What is your writer's tic and how can you fix it with Pro Writing Aid? Why are commas such an issue for writers? (and my own personal nemesis!)
How can AI tools enhance our creativity and usher in a new abundant future for writers? I discuss all this and more with Chris Banks from Pro Writing Aid.
Chris Banks is the CEO and founder of ProWritingAid, which has over 1.5 million users worldwide.
I use ProWritingAid for all my books at various stages of the editing process and I'm a very happy affiliate! You can get 25% off the premium edition using my link: www.TheCreativePenn.com/prowritingaid
You can also check out my tutorial: How To Use ProWritingAid To Improve Your Writing And Self-Edit Your Book
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- How ProWriting Aid evolved from Chris's desire to improve his own writing
- Passive voice, commas, -ing words, and other common writing tics
- Integration with Scrivener and checking your writing across large documents
- The different types of reports ProWriting Aid generates to support your writing
- How AI is used at ProWriting Aid
- How the demand for writers may increase because of AI, and help enhance our creativity
You can find Chris Banks at ProWritingAid.com and on Twitter @ProWritingAid
Transcript of Interview with Chris Banks
Joanna: Chris Banks is the CEO and founder of ProWritingAid, which has over 1.5 million users worldwide. Welcome, Chris.
Chris: Hi, Joanna. It's nice to be here.
Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you today.
Tell us a bit more about you and your background in writing, because your bio mentions books, but no details. I'm fascinated!
Chris: It's because the books I've written are literally the most boring books you could ever imagine! They're only published in banking, so they're hard to get a hold of as well.
I left University after I studied psychology, and went into management consultancy, and then research. Obviously, that was a lot of writing. Writing business processes, and then research pieces. I was very lucky at that point to have people who spent a lot of time mentoring me in my writing, and showing me how to write business writing well.
I actually wasn't a good writer. I'd never had any guidance with my writing. It was definitely a shock when I arrived in the business world and had to write, to explain things to people rather than at university where you're trying to impress your tutors, because they already know the information you're presenting.
Whereas in the real world, you have to explain things to people, so you have to simplify them and give them easier ways to understand things.
Joanna: That's fascinating. I also went into management consultancy. I was at Accenture.
Chris: I was at a company called CHP Consulting that was set up by ex-Accenture people.
Joanna: Oh, there you go. I feel like many consultants end up in the writing world.
Chris: It is so heavy in writing right? I think writing is a good way of clarifying your thoughts. And I think when you do a lot of thinking for a living, then you end up doing a lot of writing naturally. That path leads to really enjoying writing.
Joanna: Absolutely. So it's interesting, because you did psychology and you mentioned banking there. And none of these things are programming or anything like that.
Why did you decide to start ProWritingAid? Take us through that journey?
Chris: I was working in research, and it was very data heavy. Then we had a lot of requirements to ingest data and to process that data, and then turn that into an output in terms of analysis. So that was quite heavy on the programming side. So I did have a background in it.
I studied it at school as well. I then found myself traveling, and I started writing a creative book. I realized that I wasn't really very good at creative writing. Because all of my experience has been in business writing, and creative writing, there are actually lots of new skills to learn. It's like learning a new dialect of English really, in terms of the way that you express yourself.
I look back on the process that I've been through when I left University, and how I'd been helped to become a good business writer. And I thought, ‘Well, okay, that's great. But I don't have anybody to mentor me now.' And so I thought, ‘Can I create something that will help me with writing, and keep me on the right path, show me where I'm going wrong? And take all of the advice I've been reading in books about writing, and actually bring it into the word processor, where I was actually writing and remind me this.'
I think my problem is I always forget things. I make the same mistakes over and over again. And then I look back and go, ‘Oh, yeah, I need to fix that.' I wanted to create something that was there to prod me and keep me on the right path.
Joanna: You mentioned that a creative book. Does that mean you actually did write a novel?
Chris: I'm in the process!
Obviously ProWritingAid, I created it for myself, but I put it on the internet as a free product to start with. And it gradually gained momentum. It was amazing at the beginning because you could see it going between different writing genres, as different people discovered it and then they shared it with their writing groups, and then we'd have a whole load of people who are writing vampire romance novels.
And then like a few months later, it'd be people writing about horse racing. So it was kind of this organic growth. And I then saw that people were finding it really useful. And I was getting lots of feedback from people.
I thought, ‘Okay, well, this is really interesting, and I'm learning a lot. And it this is great fun, helping all of these people.' I just got more and more absorbed in the product. And it's grown. That was I think seven or eight years ago, and it's now grown, grown and grown. And now I think it started with creative writing. But now we help everybody, students, business writers, academic.
Joanna: We're going to talk a little bit about some of the other features, but for me, the fact that you've come out of writing a longer form book, and you've written books, obviously, non-fiction books, and you're writing a novel, and you understand that long-form writing is quite different to short form.
I feel like that is a real strength of ProWritingAid. And there's integration with Scrivener, which so many of us write in. And so for me, that is the magic, it's that you can apply a lot of this stuff over a document or a book length manuscript. There are other tools, obviously, to help people write, but I feel like that's what sets you apart. That presumably comes from your experience creating these bigger documents.
Chris: Exactly. If you think writing a novel is a huge undertaking. Many people spend a year or several years actually writing the document. When you're going, and you're trying to improve that, it's incredibly difficult to deal with this large and unwieldy document. I think that's why products like Scrivener that you mentioned, are really so popular because they help you wrangle this document.
And we had a prime focus of making it work with Scrivener is we understood that a lot of people were using it. And it's a product that I really like. Being able to run reports over your entire document is incredibly powerful. Because that's what ProWritingAid gives you. It just saves you a huge amount of time by being able to do in a few seconds, what it would take you as an individual to do hours or if not days.
[I demonstrate the Scrivener integration in my ProWritingAid tutorial]
Joanna: And it's interesting, because one of those things is repetitious words or repetition.
And this is something called the writer's tic. I feel like sometimes it's only in one novel, but sometimes it's across loads of them.
For example, I have a lot of nodding. And you have to go through your novel and identify all the nodding, and then figure out better ways to have the characters move. So having these reports on overused words is really good.
The other thing you mentioned, forgetting things. I feel like my nemesis is the comma. Because I literally cannot understand usage of commas, no matter how many times I try and learn where they should go. Whenever I run it through ProWritingAid, I'm like, ‘Okay, so why is there a comma there?' What are some of the things that you repeatedly find in your work?
Chris: I have tics like you say, I always say, start to do something, or begin to do something, rather than you can just use the verb. Like he started to cook. You can just say, ‘He cooked.'
Joanna: Yes, that is a good common one.
Chris: I think the commas is a great one. When I was at school, I so distinctly remember the English class where they tried to teach us how to use commas. And the English teacher clearly didn't have a clue how to use commas, and was relying on heuristics like saying, ‘Well, every time you pause when you're talking, just put a comma there.' And I was like, ‘What?'
Joanna: That is what I was taught too. Is that a British thing?
Chris: I don't know. It's not correct obviously. It's like a simple heuristic for the fact that actually there's 30 or 40 different rules that you have to remember, which is obviously difficult.
That's one of the things that we've really focused on within ProWritingAid is commas, because a lot of people struggle with them, and also giving you the information about why the usage of a comma is correct or incorrect in that situation. I think that's a big part of the tool, as well as the education side. Having that knowledge that you could read in blog posts or books about writing.
But then as you're actually writing in the context of what you've written, it gets incredibly powerful and helps you to learn as you're going along. Because as you say, you could read a book about, or an article about where to put commas, right, but you'll have forgotten all of them by the time you come to write the next thing that you're going to write. So but by having it there constantly accessible as advised, and it then helps to embed it in your memory.
Joanna: Also, I feel like, it doesn't matter if you learn the rule. Because even if you try and then apply it to your work, it might come up in some different way next time. You don't realize that the rule should have been applied in that situation.
That's why I think when I've talked about ProWritingAid, some people say, ‘Well, you should learn the grammar, you should learn the rules.'
But we all use tools to make life easier, don't we? That's what we do as humans.
Chris: Exactly. I always think when people say that, it's like, well, do you use a spell checker? And everybody uses a spell checker. But you could say, ‘Why don't you know exactly how to spell things and never make typos?' That's the kind of logical extent of their argument right?
For me, obviously, I have a reasonable grasp of grammar. The majority of the mistakes I make when I'm writing are typos. But there are typos where the word is still correct. So you're typing from and you spell it form, it's still a correct word. And it's really difficult to spot that in the context. And all you've done is hit the two keys out of order, as you were typing.
ProWritingAid helps spot those types of errors, because they're incredibly hard for an individual to spot. When you're reading things, and actually you really tend to read the beginning and the ends of the words, especially if you're familiar with the text, which you are when you've written it. So you don't see the mistakes in the middle.
If you've written violet instead of violent or something, then it's very difficult to spot or solder rather than soldier. There's so many things. It's easy to mistype and it leads to an embarrassing typo.
Joanna: And the other one is it's very useful to set the type of English for example, because obviously I'm British, like you, but all my books are in American English. Now it's very difficult for me to write in British English, I find all my spell checking, everything is all in American English.
So I end up then spelling things in the American way. And then you have to sometimes change it back to British. These things are really important because as you say, you could end up with a typo that you get reported on. That's what used to happen to me when I used to write my books in British English. I would get typo reports and people on Amazon and review saying, ‘This book is full of typos.'
Chis: That's a really difficult thing with Amazon. As soon as they start reporting typos, then it negatively affects the book. And so that's incredibly important to spot.
I'm like you, because I actually was educated as a child abroad in American schools, and then in California. And then I moved back to the UK when I was seven or eight. I have got very confused about and now obviously I write a lot in American English as well. I generally just mix sentences in terms of the spelling, and then have to decide at the end what to be consistent about.
Joanna: Consistency, I think this is the big thing about the whole document checking that's important is consistency. Because of course, if you check individual chapters on their own, they can be internally consistent. But if you check the whole document, you might find that you've used different things in different chapters.
Coming back to the whole document checking that, to me is one of the features that I find most important. You obviously have access to so much data as to what people are doing. Any other useful things for authors that you've seen?
Chris: Every author has their own favorite report. And that's the great thing about products is that it has such a variety of reports that are applicable to different types of writing, but also to your particular tics as you said earlier.
Some people have specific phrases that they repeat all of the time.
Some people have specific syntactic structures that they overuse, I think the classic one is people use lots of sentences beginning with ING words, they say like, ‘Walking down the street. Looking across the room.' It's something that it's difficult to spot that you've overused. But if you have overused it you really can start to irk the reader.
My favorite report is that there's a thesaurus report in the tool, which just goes through and does the process a lot of writers do, which is look through their work and look for more semantically specific versions of words.
When you're writing, you just put down generally the first word that pops into your head because you're trying to get your ideas down, you're in the state of flow, it's about getting your ideas down, so that later you can come back and refine them. And often that involves looking up a word in the thesaurus and saying, ‘Is there a better, a more nuanced version of this word that I can use?'
We just do that automatically for all of the words in your text and present different alternatives. And it just speeds up the whole process of finding better alternatives.
Joanna: It is fascinating.
I actually use ProWritingAid several times in my process now.
Once at the end of when I've finished a draft that I'm ready to print out and edit by hand, and then again, before I send it to my human editor, and then after I've done my edits, I'll put it in again, before it goes to my proofreader.
And then once more, it goes through again, before I do my formatting, because at each stage, whenever you make a change through a document, you end up adding an extra space here or re-typing a typo that you were trying to fix. I use it multiple times in my process. Is that normal?
Chris: Yes, I think so. I think the fascinating thing for me is that everybody has a different process, not just with ProwritingAid, but with the whole editing process. But as you say, it's really important to use it when you make changes, because especially native speakers, I think a lot of the mistakes that we make are when we rephrase sentences, and then we leave part of the old phrasing there, and change the other part accidentally.
We've looked at sentence we've written there. And then we changed a bit but forget to change the preposition or some other part of the agreement of the verb that goes with it, and we add an extra subject or something. It's very easy to include extra mistakes at any point within the editing process.
Joanna: We are both geeks about AI, artificial intelligence. When I was looking at the website and noticed, and obviously, it makes sense that you do use that data analysis and ingesting data and AI in ProWritingAid.
How does ProWritingAid currently use AI? And how does that tie into your own interests?
Chris: AI has always been something I've been fascinated with. And even in psychology, when I was at university, there was a lot of AI, and I think back in the '90s, neural networks were kind of the big thing. And then they had this long period of a neural network winter, while technology caught up with the idea.
Now they're having a new renaissance. We're really seeing huge advances in neural networks and deep learning. And so we use a lot of that. That's why grammar checking now is so, so much better than it was even three or four years ago, and we're making huge advances in terms of the technology.
AI has this amazing ability to extend the human mind.
And to jump out, I think often, humans get trapped in local buckets of thought, and it's very difficult to jump out of them to think laterally. And if you think when you're doing a crossword, it's like, ‘What's a different word for this?' If it's a very obscure word, then you're less likely to be able to think of it.
But if you look in a thesaurus, you can jump much further. I think AI can extend that. So the areas of AI that I'm really excited about are computational creativity. So taking your creativity and extending it with tools from AI, so that you get inspired so that you can break through writer's block, so that you can think tangentially and come up with new and exciting ideas.
Because I think that's how human society advances is by taking ideas and building on them. And obviously, the bigger the jumps that you can make in your thought process, then the further that you can go.
Joanna: I find this extension of the human mind, that's how I feel as well.
What are some of the tools that you're particularly interested in, or some of the things that you're seeing right now that you think will be useful to authors in the future?
Chris: There's tools like GPT-3, which is I think AI have generated a lot of hype around don't worry about losing your job as a writer. But I think it has, like all technology, I think it will take away the boring parts of a lot of writing jobs.
[Check out my list of tools and services around writing with AI]
If there's anything that you find dull, then technology will like gradually advance to the point where it takes that away. So I always think technology isn't there to steal your jobs, it's there to take away the boring bits. And so you can focus on the interesting bits.
There are so many things going on, it's a really quite exciting time to be in technology and writing. And I think we're going to see a lot of great products coming out over the next few years.
Joanna: You've mentioned two quite different things there, then you said that AI will take away the dull parts, but then you said the bit you're interested in is computational creativity. And to me, those are two really different things.
The creativity aspect is the extension of the human mind, as you mentioned, but the dull parts are probably what it's going to do first.
Chris: Yeah, and that's a good idea. I think that the problem with the creativity side is that it's harder to productize. So it's harder to show you the value, the answer to creativity, because creativity is such a nebulous concept. You can't measure creativity.
You can't say this person is creativity 8, and this person has creativity 15. So it's hard to then say, ‘Okay, well, this product adds five to your productivity.' But you can do that on the mundane tasks, you can say, well, this saves you 15 hours a week by doing all of the boring stuff for you.
I think that's a good observation that you've made, I have talked about two different things. But I think there's two different areas have both got opportunities. And again, in consultancy, I think there would be a great application of tools around helping consultants think better, and come up with better ideas and make bigger kind of jumps in their thinking.
But it is very, very hard to show the value of that. And I think a lot of companies don't place enough value on creative thinking in the first place. So it would be really difficult to turn into something that you can actually commercialize.
Joanna: I think you're right that and that's why I've been compiling a list of AI writing tools on my website. And every time I hear of something, I add it to the list, and there are so many in the ‘Generate ad copy space' or generate content marketing headlines and articles, all of which really sit on GPT-3 or something similar, built on top of that. But as you say, there's really hardly anything around that creativity side of things.
Paul Bellow, who I interviewed on this podcast about GPT-3 has built a world building engine for fantasy writers and LitRPG writers, which helps with character development, that kind of thing and tools and weapons and stuff like that. But that's because he's a programmer as well and likes to do that stuff.
As you say, it is not easily productized at all. And ProWritingAid is perfect as it is. Are you looking at expanding your suite of tools for writers?
Chris: We're constantly improving ProWritingAid. I have, for many years, wanted to create a separate tool, specifically aimed at creativity. But up until this point, PoWritingAid has been so absorbing, I've never had the chance. So maybe as a retirement project, I'll do that.
Joanna: I am in the GPT-3 beta and they have this — it's not creativity, but it's sort of randomness. And if you turn up the randomness, some of the stuff that comes out, it really helps me think in a different way, because I never would have come up with something like that.
Whereas, like you said, our thought patterns tend to be a certain way. And so I might always decided that Morgan Sierra will always do a certain thing in my ARKANE books that this might give me some other ideas.
I like this idea of turning up randomness, because that's often something that I can't do in my own brain.
Chris: I had the same thought this morning. I was walking around the park with my baby son. And I had a thought, and I was trying to dictate it in my phone. And obviously, there was quite a lot of background noise going on. And then I looked at the note later on today, and it was talking about wolf girls.
And I was like, ‘This is crazy, it's invented a whole story here.' I actually found it quite inspiring. And I was like, ‘I wonder if there's anything that we could do with this idea?'
But yes, it's exactly the same concept, isn't it? You turn up the randomness and it makes big lateral jumps from your original meaning, and it really helps you. A lot of those are going to be completely useless. And it still needs a human to kind of latch on to the good ideas. But it really does help you with the creativity.
Joanna: Exactly. Both you and I are enthusiastic about this, we're positive about this. And yet so many authors and writers are afraid of AI taking my job. You could say in journalism and content creation for blogs, for example, that AI is starting to take more of those jobs, because we've seen AI journalists have gone from 20 people in a department to one person wrangling the data. So in that way, you could say it is. [More news on data journalism and writing with AI on RobotWritersAI.com]
How can we keep our curiosity and happy vibe going in the space of almost daily developments in this AI space?
Chris: I'm more positive about writing and the number of writers that will be needed than I've ever been.
I think writing is just going to explode in the next few years, and has already started to I think.
Google has now got to the point where they're very good at working out what is good content, and what is garbage has been generated by article spinning or even by GPT-3. So now most companies have realized that the only way to really do content marketing is to write lots of really good high quality content that people want to read and share. Which creates this huge demand for writers that are good at doing that. So I think the demand for writers is going to go up.
In the same way, you know that in the last 20 years, the demand for software developers has gone through the roof. I think the demand for writers is also going to go through the roof. And I think you'll see in the same way that in the last 20 years, it's been thousands of big software companies, producing software just for software developers.
I think we'll see lots of software companies and many more products that are aimed specifically at writers and helping writers to do their job better. I am incredibly positive about the future of writing as a profession. And I think it's going to be really interesting for the next 10 years at least.
Joanna: I feel this abundance as well. I feel like if you look for it there's more and more work. For example, AI translation, I'm just doing my fourth book in German. And the reality is that without DeepL, I would not be able to get a cheap first draft. It's 10 Euro or whatever. But then I have to employ a German editor to help me edit, obviously a German proofreader. I need to do all these other things that I will pay someone that I would not have paid otherwise.
I feel like the job of a translator there will be more translators needed to wrangle the 20% that is not translated by AI. And as you say the same thing with the writing work, there will be more of it even once 80% is done by machines as such.
Chris: Exactly. I think that that shows as well that it's the interesting bits. It's adding the nuances to the translation, which the translator gets to do, and the grunt work word-for-word translation has been done by the software. And I think that's where it will move and so hopefully, people's jobs will get more and more interesting and the demand for writers with specific knowledge, I think as well, is going to increase.
Because there's so many businesses where all of the knowledge is in the heads of people with engineering degrees or math degrees, that have never really had to write as part of their careers up until now. So people that can go in and are technical, but also can write and explain and simplify concepts. So that they're understandable by other people will be in a huge demand.
Joanna: I know many people are worried, though, say about GPT-3, but you mentioned a 10 year span, for example. So I'm 46. I certainly intend to be making money when I'm 56 with my books. And I think people are concerned that there might be a tsunami of generated books that would be uploaded, or even AI-translated books, that it's hard enough now to stand out as an author in a very crowded space.
So although the creativity aspect, it can never stop us being creative. Could this amount of generated work stop us make a living, for example? What are your thoughts on companies like Amazon, and Apple, and Kobo, and Google figuring out a way that or do a better job of AI discoverability so that the emotional promise of a book is what surfaces it rather than just a sort of keyword analysis?
Could this amount of generated work stop us make a living?
Chris: That's an interesting point. If you think about the web you can say exactly the same thing. There's literally millions and millions of websites out there, but you still find the good ones. Because of the human network that's built around them.
I think with books, it'll be the same. I think equality always rises to the top. I also think that writing might change writing books, and I think it might become a lot more of a collective effort.
So you think in the same way as companies employ people with multiple skills. I think writers will start to do that and every writer will start working with a marketer, every writer will start working, maybe even with other writers to produce more and more content. You're starting to see that already.
There's a big parallel between the startup scene for software tech companies, and creating a book.
At the end of the day, they're both products and they both require a range of skills. And when you have a range of skills, it's very hard to find somebody that is good at everything.
You need to bring in specialists. And before that was the publishing houses, they would handle all of the non-writing side of things. But we can see it already with self-publishing, lots of people are deciding to self-publish, but I think we'll start to see a lot of people who self-publish with a bigger network around them of support helping them with their marketing and other aspects.
Joanna: That's definitely my experience, is working with lots of professional freelancers doing various things.
It's interesting though you talked about a startup and then scaling to work with more people. That's basically what you've done with ProWritingAid, you've gone from you tinkering around to this pretty big company. And successful authors also need to run a business.
What are some of your lessons learned about entrepreneurship that might also be useful to authors who are going from tinkering on their first book to wanting to run not necessarily a company like yours with employees and software, but make more money I suppose?
What are some of your lessons learned about entrepreneurship that might also be useful to authors?
Chris: I'm constantly learning. And that's why I'm still doing this. Because every day is this amazing experience of learning new things. And it's quite humbling, because you think, ‘Oh, my God, how did I not know that?'
For me, the biggest learning that I've had is that my natural inclination, and I think that the inclination of most people, is to want to be successful. So, try and do as many things as you can, and hopefully one of those things will lead to success.
I think that's the wrong way to approach it.
You have to decide what the smallest thing or the two things that you can do that give you the biggest chance of success. And really, really focus on those two things and ignore everything else.
Because otherwise you'll just end up doing lots of things not very well.
That has been the biggest learning for me. You can think of it as, if you're trying to make a hole in a piece of paper. If you push with five fingers, then you're never going to make a hole. But if you push with one finger, then you will make a hole, you will succeed. And so having all of that force behind it the one or two things that you're working on, that really leads to success.
Joanna: Although I'm what we call a multi-passionate creator, if I could just write 25 books in one genre, then that would be great. But no, I insist on writing all over the map. But then you said two things, were allowed two things. I might choose being an author and being a podcaster. That's two things, right?
Chris: Yeah. But if you're optimizing for happiness, then you have to, at some point, you can also say, right, ‘I'm either going to be happy or successful.' And then not necessarily the same thing.
I think there's a lot of successful people out there who are not very happy because they've dedicated so much to their work, and they've sacrificed similar to their work. So saying, ‘I'm going to be happy, and I'm going to indulge all of the things I enjoy as well,' is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you realize that I might actually not bring you as much success.
But maybe you don't need that much success. Life is about balance, right? And finding the right balance is an incredibly important thing.
Joanna: Talking about balance, because you live in Majorca, and in Palma, which I love. I love it there.
How do you managed to combine work-life balance in a place where essentially most of us see it as a holiday destination?
Chris: I must say our moving here was the best thing that I've ever done. And obviously afforded to me by having set up a company where I think one of my core principles when setting up the company was that this company is going to be as flexible with its employees as it is possible.
To say that people do have the ability to fit work around their lives, rather than their lives around work. And that's, for me, one of the most important things, and that's how I live my life.
I've get up at ungodly hours of the morning, do a few hours of work, but then go out and play tennis for a few hours. I like that flexibility. And I encourage everybody in the company to try and make use of that flexibility if they can.
Joanna: That's great. And that's why a decade ago, I was like, ‘This is what I want,' as you say, I was still a highly paid consultant. I gave that up in order to have a more flexible life doing what I love. So as you say, you have to find that definition yourself. But we out of time.
Where can people find you and ProWritingAid online?
Chris: Well, ProWritingAid there's obviously ProWritingAid.com. I tend to keep quite a low profile. I like to be the silent person behind the scenes.
Joanna: Oh, that's fantastic. I really appreciate you coming on the show today. Thanks so much.
Chris: Oh, it has been a great conversation.
From Joanna: I use ProWritingAid for all my books at various stages of the editing process and I'm a very happy affiliate! You can get 25% off the premium edition using my link: www.TheCreativePenn.com/prowritingaid
You can also check out my tutorial: How To Use ProWritingAid To Improve Your Writing And Self-Edit Your Book