7 ways an algorithm can help you write a better novel

write a better novel

Like any craft, the beauty of writing is not just in the creative process, but also in the workmanship and joinery that lie beneath the surface.

Writers, don’t panic. You’re not out of a job. Apple’s next major innovation is not going to be the iTolstoy. Please carry on writing wonderful stories for us to read.

But, while a computer program can’t generate a compelling narrative or sympathetic characters, it might help make a good story even better. Writing is a craft. And like any craft, the beauty of the product is not just dependent on the creative process, but also on the workmanship and joinery that lie beneath the surface. This is where technology can make a difference and help you write a better novel.

1. Fight your addiction to glue words and overly sticky sentences

You know those sentences with 30% more words than necessary? We all write them. Sticky sentences are bogged down in glue words (the 200 or so most common words in English: is, as, the, that, etc). Glue words are the empty spaces in your writing that your readers have to pass through to get to the meaning. Almost all writing can benefit from a reduction in glue words to improve clarity.

• Original: Kate was able to use the information that she had in her files and spoke to a number of people about the problem and managed to resolve it.
Glue Words: 58% – Sentence Length 28 words

• Redraft: Kate resolved the problem using her contacts and the available information.
Glue Words: 36% – Sentence Length 11 words

The redraft saves 17 words in a 28-word sentence. That is going to make a huge difference to your reader. Get rid of the stickiness.

2. Strengthen your vague or abstract words

An editing tool will present you with a list of all the vague and abstract words you have used in your writing and suggest similar words that are stronger or more concrete. Ironically, the very vagueness of abstract words is one of the reasons for their popularity. It is harder to be precise. We often prefer the safer obscurity of the abstract.

Be specific. Occasionally using one of these words (say one a page) won’t ruin your style. However, the more you use these words, the less readable your writing becomes.

3. Adverbs! Need we say more?

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. – Stephen King

Ok, we admit that occasionally adverbs can be useful, sometimes even indispensable. More often, however, writers use them to prop up a weak verb when a strong verb should do the job instead. Strong verbs also create a more nuanced image for your reader: for example, “meanders” instead of “walks slowly”; “raced” instead of “drove quickly”. Editing tools can highlight the dreaded adverbs so that you can get out your thesaurus and find the word that is exactly right.

4. Assess the variety of length in your sentences

As a writer who tends toward the long rambling variety of sentence, this is one of the most useful tools for me. Varying sentence length is an important feature of good writing. Some should be long and flowing; others, short and punchy. Sentence length needs to ebb and flow like the tide.

A good editing tool will map out your writing so you can scan down and pick out the areas where all the sentences are of similar length. They will also calculate your average sentence length and give you a sentence variety score. These are checked against recommended levels and an error is reported if your sentences are too long, too short, or not varied enough.

5. “De-tag your dialogue!” the Editor shouted angrily.

If there is one thing that annoys editors more than anything, it is dialogue tags. The character’s actions or the dialogue itself action should be carrying the emotion. Don’t depend on an adverb to make your reader feel something.

For example:
Original: “I’m not going,” John yelled angrily.
Redraft: John thumped his fist on the table. “I’m not going and that’s final.”

In the second example, John’s anger was shown, not told. Editing tools will find your dialogue tags so that you can find a better way to bring emotion to the scene.

6. Re-evaluate your use of the passive voice

Writing in the passive voice isn’t incorrect, but it’s sometimes awkward and annoying to read. Sentences written in the active voice tend to be more clear and engaging. Once these sentences are flagged, it’s easy to re-jig them so that they are more effective.

7. De-clutter your writing by cutting redundant expressions

Every word in your writing should be there for a purpose. Redundant expressions make writing longer, not better. Look at these four examples:

She peered through the hollow tube.
He stepped out on the frozen ice.
She followed her natural instinct.
His writing was peppered with overused clichés.

In all four cases, the second to last word is superfluous. The editing tool (and your human editor) want those unnecessary words gone!

A good editing tool won’t change your voice or tell you what to do. Its job is to flag up potential technical issues so you can reassess whether you have said it in the best way. It also won’t replace a human editor. Instead, it will get your manuscript one step further along so that when your editor starts editing, she can focus on content and style rather than readability.

It’s the writer that creates the unforgettable characters and sends them on their journey to war, love, or redemption. An editing tool just checks to make sure that the tires are fully pumped and the windshield is clear. It’s another great tool in your writing toolbox.


BookBaby Editing Services


Related Posts
What Editing Software Can Teach You About Your Writing
Humans vs. Robots: When (And Why) You Should Use Editing Tools
Why Do You Need Professional Editing For Your Novel?
What To Expect From Copy Editing
How To Turn A Good Manuscript Into A Great Manuscript
What Kind Of Book Editing Do I Need For My Manuscript?



  1. Great article! Nicely written — very clear! ;) I participate in an online writing workshop, and it amazes me how many people on the one hand argue the merits of great craft, while on the other argue that tools such as ProWritingAid are somehow bad or incapable of helping. And I love the “if a computer does it for you there is no way you will ever learn how to write well” argument. I’ve been a big fan of ProWritingAid and have used it aggressively as part of my manuscript preparation process. It is not the only part of my process — I also had a professional editor work over the novel I recently published (“Youth In Asia”). What was cool, though, was that she gave me their discounted rate because they said the writing was already so clean. Thank you, ProWritingAid! And now the novel is out there with 4.8 stars on Amazon, and almost every reviewer talks about how well written it is. Check it out: http://amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=Vietnam+War%2CB00V6WXVF2 I’m a fan… I bought a lifetime subscription to ProWritingAid.

  2. I made three copy-editing passes through my manuscript and thought it solid. ProWritingAid.com helped me find problems in every category that I didn’t notice. After cleansing the manuscript it was leaner, sharper, and far better.

  3. I’ve been using ProWritingAid for a couple of years now and find it helpful. It helps me clean up first drafts by pointing out echo words and missed punctuation…at which I’m terrible, as well as all the other categories you point out in your blog.
    I constantly recommend it as a great writing tool when I speak to writer’s groups.
    Thanks so much for such a wonderful program.

  4. Have been using the free version of ProWriting Aid for months now – am so impressed I wrote an article in the monthly magazine of the Society of Women Writers Western Australia urging all our writer’s to try it out. Am pleased to say many have replied with positive ++ results. I have tried another writing software, in fact I paid a life membership to one, but since using ProWriting Aid I have never used anything else. If you are a writer it’s a must have, I cannot recommend it too highly.

  5. ProWritingAid has made a huge difference to my writing. I didn’t realize how often I used certain words and how easily weak adverbs slipped into my writing. I also have a tendency not to close quotation marks. ProWritingAid picks all that up and much more. I no longer feel the need to have a copy editor go over my work.

  6. I’ve recently started using ProWritingAid and am already finding it really useful in the editing process of my second book. It flags up potential mistakes/problems/habits that I would probably not notice and makes me think about ways of restructuring them (should I want to!) This leads to a sharper, more polished piece of work that still allows my writing style to flourish. :)

  7. I’ve been using ProWritingAid for almost a year. It has become an indispensable tool in my editing process. The details the software generates not only show me where I need to hone my craft, but also provide simple to understand reasons behind the suggested changes. I highly recommend it!

  8. I’ve used the free version ProWritingAid for almost two years and recently updated to the full, paid version as my non-fiction work output has increased. It saves me a LOT of time and the tweaks and suggestions it gives re: my writing are invaluable.

    I use it for my fiction writing as well. It spurs me on to get a story or a chapter finished. I’ve always loved the re-writing part of early drafts, I find it the most creative phase. With PWA I find that I love this part of my fiction writing even more.

  9. I also meant to say that I use ProWritingAid directly within GoogleDocs on my Chromebook – the integration just happened as if by magic.

    AND, I buy the extra plagiarism checkers for any non-fiction piece for which I’ve done a lot on research on the internet. Even the best intentioned of us can sometimes re-use a phrase that we’ve jotted down in the research phase. I always note that a piece has been plagiarism checked with PWA and my clients appreciate this.

  10. Thank you for this great article. It clarified the sticky sentence issue. ProWritingAid is an invaluable tool for any writer.

  11. I’ve just tried the free checker and found it seriously wanting.
    90% of the alterations it suggested were either invalid, erroneous, or would have changed the meaning of the writing.

    The only spelling mistake it found was in fact correct, while the suggested spelling of the same word was wrong – or at least, was a lazy form of spelling the word. (‘café’ is correct, whereas ‘cafe’ is lazy.)

    A suggestion about not ending a sentence with a preposition ignored the fact that the word in question, ‘past’, is also a noun as was signified by using the definite article to precede it. (‘the past’)

    There were four very minor changes suggested that I would agree with, but otherwise at best, it would lead to a dull and lifeless piece, and at worst, a complete change of meaning in many places.

    As a final nail in its coffin, the so often appallingly misused word ‘awesome’ was used inappropriately in praise. If that’s an example of the standard of writing this algorithm is designed to promote, then I’m saying,
    ‘Sorry, but no thank you’.

  12. A good article – very helpful. Preaching to the converted here, too. I used ProWritingAid free for a year and just recently bought the REALLY inexpensive subscription. I have a pronoun problem (among other things) – apparently I like to start sentences with he/she/it/they etc. but I didn’t realise until ProWritingAid! So – a completely unsolicited Woohoo! for the software from me in Australia.

  13. I like this blog because you have provided excellent examples to illustrate the points. I’m not sure if an editing tool is necessary – your tips are common sense (how rare is that?) and any writer worth the salt should be aware of their shortcomings; in other words, re-write, re-write, re-write…until it is right. I sometimes wonder if Hemingway would have been a better writer had he the assistance of an editing tool.

  14. I use Grammarly and Style Writer. And then I use a copy editor (person). I’m always looking for ways to improve so I’ll check out ProWritingAid. Thanks for post. Very interesting.

    • Ifeatu, I trust that your missing letters were deliberate, and meant to be ironic.
      It’s one way to show how much some of us need proofreading… whether by eye or by machine.

  15. Recently, I started focusing on implementing some of your suggestions mentioned here. Points 5 through 7 have taken on more meaning to me. In times past I was in a hurry to write. Now I look at the process as if creating fine wine.
    Enjoyed your post.

  16. Is it appropriate to use a comma within quote marks, if the verb that follows is non verbal?
    Foe example, “Fine. I don’t care,” she shrugged.
    “Fine. I don’t care,” she said.

    Also should it be She or she?
    Help appreciated.

    • “I don’t care.” is a sentence and should be punctuated. She shrugged, is also a sentence so the first word should be capitalized. The dialog stands alone in this case. The action follows, as it is written. If they are simultaneous I would suggest. “Fine. I don’t care,” she said shrugging, or as she shrugged.

  17. I have had ProWritingAid for a few month snow, and I like many of the ideas though not all it seems useful. I would love the Thesaurus checker if it were more controllable. The report makes a dog’s dinner of your manuscript when all of your nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are rainbow-highlighted. It would help to allow you turn on one of those categories at a time. Also, this checker chooses it’s own length to annotate. I would prefer to the have the ability to choose a selection to examine, phrase, sentence, paragraph or more.

    Personally, I’ve been using AutoCrit.com for more than two years, and I find it incredibly helpful. I run the Compare To Fiction report first and work mostly on Overused Words, followed by the Repetition report choosing the Repeated Words and Repeated Phrases results. I copy a chapter at a time into the website and correct in my Word document as I go along, which has advantages that I won’t include here.

    An additional value of this kind of tool (even for Hemmingway, tools are good for any craftsman) is that you are forced to examine ‘fuzzy words.’ And by that I mean those words you’ve written that aren’t exactly the right description or concept you really wanted, and your subconscious has realized it even if you don’t. What often happens if you miss the exact word is you redundantly add more words in a misguided attempt to reinforce the missed concept. When my text editor finds an error, i generally find I’ve failed in the broader sense to accurately to say what I meant. In other words, the error itself is often of less importance than the reason why it was made. These programs give you hints that tell you to examine the area around the potential issue.

    • Are you using this to online? Or as an add on in your MS Word?
      I use the add on and it allows me to choose any selection, even a single sentence.

  18. I’ve been using the prowriting tool since its inception and have always loved it. Salt, at first, I couldn’t use the pro version because I had an old old computer and an even older version of Word that it wouldn’t work with. A couple of years ago, I got a new computer and a new version of Office that works with ProWriting Aid. And I still love it.
    They are constantly working to improve and adding new features. I appreciate their dedication to writing and feel I’ve learned a lot by using this great tool. The sticky sentences has been really helpful and the thesaurus is actually fun!!
    ProWriting aid does what an editor would do and after you use it, you can send your work to a paid editor with much more confidence! They appreciate clean writing.

    Thanks for all you do!!!


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