First of all, for those who have never heard of it, that thing in the image up top is a Freewrite. It’s a wifi-enabled portable typewriter. It exists to allow writers like me a device for generating drafts that cannot distract us with notifications, nor seduce us with the promise of infinite internets. If that sounds promising, I encourage you to read more about it. If you were a fan of the Alphasmart or its descendants, you may be delighted here.
I’ve been wanting to get a Freewrite since it debuted on Kickstarter in 2014 as the Hemingwrite. I liked the original name and design, but a few things have changed since then. I imagine they wanted to untangle their brand from Hemingway for any number of reasons, but the device resurfaced for me in a booth at AWP 2016 in L.A. There, I got to handle the machine for the first time, and figure out if I would like it.
I did like it.
I waited, still. It’s not a significant investment, as these things go. The Freewrite retails for about $500, give or take $50 based on seasonal sales and events. My last laptop (with which I am very displeased) cost me $1200. Granted, the laptop offers greater functionality, but its main purpose (as far as the IRS is concerned) is as the tool with which I do most of my paying work.
In 2017, $500 did not seem like too much money to waste on what might end up only being a curiosity, or a way to signal my hipster doubchebaggery in some Bay Area cafe. I talked it over with my partner, who agreed it was a fine holiday present. So I bought it. (Disclaimer: I bought it with my own damned money and I have not been compensated in any way for this review.)
An hour of writing in a cafe. It's working, you guys. pic.twitter.com/SJgBgeNhrU
— Meg Elison (@megelison) December 27, 2017
I’ve been using my Freewrite since late December, 2017.
Here’s what I like:
The feel of the keyboard is excellent. It was an adjustment, since I’ve been using an island keyboard on a very thin, flat laptop for nearly a decade now. However, the feel of the keys sinking is very satisfying, not unlike Das Keyboard, which a number of fanatics have induced me to fondle over the years. It’s a little loud, but I’m not a keyboard-beater. I considered buying the o rings that Astrohaus offers to soften the sound, but I haven’t had any complaints, so I passed on them.
I love that I can have a display that shows me a running tally of word count, character count, and how long it will take to read what I’ve written. It’s as heartening as watching a stack of money grow as I count out bills.
The paperwhite screen is easy on the eyes, and a good choice for people who are suffering from blue-light burnout in every other area of their lives. The screen shuts itself off after a short interval, switching to a rotating series of screensavers. That’s great for battery life, and keeps me from looking at my phone for too long.
The battery life is excellent, lasting for four days on a single charge, even with vigorous use. It’s a USB-C charger, and thus can share with my phone, which is a small bonus. (Probably voids my warranty to use anything but the prescribed hardware, but idc. I am tired of carrying an octopus in my bag.)
It’s an immediate conversation starter. People always want to know what it is, where I got it, what it does. That’s good and bad. If I’m writing in a cafe and want to be left alone, I entrench a little. I position cups and my bag to seclude myself, to avoid the curious. But I have brought it to sprints and drinking dates with other writers, to let them get a feel for it and to give permission to gawk. That’s been really fun.
It feels vintage. It looks like a portable Smith-Corona from the 70s, and has that curvaceous aesthetic that nothing does these days. It’s frankly nostalgic, both in design and functionality. I learned to type on an IBM electric word processor. This thing delivers me back to my own technological roots, but hangs a rope swing made of wifi in the tree for me. It’s pretty sweet.
— Meg Elison (@megelison) December 17, 2017
Things I don’t like:
The paperwhite screen is a good idea, but I can’t watch it while I type because of the lag. The lag isn’t that bad, but it’s noticeable and continuous. Keystroke to appearance on screen takes maybe half a second, which sounds stupid when I type it out, but it’s maddening. It’s very hard to adjust to that after a long experience of instantaneous appearance on a laptop screen. It makes it impossible to track errors (more on that coming up), or correctly backspace the right number of times. I end up staring at my hands while I work (which is pretty weird) and just letting the errors go.
My error rate is about 50% worse on the Freewrite than it is on anything else. The difference in the keyboard, coupled with the lag in the screen and the lack of arrow keys to make corrections, means that my second pass shows me a LOT of jagged red underlines. However, I find that the process to fix these errors goes pretty quickly and gives me the opportunity to make minor fixes as I add progress from Postbox (Astrohaus’ online storage tool) to an existing draft.
The rotating screensavers are really cute. I like the art, and I love that they chose authors that people look up to as examples…. But one of those authors is notorious shitbag misogynist, Isaac Asimov. Every time his mutton-chopped silhouette pops up against a background of stars and planets, I pretend he’s Carl Sagan. The other featured men are Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe with his telltale raven. The only woman is one I guess they thought people could identify in this style: Agatha Christie. I really hope they expand these offerings, down the line. Add another woman. Add a non-white writer, ffs. I suggest James Baldwin. Stop making me look at Asimov, who was a great writer and an unrepentant pig.
Things I learned:
I bought the felt carrying case for the device for $30. I thought it was a good idea to have a dust cover (I have cats) and ensure the safety of this thing when traveling. However, the case renders the handle useless. I took it to my tailor and had it altered.
The lowest point of this relationship happened when I lost a draft. This was the thing I was most concerned about, and I had seen Maureen Johnson freak out on Twitter that her Freewrite had dumped her work somehow, so I knew it was possible. I never let more than 4k words accumulate, because of this paranoia. I wrote a 4k draft in a bar in Oakland and then met friends in San Francisco. I somehow purged my files (we were all very drunk), and since the draft was never uploaded to the cloud existed only in local storage, gone was gone.
I contacted user support and they were thorough, kind, and forthright. In the end, there was no retrieving what was lost. This counts as user error, as far as I’m concerned. I now know better about backing up my work (even on a fancy typewriter) and if there’s no wifi, I generate a mobile hotspot from my phone to save my work to the cloud before shutting down and packing up. Live and learn.
The Freewrite does what it says it will do. It keeps me from being distracted by everything my laptop can offer. Yes, there are productivity apps. This has worked better than any of those could. If I put my phone in my pocket instead of on the table beside me, I can get an uninterrupted hour of work.
My output for a solid hour of work is usually about 1k words. On the Freewrite, it’s almost 2500. A single sitting with an idea of where I’m going on a laptop gets me about 2k words; the Freewrite gets me 4k. Doubling my output makes the errors worth it. The screen lag is worth it.
As an author, anything that helps me focus and crank out a draft is a good tool.
If you’re one the fence like I was for the first couple of years, I say jump. It’s worth it.
— Meg Elison (@megelison) January 10, 2018