Sample of generating AI art.

How AI can help writers

AI. Does it have any use for a writer besides being the antagonist for a dystopian sci-fi novel? Many of us have concerns about AI stealing jobs and copyrighted material. We’ve had plenty of controversies about AI’s use in cover art, audiobook narration, and the generation of entire books and videos. But does AI have any beneficial use for writers?

As someone who has been using technology for writing since my first word processor on the Commodore 64, I say yes. There are ways to use AI to enhance your productivity and creativity.

In fact, you may be using these features now without knowing it. Many word processors, email editors, and other writing products have auto complete. You start typing a word, and the program completes the word or the rest of the phrase.

Popular grammar checkers like ProWritingAid use AI to identify writing mistakes and recommend corrections. Some have features that can rephrase paragraphs based on tone or a style guide.

These tools don’t replace a professional editor, but they can help you write as clean a manuscript as you can before getting it edited. And when you don’t have access to a professional editor, these tools can reduce glaring mistakes.

While we’ve been using web search for nearly 30 years, AI search is much better. I’ve been experimenting with Microsoft Copilot, which is available on the Bing website and as an app for mobile devices.

With conventional search (that is, Google), you enter a search phrase and get a list of links. With AI search, you can enter a more detailed question and get a summary based on information on the Internet. Here’s an example from some research I was doing for my novel.

Sample AI prompt and response

I found the last bullet point about Black Sky Planning especially interesting. It’s a subject I wouldn’t know about if I hadn’t read that AI-generated summary.

I plan to follow up my research with interviews with water district employees and visits to sites. But this AI-generated summary will help me ask better questions.

A feature of AI I started using is in the development of characters and scenes. There’s a joke writers tell:

Roses are red.
His eyes are blue.
But you said they were brown
On page 62.

To avoid this problem, I like to use reference images. These help me describe a scene or a character and keep it consistent throughout the book. I usually find stock photos (or with Christina’s Portrait, which is set in my high school, old yearbook photos). But what if I can view a picture of my settings and characters exactly as I describe them in my book?

That’s what I can do with Microsoft Designer, which uses DALL-E. The feature image of this post is one of my main characters. I entered a prompt of what I want her to look like and a bit of the background. For my other main character, I started with this scene where we see him in detail for the first time.

I found him curled up on a beanbag chair in Jacob’s room. He was fast asleep. I crept closer to him. He was a kid, maybe 14 or 15 years old. He had a thick mess of tousled dark brown hair with bangs that covered his olive tone face. He seemed short for his age. And thin. The torn dark blue t-shirt hung loosely on him. His denim shorts were worn and dirty. His black sneakers had a rip on the side. The poor kid must have been through a lot. 

I entered this scene into the Designer prompt. It didn’t generate an image on the first try. This is something you must contend with when using generative AI. You can enter a prompt that is too complex for it to generate, or one so simple it won’t create what you want. There are also certain blocked words that DALL-E won’t create images for. If you want to show your hero getting intimate with a purple tentacled sea creature, you’re out of luck.

I simplified my prompt to this:

Show a picture of a homeless boy. He is 15 years old. He has a thick mess of tousled dark brown hair with bangs that cover his olive tone face. He is thin and wears a torn dark blue t-shirt that hangs loosely on him. His denim shorts are worn and dirty. His black sneakers have a rip on the side.

And here’s what Designer came back with:

Character sketch generated by Microsoft Designer

From this picture, I can develop the character further. I can describe his personality and manner of speech. I can also show how other characters interact with him. How would they respond to a kid who looks like him? An image is a great starting point for developing character and story.

There are things I wouldn’t do with this image. I wouldn’t use it as an illustration or in my marketing. If this image appeared on the cover art, I’d kick it back. That’s because generative AI art has several problems.

First, are the copyright issues. This image probably uses pieces of other copyrighted works, so I couldn’t license it.

Second, AI has the uncanny valley problem. It is both too good and too imperfect. We’ve all seen instances of AI-drawn hands with too many fingers and letters that are a misshaped jumble. I would trust a human artist to create the right illustrations or license the right clip art and stock photos to create an attention-getting cover.

For my personal use in crafting a story, generated art like this can help me develop my characters and settings and describe them consistently.

There are caveats with using generative AI. The data you provide can be used to generate content for other users. So, I wouldn’t provide an AI engine any information I wouldn’t want others to access. It wouldn’t affect my story if some other author had a character who’s a homeless 15-year-old boy. There are lots of stories with that type of character. I wouldn’t want an AI engine taking my whole story and enabling someone else to use it without my consent. So, read the end-user agreement and be careful of what information you provide.

I don’t use AI to generate content for me. I use it to help me create my own content. Everything I do with AI has to be verified by humans, whether it’s editing manuscripts, researching information, or creating artwork.

AI is just a tool, just like word processors, grammar and spelling checkers, and the Internet. By learning to use it properly, AI can further human expression instead of eliminating it.