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How a Professional Ghostwriter Uses Scrivener: Interview with Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting told me once that his first book took 500 hours to write. His second book, however, took significantly less time, and he cites Scrivener as the differentiating factor that saved him hundreds of hours of effort.

In this interview, Joe and I talk about how excited he was to try Scrivener for the first time, and how it’s made a difference in his writing process. We also talk about the place for other tools—Pages for formatting, Evernote for capturing ideas and notes, and Microsoft Word for editing—and how writing tools might evolve in the future.

Transcript

Matt Herron:        Hey Joe welcome! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. How’s it going?

Joe Bunting:          Yeah. It’s going well thank you Matt. I’m excited about this.

M.H.                           Cool! So as brief introduction, Joe is the author of Let’s Write a Short Story and the founder of thewritepractice.com, a writing blog and a community of authors who focus on daily write practice. So today we’re going to talk about Scrivener and the future of creative writing tools, but before we get into it, why don’t you break the ice, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background as an author?

J.B.                               Sure. I’ve been writing creatively and professionally officially since 2011, but a lot longer than that. I started The Write Practice in 2011. I wrote a short story like you said and I’ve ghostwritten three other books—and all of them but the very first book that I ghost wrote I used Scrivener. So I’m really passionate about the tool. It’s a really effective tool for my own writing—I use it almost daily, among other tools that maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about. I always recommend it to friends and I’m an advocate for its use.

M.H.                           Totally. You said that you used Scrivener to write all the books except the first one so when did you find out about it? You started in 2011 so you probably found out about it like a year later?

J.B.                              I wrote my first book in 2010 and I didn’t know about it yet. I was writing and I was using Microsoft Word and one thing about working on a big file like a book, it just becomes unmanageable.

M.H.                           Yeah it’s cumbersome.

J.B.                              Yeah and it takes like five minutes to load and it’s just a big pain. I discovered Scrivener on my second book and it made everything so much easier.

M.H.                           Can you describe that experience for us—that experience of discovering Scrivener for the first time?

J.B.                              Yeah. It’s a good question. First, it’s overwhelming because it’s a large program and it has a lot of capabilities and it’s totally different than Word in a lot of different areas. In terms of formatting, it’s not very robust where Word is. In terms of organization, it has so many more features and none of those features are in Word, so it’s really confusing to get started. And I had to figure out my own way to use it for my writing, but I spent a lot of time playing with stuff that wasn’t very effective—I was probably procrastinating—until I finally got into a place where I just used it for what I needed it for.

M.H.                           Do you feel like you were resistant to it at first? That you were like, oh this is way too overwhelming. I don’t really wanna go there.

J.B.                              No, not me. I know other people or other writers that I coach who have been very resistant to Scrivener. Especially when they first open it and they see everything and it’s really stressful how much is there. But personally, I was really, really excited about it and felt like it would be a huge motivator even for my own writing, just the chance to get to use this really cool tool.

M.H.                           Cool. So we can get into the details of Scrivener afterwards. I’m just wondering what was the difference between the writing process before and after you used it? Can you compare the two for us?

J.B.                              Yeah. I think when I was using Microsoft Word, I found myself just putting everything into one document and having to write chronologically because that’s how Microsoft Word works—you have to write from the top and go down. One of the nice things about Scrivener that I have soon found really helpful is that I could jump around a lot easier as my writing led me and just use it as a place for capture so I could free write about whatever I wanted to write about that day and put it in a folder and I knew that folder was eventually going to be a chapter. It allowed me to be more spontaneous and creative because I had more flexibility.

M.H.                           That’s something that I hear a lot that Microsoft Word is a very strict linear format because you don’t really have another choice. Where people who use Scrivener, they start writing out of order which is actually more natural. You find that naturally you write out of order?

J.B.                              Sometimes yeah. I mean for my creative writing, I definitely do. When I’m writing on a nonfiction book for a client, I tend to go more in order. But so much of my nonfiction writing is less composing and more just organizing and getting stuff into the right structure and outlining and I ghostwrite. A lot of the writing comes either directly from the client or it’s the client’s ideas that I have transcribed and so mostly what I do is I organize and I rewrite. And Scrivener makes that just so much easier.

M.H.                           Totally. You mentioned there that you write both fiction and nonfiction. One of the things I was wondering was what’s the difference in your process using Scrivener between the two? You kind of covered this a little bit that the nonfiction is a little bit more linear, more about organizing and structure and creative writing was a little bit more spontaneous, but could you go in a little bit more detail about the difference?

J.B.                              Sure. I think with Scrivener, with my creative writing like I said, it’s about capture. If I have a seed of an idea, I’m taking a shower and something occurs to me and I remember it by the time I get out of the shower and write it down, I can just put it into a document in Scrivener in its own little file. If in the morning I’m just wanting to do some quick writing or free writing and working on that, I can just throw it in to a document on Scrivener. It’s really focused on capture because I know I can organize it later and I do, and so I go back and I’ll re-read and I can rewrite from there and I can slowly mold a book.

For my nonfiction, for my ghostwriting specifically, then I already have most of the content by the time it’s in Scrivener—or I’ll be storing interview questions for my client or ideas I have or holes that need to be filled. And so I do do some composing in Scrivener when I’m working on new things, but most of it is focused on editing and organizing.

M.H.                            Which is one thing it really excels at.

J.B.                              Yeah.

M.H.                           Since we’re on the topic of editing, do you have a process for Scrivener that you use with editors? I mean for myself, one thing that I have trouble with Scrivener, is that all the editors I work with want a Microsoft Word formatted document because of that robust track changes feature, something that Scrivener lacks.

What I find myself doing is, I’ll export it from Scrivener over to Word, they’ll track changes and then I have to go through and manually put it back into Scrivener. I’ve figured out that if you copy/paste from Microsoft Word to Scrivener, it’ll take the comments, but you don’t get the track changes features. Like if they switched the structure of a sentence and you just copy/pasted the final version over to Scrivener, you miss that lesson. Do you have a specific process you use to work with editors?

J.B.                              Yeah. I think your process is about what I do too. I wish it were more seamless, but usually when you’re working with clients or editors, they don’t have Scrivener and if they did, even then they would probably edit through Word because for editing Word is easier. Usually, I will use Scrivener for composing a first and maybe second draft and then for editing, I often switch to Microsoft Word permanently.

M.H.                           Interesting.

J.B.                              Sometimes if I know it’s going to be an e-book and I want to use Scrivener’s export features, I’ll put it back into Scrivener, but I don’t always do that.

M.H.                           If you don’t take it back to Scrivener do you compile an e-book from Microsoft Word?

J.B.                              Sometimes yeah.

M.H.                           Interesting.

J.B.                              I’ve done that. Word is actually pretty effective at turning something into an e-book and it takes a little bit of messing with, but I’ve done it for several different books so I know the process. Probably Scrivener is a little bit easier in some areas and a little bit harder in others.

M.H.                           That’s interesting. What areas is it more difficult to use Scrivener as opposed to Microsoft Word?

J.B.                              Specifically when I’m exporting a book, what I want to do is create a PDF and an EPUB file. When I’m making a PDF, Microsoft Word excels. It beats Scrivener because it has more formatting options, you can make a book actually look like a book easier—so in that sense, Microsoft Word is simpler.

M.H.                           I kind of think about it like a WYSIWYG editor if you’re familiar with the term—the “what you see is what you get” in Microsoft Word because they have all this formatting hidden behind the scenes. Microsoft Word software actually uses HTML to format the page and that’s what translates to a PDF. Whereas Scrivener is kind of format agnostic and that’s the whole point of it.

J.B.                              Yeah. That’s true definitely. For e-books, for EPUBS, Word is a little bit more difficult than Scrivener. You have to export as an HTML file rather than going straight to Kindle or straight to EPUB and then sometimes you have to do a little bit of messing with the HTML/CSS in there because Word, their formatting is a mess in HTML. So I end up having to do some kind of playing with that. I’ve learned how to do it, but it’s definitely a hack.

M.H.                           Totally. I don’t think most authors are also coders right? It’s something that you have to learn on top of what you’re already doing. So Scrivener is nice because that takes all of that out of the equation. But then again, it doesn’t create pretty PDFs.

J.B.                              Yeah. One thing I’ve been doing lately if you have a Mac, you can put it into Pages—and Pages is actually much better on both. So it’s better for PDFs than Word and it’s better for EPUB exporter than Word, way more simple. Even then, sometimes I’ll have to take it into something like Sigil—which is an EPUB editor that I definitely recommend if you’re working with e-books and you can get Sigil for free—another valuable tool. Sigil allows you to directly edit your EPUB. When Pages or when Word or even when Scrivener don’t format something exactly like I want it, I’ll go into Sigil and I’ll fix things. I think that’s an important part. I don’t think I’ve ever published or edited an EPUB book without using Sigil for some kind of final cleaning up.

M.H.                           Right. It’s funny you mentioned that. I even have developer friends who write their books in Sigil to just make the whole process easier. I don’t know if that’s for me, but it’s one way to do it because whatever formatting you put in there is exactly what you’re going to get out the other side.

J.B.                              Exactly. It’s weird. I mean sometimes, you can export a file two different times and it will come out two different ways if you’re doing the same things and that’s true whether you’re using Word or Scrivener, less so with Pages, but still. The exporting—it does weird stuff.

M.H.                           Yeah. It almost feels like the technology is not quite there yet. All these things they do it and they get the job done, but do they do it well? I don’t know, that’s a question of relative answers. What about collaborative writing projects? Have you ever used Scrivener for a collaborative project?

J.B.                              I haven’t. I know you can and I played a little bit with that, but I haven’t collaborated on it at all.

M.H.                           For your ghostwriting projects, I would call those like collaborative right?

J.B.                              Right.

M.H.                           You use Microsoft Word typically?

J.B.                              Yeah. For that kind of thing I use Word. Once it gets to a point of collaboration, I’d pretty much focus on Word.

M.H.                           Okay. Are there any other areas where Scrivener falls short for your writing process maybe that we haven’t covered?

J.B.                              I do all my blog writing actually on WordPress directly so it would be kind of interesting to have a word processor that could cover all these different areas. Not just book editing or book making, book writing—but blogging too.

M.H.                           So you write directly in the WYSIWYG editor on WordPress so you always need an internet connection to do that?

J.B.                              Yeah. If I don’t have one, I will sometimes compose on Evernote, but I do so much research as I’m blogging.

M.H.                           Right. You almost always needed the internet anyways.

J.B.                              Yeah.

M.H.                            I’ve downloaded one of the Zen writer tools, the minimalist writing tools that have come out. It’s called Typed and it allows you to write in markdown and then export that to HTML. It’s not like the all-in-one tool that everybody wants, but it’s great for blogging because you can write in markdown, export to HTML and then you just copy/paste into WordPress and it’s formatted beautifully.

J.B.                              That’s cool. I haven’t mastered markdown yet so that one won’t help me very much.

M.H.                           Yeah. It’s the next new thing right?

J.B.                              Right.

M.H.                           Cool. We mentioned a couple other tools. Are there any other digital or analog writing tools that are intrinsic to your process?

J.B.                              Yeah. I use Evernote for capturing research. I love the Clipper tool both from my iPhone and from my browser so I regularly collect things into a notebook specifically for that project which helps keep everything in the same place. I think that’s about it. I’d say Evernote and then Scrivener—and it’s Evernote for research, Scrivener for kind of composing and capturing my own writing, and then Word at some point for editing. And then exporting to EPUB using Word or Scrivener or Pages, and then Sigil to kind of clean up everything. That’s about it.

I’ve done some work with InDesign so when you’re putting a book in print format, you have to use InDesign. You can do that kind of in Word, you can kind of do that in Pages—you can’t really do that in Scrivener. I’ve done it myself and hired people to do the interior files on InDesign so that’s another tool, but that takes so much more expertise. It was intimidating to learn that the first time.

M.H.                           Absolutely. It’s a very complex program. What is the process between the research and the composition? How do you get your notes from Evernote into Scrivener? Do you like import them into Scrivener or you just reference them side by side?

J.B.                              I just reference them or copy and paste when I need them. A lot of time I use it for bookmarks so not even necessarily whole pages, but bookmarks to pages or selections, quotes or something that I’ll copy and paste.

M.H.                           And then there was the Clipper tool you mentioned so you can easily highlight stuff on your phone or on the browser and it saves that clip, whatever you highlighted into Evernote and then you have a whole bunch of research.

J.B.                              Yeah exactly.

M.H.                           It must save you a lot of time right? You can do it on the go. You don’t have to type something out again.

J.B.                              Yeah and the worst is when you forget to save a link or forget to grab that page and then you come back to it a week or a month or a couple of months later and you’re like okay, I know I read this somewhere. I know I have the research, but I don’t know where it is… so now what?

M.H.                           Yeah totally. I use an app called Pocket which is a read-later app to save old articles and links, but it doesn’t have the Clipper feature which is where Evernote really excels I think. So if I’m ever looking for like a piece of research, I’ll go back and search Pocket, but then I have to read through the article to find that quote I was looking for. Kindle also highlights stuff too. You can go onto kindle.amazon.com and look at all the highlights from your books and copy/paste those things too.

J.B.                              Yeah, that’s helpful.

M.H.                           We covered what we use Scrivener for and what the process is. Let’s go a little bit beyond that now. Are there any future features that you would just love to see included in Scrivener apart from the obvious track changes and maybe a little bit of a collaborative writing feature?

J.B.                              I don’t know. I think they’re pretty resistant to formatting options at Scrivener and I get that because it can be a major distraction, but I find it’s very difficult to get things to look like I want them to look and often, they have some styles and they do weird things so that’s always something I wrestle with at Scrivener—formatting things. Just like basic formatting. It’s something I always wrestle with and then when you go to export something into EPUB or Word, it comes out different as well.

I think Scrivener is great for what it is. There is no other tool that is as great for what it is as Scrivener—for structuring your book, for organizing things, for managing large documents, even documents like a book proposal or a long article. It’s not just for books. For managing those large projects, it’s perfect—but it’s not perfect for everything. Could it be perfect for everything? Maybe, but maybe you can’t make it perfect without breaking it.

M.H.                           Yeah that’s true. I guess you never really have that all-in-one tool right? That’s like a fantasy wish list sort of thing.

J.B.                              Sure yeah.

M.H.                           I mentioned new minimalist writing software like WriteRoom, iA Writer and Typed earlier and all the new writing softwares that I’ve seen come out are very much like this minimalist ones and they’re all modeled after the Microsoft Word—linear, one page, from top to bottom style. But nobody seems to be coming out with a Scrivener competitor, something that’s structured based and focused on the easiest compiling to e-books. Do you think that Scrivener will ever have any true competitors because right now, they seem to be the only ones in the field?

J.B.                               Yeah I don’t know. That’s a good question. What do you think?

M.H.                           I mean I would hope that they have some competition personally. I think competition always makes them improve, but at the same time, I mean it just seems like that’s the only thing out there when it comes to structural writing and nonlinear way of thinking. I’m a big proponent of writing out of order. I almost never write a story or an article or anything in order.

Like you said earlier, it’s great when you’re focused on capture because you can capture that moment and what you write down first might not be the beginning of a story. It might be the last scene or it might be just a moment in the middle or a line of dialogue and you don’t know where it goes yet and you can figure that out later. I mean I don’t think they have any other competitors right now. It’s almost like they’re alone out there with just this one writing software that wants to do things differently and everybody else is so stuck with this wall of text linear format.

J.B.                               I think that’s probably true. I don’t know. It would be interesting to see a competitor. I probably wouldn’t switch or at least not for a long time just because once you find a routine in a program, it’s really difficult to change. I don’t know if you’ve seen those articles about what George R.R. Martin uses to write. It’s like this old 1980 or 1990, almost like command line writing tool. I think it’s green text and black background—it’s just really, really old school. Who can blame him? Because once you find routine in using a tool, changing is almost more difficult than doing it the way you have been doing it.

M.H.                           Yeah. I think that fear of change is also what prevents a lot of people who are intimidated by Scrivener to switch over. They’re like, oh I’m so used to writing in Microsoft Word. I don’t want to go learn this new software tool. I don’t care how awesome it is. It’s just work.

J.B.                              Yeah. I think they’re both a form of procrastination. I mean at some level, you just need to write. You don’t need to be learning a new tool. But if a tool can help you go to the next level with your editing, with your composing—then you’re just living in fear and you need to change. You kind of have to decide whether it’s procrastination or fear.

M.H.                           Totally. Old resistance, you never want to give into it.

J.B.                              Right.

M.H.                           So what about the future. I mean where are we going to be in 10 years? Is Scrivener the end game? Technology is evolving so fast. A lot of people had been asking for example for Scrivener, mobile apps so that they can work on their iPad on the road or on their phone and then check back on the desktop and have everything sync over there—but do you see some other vast improvements that would meet the technology as it develops?

J.B.                              Yeah. I mean I think that’s a good point. I think talking about competition, if Scrivener doesn’t have a platform where you can sync over through multiple devices, it won’t be the writing tool of the future. Because on multiple occasions, I’ve been working in Scrivener and wanted to go for a walk for example. Writers, we sit for long periods of time and it’s not good for our backs, it’s not good for our focus or energy levels. And we have these great computers in our pockets now and it can be helpful to write while you walk. You can’t really do that on Scrivener so you put an Evernote and then copy and paste it into Scrivener when you’re done, but we do need that kind of sync in the future.

M.H.                           I mean maybe Evernote will turn into the book writing tool of the future. They’ve already got that syncing across devices nailed down.

J.B.                              Sure, yeah. It’s true.

M.H.                           Cool. This has been a lot of fun Joe. Thanks for taking the time to join us and we’ll talk soon.

J.B.                               Thank you Matt. It was great.

M.H.                           All right, bye for now.

J.B.                              Seeya.

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About Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

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