May 16, 2016
My Freewrite digital typewriter from Astrohaus arrived this week and I couldn’t wait to open the box and give it a try. It’s been a long time since I ordered it. So long that I had to look up the credit card transaction to remember that I paid for it in February 2015 back when it was still called a Hemingwrite. Listen to the anticipation in my voice when I was a guest on Jon Bruner’s Solid Podcast in September of last year. I’ve been waiting for this thing.
I know it seems ridiculous to spend $400 on a digital typewriter, but I struggle with a deficit of attention, or maybe it’s a deficit of consistent intention, in any case the idea of an utterly distraction-free writing environment was too appealing to pass up. Writing is hard for me because, I don’t know, it just is, and looking at Twitter is easy. Plus I’m a sucker for gadgets.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of software-based attention-preservation mechanisms along the way, but until the Hemingwrite came along I hadn’t thought about using restricted hardware as the path to salvation. Having crossed that line of conceptual demarcation, and facing a long wait for my Hemingwrite’s arrival, I also discovered the Neo by Alphasmart. It’s a really simple word processor designed for kids in a classroom setting that is no longer in production but is readily available on ebay for next to nothing. I bought one from a liquidator that got it from the Houston school district, put three AAA batteries in it, and have been writing with it most mornings since. Even better, I’m still on the original set of batteries.
I mostly use it for my “daily pages,” and sometimes I use it for the first very rough stream-of-consciousness draft of writing projects. It’s light, simple to use, has a decent keyboard, and sync’s via a USB cable.
It’s a word processor, meaning that it’s possible to arrow-key around a document and make corrections and edits, but the little screen only shows a few lines so it’s easier to just focus on what you are currently thinking and worry about structure and editing back on the computer. Also, sync’ing with a computer is one-way. Once text is in the computer it won’t sync back, so editing really is best done there.
Now my Freewrite is here and for $400 it better make my $25 Neo look rudimentary right?
The Freewrite is compact but not tiny; fetchingly retro with its big red power button, two big throw switches and a raised keyboard; and it feels sturdy due to its four pounds of heft and aluminum case. And unlike the Neo, it sync’s with the cloud (Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive) wirelessly.
I turned it on and five minutes later setup was complete. All I had to do was connect it to my wifi network, log into my previously created “Postbox” account at getfreewrite.com, and then link that account to Evernote (it will also link to dropbox or google drive). That was easy.
As soon as I tried it two things stood out. First, the wonderfully clicky and tactile’ly satisfying keys. The Freewrite is built around mechanically switched Cherry MX Brown keys. These aren’t your Mac’s chiclets. They have a long throw, a really nice concave depression that fingertips nestle into, and a satisfying click when they’re depressed. They are the kind of keys that will make you want to type “the quick brown fox” over and over again if you have nothing else to say.
The second impression was more disconcerting. The display is low-power-hungry e-ink and it has a drawback. It renders type slower than my fingers can generate it, so the display tends to always be a little bit behind my thoughts. Every press of the space bar is a tiny little exercise of faith because I’m leaving behind a word I haven’t actually seen yet. Often that faith is misplaced and halfway through the next word I’ll realize I misspelled the previous one. But maybe that’s no big deal. Keep going and correct it later right? This machine is about being in the flow.
And did I mention the keyboard? It’s a revelation. Within an hour of unboxing the Freewrite I was deep into the Reddit forum dedicated to manual keyboards and now I’m looking for a nice Cherry MX-based replacement for my Mac. But back to the Freewrite…
The display shows about a paragraph of text. That’s a lot more than the Neo, and it’s nice because more of the context leading to where you are now is visible. It’s also easy to page up and down to read more if you need to remember the path that you got you there.
But, … and here is where you realize that the Freewrite is an electronic typewriter and not a word processor, it doesn’t even have the Neo’s arrow keys for moving the cursor around. Page up to reorient yourself and notice a mistake? Tough, fix it in the next draft. This cursor stays at the end of the file. So, unless you are willing to backspace the whole way there, the mistake stays. In fact, it might not even be fair to call this a typewriter, even an old mechanical could be rolled back. This thing really is append only.
It’s as if it’s saying “I promised you a distraction-free writing environment, but while I was at it I took away your workflow.” This thing is opinionated. It’s not a “writing machine,” it’s a “first draft machine” unless you are willing to return to the workflow you used on your last real typewriter. And that’s not the only way it expresses its minimalistic opinions. Currently, the only way to get text off of the device is via the cloud. Astrohaus intends to enable USB transfer, but it’s not there yet. So for now the only option is for text to pass through Postbox on its way to its ultimate Dropbox, Google Drive, or Evernote destination. But, and here’s the weird part, Postbox keeps a copy of everything you write in your account which you can’t delete because “you should always be moving forward.”
This isn’t a typewriter, this is a typewriter whose manufacturer makes you keep a copy of every page you write in a file cabinet at their office. And best I can tell, there is nothing on the website that describes their security practices or anything else about Postbox’s technical implementation. I am not happy about this part at all. In fact, I’m stunned that they would think was ok. Let me crumble up the paper and throw it away if I want to ok?
Ok, I got that out. Now let’s get back to the workflow implications. I’m old enough to have composed text on a real typewriter and I remember the “make a note and keep going” style of writing that was required. Drafts weren’t just some edits to the thing you already wrote re-saved with a different name, we re-typed them in their entirety from red-ink notes and corrections made directly onto previous versions. I did that for a long time, but that linear style of writing disappeared overnight when I switched to writing on the computer where the relationship between writing and editing is much more fluid. For years I’ve barely made a distinction between the two processes.
Over the last year I have used the Neo on some writing projects and, because of the difficulty of editing on that small screen, I settled on a hybrid workflow that tries to take the best advantage of both environments. I used the Neo as a distraction-free place to do the initial brain dump. I often started with a sketched outline on paper or sometimes a Scapple mind map, and then I just started writing. The mind map gave me some mental structure to work from, but the bare word processor encouraged a kind of unencumbered concentration that helped get those first words down. This is especially important during that first phase of a project, when I’m still working out what I want to say, and the thoughts can be most easily derailed by the distractoverse.
This is the kind of workflow the creators of the Freewrite have in mind, and it will do just fine. In fact, that keyboard combined with that laggy e-ink really are amazing for just letting the mind get free during during that first pass. It is hard to explain, but the feel and clack of those keys bring about an almost meditative state of mind and the “ooh, I need to check Twitter” moments seem to flatten into a much lower frequency. It works.
The problem is that I get distracted during editing too, and since I spend at least as much time editing as I do in initial draft, that’s a problem. For any given project I’m exposed to the distracting environment of my computer for at least half of the time it takes to finish it. I spent $400 and got a $25 Neo with a better keyboard for making first drafts when what I really want is a distraction-free writing environment.
In fairness to the folks at Astrohaus, they never told any other story. This is what they set out to build and they built it. Furthermore, they shipped what they said they’d ship, almost when they said they would ship it. That’s more than I can say for most of the Kickstarters I’ve funded (for the record, I purchased my Freewrite in their first post-Kickstarter sale).
I think what I really want is a Freewrite that would be good for both distraction-free drafts, and distraction-free editing. In other words, distraction-free writing. I want Astrohaus to partner with the folks at Literature and Latte and build a version of Scrivener into the Freewrite’s firmware that seamlessly syncs to dropbox and lets me move between Freewrite and personal computer versions of a project with ease. An 80% implementation of Scrivener on Freewrite would let me stay in its distraction-free environment for much more of the time spent writing and editing. By the way, I also want American politics to moderate and for scientists to discover a microbe that can convert CO2 to a compound suitable for making long-lasting electric car batteries. I can dream.
I like the Freewrite but I don’t love it yet. Their “just keep going” mantra is implemented with too much ideological purity for me. At a minimum I want to be able to move the damned cursor to make a change in that last line, and I want to be able to delete the stuff that I write. Better yet I just want to keep my paper in my file cabinet. They need to enable USB file transfer and soon.
Astrohaus says they are going to make it possible for third party developers to contribute and build new capabilities for the device. I hope Literature and Latte is listening, because they need to get busy. A machine for getting focused on the first draft is nice, but a writing machine would be amazing.