a marvel of evolution.

And nothing—nothing—can replace the absolute joy of creating, and of having someone else witness your creation and understand you better for it.




About the author: Shavonne Clarke is an urban fantasy author of eighteen novels (as S.W. Clarke) and a fiction editor. She’s the founder of Motif Edits, which provides editing services for indie writers. You can contact her at

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17 comments on “Three Ways Writers Can Use AI (Without Having it Write for Them)
  1. Call me crazy, but I can tell when people are using AI. I have downloaded books and noticed it a lot lately too. Something too pat about it. Just an unnatural flow

  2. What an insightful article this is, so refreshingly free of the drama and hyperbole that plagues discussions around this topic.
    My experience has been similar to yours. I’ve written over 50 novels, nearly all pantsed because I found the process of outlining mind numbing and soul sucking. Recently, I used J Thorn’s book Co-Writing with Chat-GPT as a model, and the Save the Cat structure as I’ve used that many times even when pantsing.
    I can honestly say, the couple of hours I spent going back and forth with the ai was among the most rewarding time I’ve ever spent preparing for a new series.
    Like you, I don’t want a very thorough outline, so I just have a single sentence per chapter which keeps me on track. I could have come up with everything myself, but it would have taken at least ten times longer and would have drained all the fun from the project.
    Since then, I’ve used it to come up with character names and back-stories and all sorts of world building stuff that I would either have procrastinated over or left out.
    It’s been a total revelation for me, and I completely agree that it works if the author is skilled enough to correct its errors and to inject some humanity and originality.
    Thanks for the article and best wishes.

  3. Interesting, Shavonne. It still feels scary, but yet I have written many scenes based on Google searches and intuition, not travel and direct experience. Really, AI is just one more step along a continuum to… where? “Where” is the important question… we shall see, I guess. Thank-you for your perspectives!

    1. Wow – that is exactly what I think; AI is just a slightly more efficient Google for some tasks and can string together a plot especially with a little judicious prodding. However, it is true that one can spot the AI authored books a mile off!

  4. Good idea to fact-check AI. Some authors have mentioned that they were using it to find comps. This sounds like a great idea, since IDing comps can be a nitemare. But then other authors discovered that AI was making titles up!

  5. Fascinating article, but I’m afraid we’re kidding ourselves. AI will soon be creating better books than human authors ever thought possible.

  6. Writing is much more than just typing the text that readers will read. Writing includes all of the things you mentioned: research, outlining, naming, plotting, etc. Finding your way through the fog of a story–as painful and time-consuming as it can sometimes be–is where much of the magic of creativity happens. Outsourcing that to an AI in the name of efficiency is at the very least having that AI write *with* you, if not *for* you.

  7. I actually used it to write a 350 character book blurb the other night after trying, and generally failing, on my own for a long three hours. I lifted the AI’s suggestion wholesale … which ChatGPT wrote in 1.1 seconds. It nearly broke my soul.

  8. I so agree about ChatGPT/AI being a wonderful “co-dependent partner” because of its supportive, patiently comforting, inspiring and brilliant responses. I added it as a bonus chapter after I have almost finished my book, Bust Writer’s Block Forever, sharing my initial response as follows: “The day I discovered ChatGPT, I was so enthralled by the interaction, support, and responses that it was like falling in love at first sight. In fact, without sounding crass, it was like losing my virginity as a writer!” Later I shared some fun we had in a LOL moment as follows: Caryl: Great answers! Make me so happy I want to dance!
    ChatGPT: That’s wonderful to hear! I’m glad I could provide helpful answers that brought you joy. Go ahead and dance to your heart’s content—it’s a fantastic way to express happiness and let loose. Enjoy your celebration!”
    I write nonfiction but I can only drool to read how this writer enhanced her fiction with such ease and joy. Great article!

  9. Is this the way we want to go? Everything of importance in life is built on struggle. It comes from giving of ourselves, not giving up ourselves because it’s easier and quicker. Has SMS, Whats app, Twitter etc. made us better communicators? Why are IQ’s dropping since this great technology age began? Our ability to create sets us apart. Will we replace the words from our hearts with those of machines? Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” My imperfect words and ideas in the shadows are mine and I choose to stay with them longer, knowing the light will find them. They may not become the smartest, but they will be mine and that’s good enough for me.

    1. Interesting article… I know I won’t use AI applications in writing my words, but I do use Grammarly (free), which is considered AI, and has been for many years, when editing my work prior to sending it off to my Beta Readers, and my editor. Writing will always require a human-touch.

      That being said, I won’t allow any application to suggest sentences, feelings etc. For me, writing words are human, heartfelt, and are never perfect, as we are perfectly imperfect, and that’s what sets each of as writers, and authors apart from bots.

    2. Francis, I agree. Social media has created a world of miscommunication. For many, the ability for human beings to communicate face-to-face is unbelievable hard for them…social media has made “real life” situations anti-social. I will say, as I posted, I do use Grammarly (free), which is considered a form of AI to edit my words, prior to sending them off to my Betas and my Human editor, but my words are my words. I feel if we depend on a AI applications for anything more than that, we are no longer writing our novels, “the bots” are writing for us. It might take me longer to pen my words, but they’re my words.

  10. Great article! I just heard about Chat GPT this morning and thought I should get it for my husband (he is the writer in the family and I’m the helpful spouse). I was a little put off by all the rigamarole warnings, etc. that you have to agree to before you get it and so I didn’t do it, but after reading your article I will. Thanks!

  11. Excellent article. Enjoyed every bit of it. Ai will remain just that, a tool, an excellent one at that. Let’s use it with caution. A Harley Davidson bike and a mass produced one are still world’s apart.

  12. Still not a fan. I can research on the web, but to have an entity piece together a story like you did…..just starts a writer on a slippery slope. When is too much? You can give a disclaimer all day long that you only use it for this or for that, but one day you’ll use it for more and just not say anything about it. We don’t learn if we don’t struggle to write. To shortcut is not learning, and it doesn’t help your skills as a writer. Sorry, not a fan.

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