Saturday, August 3, 2019

Wattpad's plan to make money from writers

The way these things used to go: a writer spends hundreds of hours writing a book, and a reader pays a few dollars to read it. Writers who didn't find an agent or publisher essentially didn't get read.

Things have changed in the last 20 years, and now we have Wattpad.

Wattpad provides authors with a free platform and huge potential audience for their work, and readers can read their books for free. Then Wattpad introduced paid stories, where select authors are invited to put their work behind a paywall. From comments I've read, some readers were up in arms about this because they didn't want to pay for what they used to get for free. Personally I think it's an excellent idea to have a paid tier, but I'm biased toward paying people for the work they do.

Readers on Wattpad skew young. On my story Little Sister Song, which has 82,000 chapter reads as of today, two-thirds of its readers are under 25, and two-thirds of the remaining one-third haven't given their age, leaving only 11% who admit to being over 25. Young people have less disposable income, so of course they're going to grab free offerings where they can. Furthermore, many of them also write on Wattpad and never expected to get paid. They use Wattpad like social media (which Wattpad is overtly trying to be) - they are posting the contents of their mind instead of the contents of their wardrobe - and they expect social media to be free.

I don't know how Wattpad's paid story program is faring, but it wouldn't surprise me if most of those young readers will never pay to read on Wattpad - or elsewhere, for that matter - when there are so many free stories available. So much free entertainment available, from YouTubers to free Kindles to their parents' Netflix accounts.

So it seems Wattpad has a new strategy: getting money from writers, with Story Insights Report (currently in beta). From what I can gather, having done their survey asking if I would pay to use certain features, it seems there will be a basic free version and additional features in a paid version. In this blog post I'll look at what information I can glean from Wattpad and the screendumps in the survey, and talk about who might pay for it and whether it will be worth it.

The survey screendump showed five kinds of story analysis, only some of which are in the free version:

1. Overview 

Writing Complexity - A complexity score out of 10 assesses how much your story "play(s) with the craft of writing", and analyzes "patterns in grammar and sentence structure". The examples given include: 10 for The Handmaid's Tale, 9 for Harry Potter, 7 for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

So, Hitchhiker's Guide, which has a pretty unique structure, is not that complex when it comes to "playing with craft"? I'm not convinced "Story Complexity" means what they think it means. A higher score means less accessible to younger readers, yet Harry Potter, beloved by 7-year-olds across the planet, gets 9? I can't comprehend a world in which Harry Potter is assessed to be aimed at a higher age group than Hitchhiker's Guide.

Readability - A score of vocab diversity or how "vibrant" your vocab is. You can get this score for free from online generators. Confusingly, an example given for the lowest reading age across 5 tiers is Harry Potter, despite it being allegedly complex, while Hitchhiker's Guide is on the highest tier (college juniors/seniors).

The overview compares whether your complexity and readability match (in terms of intended age group) - as you can see, Harry Potter does not match across these parameters - it scores 9/10 for complexity, but its readability is aimed at elementary/middle schoolers. Color me confused (I'm not disputing the scores so much as their usefulness). What this highlights, of course, is that the words you use don't matter nearly so much as the content. Most elementary schoolers wouldn't have the worldly experience or emotional maturity to understand The Handmaid's Tale even if it was written using a fourth-grade vocabulary, so its complexity and readability don't have to match, while Harry Potter uses simple vocab but is enjoyed across all ages.

2. Pacing

It's important to note that this is sentence pacing, not plot pacing. See my comments below about a magic formula.

This feature analyzes reading time (which no writer cares about*), and words-per-sentence. It's misleading to call this "pacing" because it doesn't tell you, from sentence to sentence, whether you've varied the length. It only tells you your average sentence length and whether that's too long or short. If your average is 15, that's considered a good length, but if almost every single sentence is 14, 15, or 16 words long, your pacing is pretty boring.

*Reading time is obviously directly correlated with word count, so I don't know why Wattpad has confused the issue by even mentioning reading time. FWIW they recommend chapter lengths of 1500-3000 words, but plenty of popular Wattpad books ignore this.

3. Vocabulary

The screendump I saw only showed an Adverbs subheading, but I assume more will be included. It gives a chart of your most used adverbs. The free Report just lists the adverbs you used. The screendump gives a chart showing how many times you used each one.

Adverbs are not as evil as writing classes would have you believe. See, yet again, J.K. Rowling. Disclaimer: I am not a Harry Potter fan - I've only read 3.5 of the books, once each - but she is living proof the characters and story and "heart" matter far more than writing craft, and there is no software in the world that can analyze those things.

This is possibly the most useful line-edit tool in the box of tricks, but can be done using Word by searching for "ly". I wouldn't pay for it.

4. Emotion

Maybe this feature is, in fact, trying to analyze the "heart" of the story? You get a set of sliders showing the percentage of various emotions - the example says "Your story has a Dramatic Personality" with Happy, Anger, Surprise, and Disgust being the main four emotions. (The editor in me is asking why it's Happy and not Happiness.) Presumably other emotion combinations will give other personalities.

You then get an emotion spider graph, which overlays your story's emotion profile on "similar stories in the same genre". In the example, the story is supposed to be Mystery/Thriller (which are not the same thing, so I'm already grinding my teeth) and its spider graph shows it has too much joy and not enough anger, disgust, or fear. Are these "similar stories" taken from other Wattpad stories, or from random published stories or bestsellers or classics or...? That's kind of important to know.

The graph is cute but I'll go out on a limb and say this feature is pretty dangerous for writers at any level of expertise. Let's look at inexperienced writers (because I can't see experienced writers paying for this kind of analysis). I can see it paralyzing them at best, and hindering their creativity at worst. 

OMG my mystery story has too much joy! And so they remove the joy from their story. The joy in that particular story might have been its heart, its uniqueness, and now it's been toned down to match the spider graph.

OMG my mystery story needs more anger! And so they make their hero throw a temper tantrum, completely altering his personality.

Speaking as someone who writes in a crossover mish-mash non-existent genre and is very happy (creatively) doing so, it doesn't please me to see the emotions of a story shoe-horned into a pre-existing format.

5. Character

Dialogue and Characteristics - Here you can plug in your characters' names and you'll get stats about their dialogue's readability, length, tags, and emotion. Can this software analyze who says what when there are no dialogue tags? It doesn't seem likely. And a good writer uses as few tags as possible. That leaves huge amounts of dialogue unanalyzed.

So "Chad" speaks in 24-word pieces of dialogue (when tagged) and his emotion is "surprise" - I honestly have no idea how this helps me improve my story. It doesn't tell me if Chad's dialogue is interesting, advances the plot, or is true to his personality.

Emotion Cloud - For each character you get a word cloud with more frequent descriptors in a larger font. The example shows that "Chloe" is mostly mysterious, complicated, objective, patient, and clever. On the other hand, she is not calm or slow (or is she, but only a tiny bit?), and she's not very amazing, energetic, comforting, or strong. And... again, what is a writer to do with this information? Is Story Insights Report trying to tell me this is the impression readers will have of Chloe, so I can assess whether that's the impression I intended the reader to have?

The problem is that correlation does not equal causation. Just because the software labels Chloe as clever (because I used words meaning "clever", I presume), and I intend her to be clever, doesn't mean she comes across as clever to the reader. If she does stupid things, the reader is going to find her stupid regardless of my adjective choices. Until we have genuine A.I., no software can assess whether "Chloe entered the sewer, rumored to be inhabited by flesh-eating elephant-sized rats, completely alone and unarmed" demonstrates a clever Chloe or a stupid one.

So is there value in Story Insights Report as a service to Wattpad writers (and indirectly to readers)?

The features that appear to be free (looking at Wattpad's own description) are basic and limited to complexity and readability, reading time (not a new feature), adverb usage, and "most used sentence starter words" (which I didn't cover above as it wasn't on the screendump in the survey). My guess is that the other things I gleaned from the survey will be available as paid features, so I'll concentrate on whether those features are worth paying for.

My concern is these insights will not fundamentally improve story quality. They're either misleading, or are at the line-edit level and aren't better than freely available tools (like Grammarly, and Word's search function). Story is "character decisions driving plot". You can use organizational tools to create a story this way, but no software can analyze it after the fact.

I have to conclude that Story Insights Report is an appealing gimmick. It may make inexperienced writers feel like they've improved their story, and it may also cause them to despair or to change things that don't need changing.

As to whether I think it will be popular: when you're dealing with a young demographic who (1) is used to free things and won't readily pay for anything nontangible, and (2) will read stories that resonate regardless of the writing quality*, I'm not sure paid Story Insights Report can get far.

*I accept a story has to reach a certain quality bar before anyone will read it, but as with traditionally published books that bar is lower than you think.

On a community level, I can already see the complaints from people who pay for it and don't see a subsequent rise in the reads they're getting, for whatever reason. You can be sure they'll be vocal about it on the forums.

Wattpad has to make money from its stories - that's common sense. Those video ads THAT REFUSE TO LOAD, thus making it impossible to advance in the story? I loathe them but I understand why they're there. Readers are being entertained, and should expect to pay in some fashion (i.e. watch ads) for the privilege just like anything else in life. And writers get a free platform to share their work. The free services Wattpad offers are good.

I definitely would not pay for Story Insights Report, but my concern is for beginner writers. They can be led to believe there's a shortcut to success, a magic formula to writing the perfect prose or the bestselling debut. There isn't. For those beginner writers who do have the disposable income to use Story Insights Report, I worry they're going to be duped because all those charts and numbers give the illusion that something useful is being done.

And if they don't sign up in droves for these features, I won't be surprised. Why pay to improve their stories when they're writing stories they're not going to be paid for, and when their stories will be getting read (or not read) for reasons other than whether or not their emotion spider graph matches? If they do want to pay to improve their craft, in the hope of one day being paid professionally for writing, there are more efficient ways of going about it - take a reputable writing class with genuine feedback, for example. Or just read the multitude of free writer's craft blogs and websites out there.

Writing takes time, dedication, and practice to learn, like any skill. Beyond fixing spelling and grammar errors, you cannot make meaningful improvements to your craft by running it through software.


  1. When we first started writing, I wrote a program to count the number of times each word was used. That taught me to stop using "but" every other sentence. Other than that it wasn't much help; it certainly didn't point out that you can only use the word "cornucopia" once per million words (I had to figure that out on my own).

    Trying to make money off of writers is just plain ugly. Wattpad exists because it gets free content from writers; and now they want the writers to pay?

    1. I still have that program! You wrote it for me. So romantic.