Scrivener Superpowers

How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice

Google Docs vs. Scrivener for Writers: Interview with Simon Whistler

Simon Whistler came to writing through audiobook narration and his podcast, Rocking Self Publishing. That was also how he first discovered Scrivener—authors interviewed on his show mentioned often enough that Simon eventually decided to see what made Scrivener such a great tool, and why it had become the writing software of choice for so many self-publishers.

When Simon began to write his books, his first drafts were typed and stored in Google Docs. In this interview, Simon and I discuss why that process quickly became unmanageable for longer works, and how he made the transition to Scrivener.


Matt Herron:      Hi Simon. How’s it going?

Simon Whistler: Good. How are you?

M.H.                           Good. Thanks for taking the time today. Just as a brief introduction for our listeners, Simon Whistler is a writer, producer and voice actor and he also hosts a podcast called Rocking Self-Publishing which is one of my favorite podcast about writing in indie publishing. Thank you for joining us today!

S.W.                           Thank you for the kind words.

M.H.                           Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the creative writing process with Scrivener—but let’s start at the beginning with a little bit of background. How long have you been writing?

S.W.                          I guess I started my first book about a year ago. In fact, kind of strangely, I started the podcast before I actually started writing. I was, as you mentioned, a voice-over artist and narrator before that. I started writing a year ago with my first book Audiobooks for Indies which was the process about getting an audio book made as an indie author—title is pretty self-explanatory.

Working with Scrivener, which is I know one of the reasons we’re on the phone today. Recently—in fact just two hours ago—I sent out the advanced reader copies of my second book which is Bootstrapping for Indies, a book about self-publishing on a budget especially for people who are looking to put out their first book. That’s a bit of my writing background.

M.H.                           Cool. Did you discover Scrivener before you really started writing professionally?

S.W.                           I think it was brought up definitely before I started writing, but not before I started podcasting. It was brought up in a couple of interviews and I think someone from Scrivener emailed me or I may have emailed them… and I think I said, “Can I give away some copies of Scrivener? Could you provide some and I’ll give you mention in the show? I think it would be a win-win.” I got a copy, I think it was on the trial, then I got hooked on it and then bought the piece of software and then later bought it again when I switched to Mac.

M.H.                           Oh nice.

S.W.                            I’m a good Scrivener customer.

M.H.                           That’s really interesting. What was the experience like for you the first time you pulled up Scrivener?

S.W.                           Honestly pretty confusing. I was a Google Drive/ Google Docs, whatever they’re calling it these days, person. I had like 20,000 words tapped out in there which was simple to do but became confusing and basically just couldn’t manage that, just having to search through to find things. And I’d been told Scrivener does the organization of things through those files and folders you get on the left hand side—I’m sure you know what these are called. Basically, I grabbed everything from the Doc file, dropped it into Scrivener. I think that was when I was running the trial—no it was probably I’d got the full software by then—and just shuffled everything into place and grew it.

M.H.                           You said that the biggest challenge that you had when you were using Google Docs was the structural organization of it?

S.W.                           Yeah. Everything just became a massive mess. Also, not just the fault of the software, but I didn’t plan my first book properly. I was just, these are my thoughts and had a brain dump and there’s a book! Which isn’t quite how it works.

The next one was much more planned and I think that was a big thing. But also, when you’ve got 20,000 to 30,000 words in one document especially with nonfiction where you need to go through and find something—you have an idea like, I need to add this to this bit—and you’re pressing command f or control f and you’re searching it for relevant keywords that might be in there. And it’s like, what did I type in this part again? What did I title this bit? Because you don’t want to scroll through.

M.H.                           So then you’ve got like 20 tabs open in the browser and you’re like, I have no idea where anything is! Yeah that’s tough. You said it was a little bit confusing looking at Scrivener initially. How did you get over that? Did you read tutorials? Did you just mess with it?

S.W.                           I think they have that when you log in—I was on the Windows version originally but I assume they have this in Mac as well…

M.H.                           Yeah, it’s like a walk-through tutorial template.

S.W.                           Yeah. I get about five minutes into that and then I was like a typical man: Let’s throw away the instructional manual and just get started!

M.H.                           I got this. Where’s the hammer?

S.W.                           Right. From the looks of my Ikea furniture it’s probably not the best strategy. I have been known to assemble a cupboard inside out where the hinges were on the outside so I’m not naturally gifted at this stuff. So I kind of dived back into that and basically went to YouTube, searched when I needed to know something and googled to find relevant tutorials.

M.H.                           Awesome. What is your writing process like now using Scrivener?

S.W.                           Totally different. Worlds away from the let’s get everything down. In fact, I do do the let’s get everything down and it does happen still in Google Docs where it’s, let’s just dump everything, just do a massive brain dump. But then I make a structure and then things from the brain dump kind of gets sorted out and put into my structure.

The structure starts off with—and I’ll open Scrivener because I’ll never remember all the names of different things—on the left hand side, you have binder and then you’ve got the folders, so I come up with the different chapters I want. Those make up my folders. Then inside that, I press control N and create those little—it doesn’t tell me what those are called, but the little individual files.

M.H.                           They’re like text files.

S.W.                           Text files, thank you. Basically, then I give those titles of what I want to cover, kind of looking at the brain dump and kind of taking that and organizing it. Then I go through and I use the synopsis bit—probably improperly—to put some notes on what I want to cover.

And then if I have thoughts while doing that that aren’t just related to purely what I want to cover, those go in the yellow box underneath that document notes and basically when the writing process actually happens then I finally go into the big white main text edit bit in the center and I go through and then I do a very fast, let’s go through and expand on each of these points very quickly. Let’s just get the words down and then those get crafted into the final book eventually.

M.H.                           It sounds like you’re using a structural approach that some people would call the snowflake method? Have you ever heard that before?

S.W.                           I know, what’s the name, Randy Ingermanson’s book… is it the snowflake method?

M.H.                           It might be. It’s basically that you have like one large topic for the book and then you break it down into smaller topics and you break those down into smaller topics and then you outline those sections. It’s just like starting with one big thing and then breaking it down.

S.W.                           I didn’t know that’s what the snowflake method was, but that’s a good analogy.

M.H.                           When you import stuff from Google Docs to Scrivener, it’s just a manual process? Like okay, here’s my brain dump, I’m just going to redo it here.

S.W.                           In fact, I don’t even copy and paste. It’s just, the brain dump is such a mess and so much of it is just crap! It’s like, Why am I writing this? What’s going on? What was I thinking—was I drunk? Maybe. It’s just probably just bad ideas. And then no copying and pasting—that becomes the structure and that becomes the notes.

M.H.                           Interesting. Since you write nonfiction, you probably do a lot of research? Do you do research ahead of time, in the brain dump phase or is it as you’re writing?

S.W.                           Brain dump initially is no research. It’s just my completely unjustified gut feelings and then I will go through that brain dump again and add in a bunch of links, add in a few things I want to read later and then some of those links will make it as references into the final thing when I use it.

But the first round, it’s mostly just lots of things I want to cover, lots of ideas I have. Because I’ve done this podcasting—I’ve done like 90 interviews or something—I have quite a lot of thoughts to tap into about different things. And then I’ll go through and find out so maybe this person told me about this and I’ll find that blog post about it. It comes to mind and I’m like, I have no idea who said that but someone definitely said that!

M.H.                           It’s like you’ve already done the research ahead of time.

S.W.                           I have a pretty good knowledge of what’s going on with a lot of the stuff, but I obviously need to back it up. I can’t just say “I think this so you should do this.” I could, but it’s just—no one takes that seriously.

M.H.                           So tell me about the actual drafting. Do you use any specific functionality or features in Scrivener to help you be productive during that process?

S.W.                           I have to say I’m probably a pretty basic Scrivener user. I know there are these extra features. I like… stuff goes in the trash which I never remove, but that’s… sorry to disappoint.

M.H.                            No that’s good though. A lot of times like in Microsoft Word, there is no version history, there’s no trash—so if you delete something it’s gone.

S.W.                           It’s gone, yeah which sucks. I’m known to delete stuff and then just be like, I actually want the whole section back in. I will just drag it back into place.

M.H.                            Sure, sure. I guess Google Docs is nice for that too because they have that revision history, so you can actually just delete it from the doc and then go back in time.

S.W.                            Did not know they have that, now I do. That’s cool.

M.H.                           It’s mind blowing. So I’ve used Google Docs for some time. We use it at work for drafting blog posts or whatever—we’ll do them collaboratively in Google Docs. And it’s great because if you go to the file menu and then revision history, you can actually see how it progressed and compare the versions. It’s pretty cool. That’s one thing that Scrivener doesn’t do as well because Scrivener, you have to manually go in and take snapshots if you want to do that. Google Docs basically takes them automatically at each auto save.

S.W.                           I generally… I didn’t know about snapshot. I’m learning things. I just do the file, save as and then I give it its name then I put my initials and a date—if my editor did it then I would change it to their initials, put the dates, just to track things. But obviously there’s a better way of doing that apparently!

M.H.                           Do you use the goal tracking?

S.W.                           Sorry no. I do use the split screen mode where you have two pages opened at the same thing. I totally use that. There are so many things that you don’t think about, but yeah I totally use that. And I use the statistics where it turns green so you’re like typing away and are like, I want to do 2000 words—or whatever—and then gradually it’s turning green. I use that. Now I’m thinking about it there’s definitely going to be other things I’m using.

M.H.                           Sure. I’ll walk you through them. What is your daily goal count? What’s your normal goal count? Is it based on the deadline or is it just based on your normal output?

S.W.                           Deadlines. Because writing is just a part of what I do so I don’t really have a daily goal in terms of word count. I’m a big fan of hard deadlines so today the hard deadline was to finish the… I mean I said the first time I go to the center text entry field. I go through and I’m taking the notes and making them into something that’s going to turn into the book which I’ll then polish and expand.

Basically my hard deadline for today was have that done, and to have done about 50% of the book which is probably going to be 20,000 words. So I had about 7000 or 8000 words to do, knock them out in the morning. They don’t have to be good at this point. They just have to be something that could be crafted into something good. So this was a very brutal day of writing—but then the last three days, I’ve done nothing.

M.H.                           Interesting.

S.W.                           Not nothing, just no writing.

M.H.                           I think that’s good. You have to give yourself deadlines to keep yourself accountable. Have you ever used the full screen mode?

S.W.                           No. I quite like shrinking it down so it looks like a book. When it opens, the text entry field is massive and I shrink that down so it looks like my Kindle size.

M.H.                           So you open a binder and then you open the inspector on the other side?

S.W.                           Yeah. The binder’s nice and wide, the inspector’s nice and wide—and then I feel like I’m really entering, like I’m writing a book rather than a blog post or whatever. It’s more satisfying that way.

M.H.                           I’m the same way. I always like having the binder open because I jump around and write out of order.

S.W.                           Yep, same.

M.H.                           That’s an interesting concept. Kristine Kathryn Rusch says that every writer writes out of order even if they won’t admit it, right? Like they’ll start at the beginning and then the beginning will eventually become Chapter 2 or Chapter 3. Do you do that as well?

S.W.                           Totally. I’m all over the place. When the binder is open, I’ll be like, this doesn’t belong in this section. And then I’ll jump back to 5000 words earlier—Chapter whatever—and then I’ll remain in that chapter writing for the next hour. And I’ll be like, Wait, wasn’t I writing about something completely different when I started today? This is probably not great advice for writers. I don’t know if it’s a particularly an efficient way to write, but I’m all over the place.

M.H.                           Yeah. Well I think Scrivener is good because it gives people the option to write out of order. Where something like Google Docs or Microsoft Word, you have one page and you have no choice but to write linearly.

S.W.                           I was telling you that the struggle of finding places to go in Drive, like you’re searching for those keywords and you’re just, Oh fine, I’ll just write it here.

M.H.                           Yeah and then good luck like restructuring it later.

S.W.                           You’re so right.

M.H.                           Oh man. I can’t even imagine doing that after using Scrivener. But do you use the custom labels or status labels or color coding anything?

S.W.                           No.

M.H.                           What’s your Scrivener process like when it comes to self-editing? I’m just assuming here that you hire an editor and that you’re going to do one draft and then probably read it yourself and self-edit it at least once.

S.W.                           I don’t think it’s that linear for me. I’ll definitely do the very rough ideas draft kind of taking those notes in the synopsis and document note section and writing that. Then I would still say the next thing I do is still a draft. The next thing after that is still a draft and then maybe I start editing. First edit, it’s just getting everything in the right order. I don’t worry about typos, I don’t worry about grammar. I’m not particularly good at grammar so I do rely on an editor to go over that stuff later.

And then I use the text-to-speech function which I think is built into Scrivener. Also, I use a program called NaturalReader as well so I can play it back and edit it in Scrivener at the same time.

M.H.                           Tell me more about this. You use the text-to-speech which comes with Scrivener I think. Any of this accessibility stuff is part of most computers nowadays. You can just get your computer to read off the text—but what is NaturalReader?

S.W.                           I don’t even know if this is an issue with Scrivener. My memory fails me. I was using NaturalReader which is just a text-to-speech program, but separate from Scrivener. Because I remember having issues that it wouldn’t read back and edit it—I wouldn’t be able to edit at the same time. Is that a problem in Scrivener?

M.H.                           I can have it read back while I’m making changes, but if you make changes ahead of where the voice is, it will read the old thing I think.

S.W.                           Okay. This wasn’t an issue with Scrivener this was maybe pre-that.

M.H.                           It might be different on Windows. I’m using Mac, so if you were using the Windows version of the text-to-speech functionality, it might be different.

S.W.                           Maybe that. I’m honestly not sure. But yeah, text to speech I love because it points out that is “to” rather than of an “of” when I would just be completely blind to it.

M.H.                           Right, right, interesting. NaturalReader—does it give you a more natural voice?

S.W.                           Yeah. You have to pay for that and I didn’t pay for it so I just have “Microsoft Sam” or whatever it stays. But I haven’t explored it. I don’t know why I haven’t explored it because it’s obviously built into Scrivener. I’ve gotta get on that.

M.H.                           I really love this idea of using text to speech to self-edit it, to play the words back to you. Because you’ve read them so many times that you’re just blind to the grammar mistakes and blind to maybe typos or like word choices. And actually hearing them, it tweaks a different part of your brain and allows you to say, Oh wow, that doesn’t sound right even though I’ve read that sentence six times. Do you find as a voice actor that this is part of your process?

S.W.                           I find as a voice actor that I miss things. Even when you’re reading things aloud, you’re reading like a sentence ahead. You don’t want to have to do too many edits. And if you’re kind of reading every word and being super careful when you’re reading, you just miss things and your brain fills in because it’s like, we have to get this right. It’s useful, but when you’re proofing, it’s completely harmful. So this ability to read books and stuff as a voice actor is not helpful at all when proofing.

M.H.                           Oh really? You’re still blind to your own mistakes even when you’re reading it loud?

S.W.                           I’m blind to my mistakes, I’m blind to other people’s mistakes. I’ll read a book and will maybe spot one typo—someone else’s book—and they’ll be like, oh actually, we had beta readers point out 20.

M.H.                           So you use the text to speech. You use NaturalReader. Do you ever actually sit down and read your book out loud and record it and then play it back to you?

S.W.                           I haven’t done mine yet. I kind of said I’ll do it in the first three months of this year, but I’m well aware it’s already March so it’s probably not going to happen, but it’s on the agenda.

M.H.                           In terms of reading your book and turning it into an audio book?

S.W.                           Yeah. I know that’ll be a proofing process in itself but I’ll probably spot like one or two of the 20 typos that are probably still in there. It’s a good book though!

M.H.                           Yeah totally. Are there any other lessons from podcast production or voice acting that have been able to help you in your writing process?

S.W.                           Other than knowledge base I think I’ve got from talking to so many people, I think just the whole structure thing that I’m working on right now is thanks to Steve Scott’s writing method. He wrote a book called Write a Nonfiction Book in 21 Days That Readers Love or something—some super long title that I’m sure gets lots of hits on Amazon. This process of doing the brain dump, doing the structure, doing the notes is largely his process which has been amazing for the book I’ve just put out. The book I’m working on right now compared to the first book—just fantastic. That is a fantastic book.

M.H.                           Great.

S.W.                            It works so well with Scrivener. The whole process of just using the binder to structure using the note cards or whatever they call them, the synopsis cards to put the ideas onto—just makes it so easy.

M.H.                           Absolutely. Do you use Scrivener for anything else? Like for your blog or for researching or planning your podcast?

S.W.                           No. I have to say I’m more of an Evernote person just because it syncs with the phone, so often I’ll be out and about. I love Scrivener for writing, but note taking… I draft emails in Evernote just because I have the dual screens and you want to have the email open on one and then Evernote open on another—and it all synchs up with your phone and the iPad and all of this stuff. So it’s just super easy.

M.H.                           Yeah totally, and I think that Scrivener definitely falls short in that regard because you can’t use it on the go.

S.W.                           Right. I’d love it to have some sync cloud mobile functionality. That would be awesome.

M.H.                           Yeah. From what I hear, they’re working on an iPad app, but I am not privy to when that is going to be.

S.W.                           It just seems like the next step—I’m sure the development costs are massive but it seems like a smart move.

M.H.                           Cool. I know we’re a little short on time today so let’s transition a little bit now—let’s do a little bit of speculation just about the future in terms of technology. We were just talking about how Scrivener’s obvious next move is to move to an iPad app. Where do you see the future of creative writing tools headed based on your knowledge and how many interviews you’ve done with authors? Are there any other things you foresee in the near future in terms of creative writing tools or in terms of tools that would help authors be better at their jobs?

S.W.                           I think over the time, there’s a general removal of the number of devices we have. I think maybe the tablet bucked that trend, but I don’t wear a watch anymore, I don’t have an mp3 player, everything comes together in the phone. I still read my Kindle because I love e-ink display, but increasingly, I find myself when it runs out of battery that I’ll leave it for two weeks and just read off my phone every night.

I like the separate devices, but I can definitely see it coming together to be one and I can kind of see that happening on the other side of the equation as well. Right now I don’t want to type on an iPad because the keyboard isn’t up to it, but the technology I don’t know how, but it will solve that issue and it will reduce our devices and Scrivener will put out an iPad app hopefully. Probably a reduction in the number of things we have into one more multipurpose device—whatever that might be.

M.H.                           Maybe even if you have two different devices, just something that syncs across them that makes it seamless.

S.W.                           Yeah. Kind of when that doesn’t happen right now though—I don’t see that as a future thing—I’m disappointed that’s not in the present.

M.H.                           Yeah it’s true. It’s 2015 after all. Come on!

S.W.                           I’m like, Why can’t I open a Scrivener file in DropBox? I know the technology is completely incompatible, I know nothing about programming, but I’m like, Why I can’t proof my little chapters when I’m sitting on the bus?

M.H.                           Yeah. That’s a really good point because DropBox can read PDF files. It can read doc files from Microsoft Word. It can read Excel files, everything—but Scrivener’s unique file format is just totally incompatible with Dropbox’s viewing function.

S.W.                            Yeah. I think as popular a software as Scrivener is, it’s not as popular as PDF. DropBox build the compatibility that they really need.

M.H.                           Yeah totally. All right cool. We can end it here I know you’ve got to go. Just one last question. I know you said that you were working on that bootstrapping publishing book—are there any other projects you want to share with us?

S.W.                           Sure. Bootstrapping Publishing is coming out… when this comes out, I guess it will be out. And the current one I’m working on is—and this is all in the For Indies series – I have Audiobooks for Indies, I have Bootstrapping for Indies, the next one’s Productivity for Indies. Basically, like I’ve said, I’ve done a lot of interviews, had a lot of things. I reached out to my audience and said, tell me what makes you most productive? And right now, it’s working in the white area stage.

M.H.                           So there’s definitely going to be a Scrivener section of that book right?

S.W.                           There is a software section. Within that software section, there is a dedicated—do you know how many people come in who I reach out to—I send my email list out, and I’m like “What are your productivity hacks?” Scrivener gets an unfair number of mentions compared to other bits and pieces.

M.H.                           Yeah and that’s funny to me because there are no competitors for Scrivener that I can find right now. There’s one—I found this thing online called Novelr which is like an online novel writing tool, but even that compared to Scrivener—that’s the closest thing, but it’s still a far cry from what Scrivener offers right now.

S.W.                           Yeah. I haven’t heard of it. Honestly, I wouldn’t look for anything else. If someone said, “This is amazing, it will blow your mind, it’s like the best thing ever!” I’ll be like, “Okay I’ll try it.” But no one does.

M.H.                           Cool. Finally, where can people find you when you work online?

S.W.                           Just go to my podcast homepage—it comes out every Thursday. Interviews with successful authors——or just look that up in iTunes.

M.H.                           All right great. Thanks Simon!

S.W.                           You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on.

M.H.                           All right. Bye for now.

S.W.                           All right, bye.


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.

3 Replies

  1. Jane

    What a great interview. I have been working on Scrivener as I am writing my memoir story. The conversation has given me pointers about Scrivener and it’s use. It was enlightening.

    1. It’s great to hear that, Jane! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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