10 September 2022

Cool Writing Programs I Learned About on My Panel--and Why I Probably Won't Use Them

Last month, one of my Killer Nashville panels was a terrific dive into manuscript polish and being truly ready to submit. I was the short story guy trying to keep up with dynamite authors both traditionally and self-published, a managing editor, and an agent, all of whom had damn fine suggestions about editing steps and especially, in our wonderous modern age, editing software. And when it came to software, I turned into the contrarian every co-panelist dreads. 

Our audience got in on the software suggestions. The tools and platforms were flying so fast that I only managed to jot down three. I googled around post-panel and researched how these leading tools in this, our wondrous age.

And I probably won't use any of them.


Writers Helping Writers came up several times from the audience. I checked it out. It's an impressive platform to help build worlds, deepen characters, and punch up writing power with emotional-type thesauruses. 

Why I May Use It: Everything here looks thoughtful and detailed, especially for tries at a complex novel. Scene maps, character checklists, physical reactions to circumstances, you name it. There is a bookstore and software services to back this up. $11 per month feels a touch steep, but it's a bargain if the tools pay off in a final product. There's a free trial period for test drivers. Free tipsheets, too, but they're marketing teasers. Thoughtful stuff, though.

Why I Probably Won't: This content load risks planning overkill for short fiction. I don't need to build a new world. I use the one around me. I don't need someone else's character checklist. I won't write somebody's perspective and story if I haven't wriggled into their head. And when my characters and I get on different pages, I've learned free write exercises to help reconnect. 

The panelist point I grumbled was that writing is also about the writer's growth. When I started out, I leaned on The Emotion Thesaurus. It's a great resource and remains on my reference bookshelf. It has gathered a sheen of dust, though. Repeated work on authentic character reactions taught me that skill. I learn more now through critique and reading great authors than I can from a thesaurus. 

I was also the contrarian panelist about thesauruses. In fiction writing, a thesaurus will almost always offer the wrong word. It'll either be imprecise for the sentence or a vocabulary eyesore. The following are synonyms for the verb walk: locomote, perambulate, traverse, and "go on foot." Maybe traverse fits now and then, but perambulate? Who says that except college entrance exam tutors?


Several folks in the conference room swore by AutoCrit for deep manuscript analysis. Analysis? Worth a look, even to contrarians. 

Why I May Use It: Indeed, here is our wondrous age unleashed. Plop in your work, and the AI scans for grammar and style, big name author comps, and fit against current publication trends. It's all based on "painstaking research and professional connections with agents, authors and publishers." I believe it. Layered on the analysis features are an array of webinars and add-on services, all in a slickly packaged site.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm going to say it. A writer can't discover their voice off AI feedback. Can it help? Sure. AI will also push a story or prose direction the writer can't go sustainably or genuinely. Hey, I would love to wave analysis stating I write like Name Your Icon, but I don't. I write like me. Boasting I'm the next Name Your Icon anyway is off-putting. And doubly hollow when I don't back up the claim.

AutoCrit is spendy at $30 per month ($297 annually). Critiques and other add-ons land on top of that. Somebody needs a nice publication deal or steady freelance income to justify this cost, but if you've already begun to make your bones, do you need the voice analytics? There is a free version, but the reduced functionality seems not so different from Grammarly. Still, free does tempt a guy.

And yet. It's been my rule never to paste a manuscript anywhere except a submission portal. Some markets consider any prior pasting as first publication. As a contrarian, I'm out of date but suspect this catch is less and less prevalent. 

There remains a critique site's terms and conditions. Oh, management may pinky-swear not to pull shenanigans with the author's work kept in their digital hands. Terms and management teams change. Not sure I'm ready to trust my hard work this way.


I haven't been able to find this third one that a co-panelist suggested. It sounded the most adoptable suggestion of the bunch. It's something line "One Thousand Words," and it's a true sprint tool. Set course for 1,000 words and launch, no editing allowed. 

Lear, from Wikipedia
Why I May Use It: My perfectionist brain tussles with my creative side while the first drafts spill out raw. I can leave a tweak for the next pass, but it'll haunt my very soul if a big miss a few pages behind might be infecting the current words. I retreat and fix. When that works, it works. When it doesn't, it's stifling. Taking the retreat option off the table seems intriguing.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm all for creative exercises. Aimless sprints are a whole other thing. Segmenting a story or chapter this sharply means having pull it together later, and those pieces might need a bunch of spackle. I keep an ugly first draft together exactly because I'm seeking the story's whole. 

But if I find this tool, I may well give it a rip. Worst thing that happens is a high-intensity exercise.


I'm low tech. Proud of it, apparently. Word--or Pages or Google Docs or whatever--is workhorse enough for short stories. After years of using it, Word's features come second nature, no need to stop a writing flow and figure out new tools. And Word has leveled up of late. 

Word's Editor tools (red box) now give friendlier and more reliable suggestions as to problem grammar, conciseness, inclusiveness, reading comprehension level, and so forth. Important stress on more reliable. Word still gives advice that is dead wrong for voice or in-context meaning. But this editing logic forces me to decide on these critical passages.

Thesaurus-wise, Word is skimpy--and that's perfect. Word also improved its readback feature. I use it  extensively in the final prep phases. Same goes for the Document Compare feature, to double-check if proofing edits survived as expected.


To recap, I've become cranky about software, thesauruses, terms and conditions, and a load of other stuff that didn't come up at the panel. I keep these parts of writing simple. An agent or editor may forgive a novel's characters forever perambulating if the manuscript overall is going to sell. Not so with short story authors. No market accepts a piece that needs their time to fix. Nor should they. Whether we use pre-editors (I do) or software tools (I don't), the polish to readiness comes down to us. 


  1. Another entry into the amazing complexity of modern life. To think most of literature was produced with nothing more than pen and paper!

    1. If only it still was! Seriously, tech is good. But tech can't do it all unless you're AI.

  2. I was unaware of the Editor tools in Word (shame on me), but have now found them under the Review tab. I knew I should've read straight through my copy of "Word for Dummies". Thanks very much for this gift.

  3. You learn something new every day...

  4. I have that thesaurus, too, and I was disappointed that I never use it. Glad I'm not the only one!

    1. I used it a bit. I also bought Negative Trait and Positive Trait Thersauruses. (Thesauri?) I've hardly used those at all.

  5. I was given a thesaurus as a teenager and read it (I didn't use it) out of curiosity. Later I heard John Updike say that when you resort to a thesaurus you've already lost what you were trying to say. I've taken that comment to heart. If I'm not sure where I'm going in a sentence, I use the dictionary and consider the etymology of the word. As for fancy software, I have no interest. I prefer reading to see how other writers do things, and learning from that. It's much more fun.--Susan Oleksiw

  6. So many great points, my fist got tired of pumping air. I tend to sit back as soon as someone starts to sell a "writer's software" thingee. I've tried several, but I'm so comfortable with Word, it seems silly to spend money on something I can do better myself (I can generally beat out spellcheck and my friends call me the grammar nazi). And I have no interest in shooting out a clone of the latest bestseller. But I must defend the thesaurus. I had a friend take me to task for having one on my desk. She said (actually she was parroting someone she admired) that trying to improve or fancy up my language made it all phoney. I tried to explain to her that it's a feature of my age -- there are times when I "know" what I want to say but the exact word just won't come up in my mind. So I look up a synonym and nine times out of ten, there's the word I wanted to use! Using the right word is important to me, it makes my writing as truly mine as it can be, and there's nothing wrong with that.


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