Want to spend $500 on a pseudo typewriter?

Why buying a Freewrite is a bad idea — and how to spend money on things that could actually help you write

The Freewrite word processor has a lot of appeal for writers, but could it possibly deliver?

I’ve been reading about the Freewrite word processor for a while now. It’s a chunky, hip “smart typewriter” that’s meant exclusively for writing and nothing else. I think a lot of people, myself included, are attracted to the neo-retro concept of the device. Most importantly, the promise of “distraction-free” writing is tuned to exactly what most writers need — more productivity without the constant interruptions of social media and the internet.

Now that Freewrite is actually shipping, I can look beyond it’s quirky crowdfunded roots, when it was known as “Hemmingwrite”, and I don’t like what I see. This $500 digital brick looks like just another feelgood purchase that writers can make with little chance it will improve their process or help them get real writing done.

Let me explain. Creative people are, by nature, good at procrastinating. We’re explorers who constantly dream about what’s over the horizon. This means we get distracted. It’s easy for us to daydream about the perfect things that would make us devastatingly productive. Some of us dream more than we work, and many people get so completely waylaid finding the perfect tools, they never get anything done at all. These “would-be’s” are just like a would-be jogger who buys expensive shoes, clothes, and heart rate monitors but never runs. In the writing world, there are lots of them.

Some of these writers — would-be’s or not — spend a lot of money. That’s why there’s a whole industry of writing journals, conferences, software, classes, coaching, and more. You could spend thousands of dollars, years of your life, and all your creative energy just hunkering down to write, barely ever putting any words on a page.

In short, I see the Freewrite as yet a another product that, while interesting, will be a distraction and money-suck that prevents writers from just sitting down and getting their work done. Let’s take a closer look at the specifics.

My gripes with Freewrite

  1. The price is just too high. This is a luxury device, and that instantly sets off my warning bells. Have you ever bought a really nice journal (perhaps a Moleskine) expecting to start writing in it every day, and failed to fill it? I suspect this device will be many people’s $500 equivalent of that journal.
  2. Completely new (immature) software. Standalone word processors are not a new invention. For example, the AlphaSmart has been around for a long time and in many iterations. Given that first-generation hardware and software is always prone to hiccups, I don’t expect the software installed on this debut device to be as mature and dependable as what I need to save my cherished drafts.
  3. A questionable editing experience. Taking a close look at the Freewrite, I can’t help but notice it doesn’t have arrow keys. Taking into account that it also doesn’t have a mouse or a touchpad, how am I going to edit my work on this thing? Maybe it’s great to hammer out a first draft — but then what? If I get distracted while I’m writing, it’s nothing compared to the mindnumbingness of editing. That’s where most writers really need help.
  4. Workflow. Sure, Freewrite syncs text files to the cloud. What about when that text file is your novel, or screenplay, or master’s thesis? Can you edit it? Can you add formatting? Can you integrate your footnotes, and then continue to work on your Freewrite? I suspect this will be a sticking point for the more goal-focused among us.
  5. Ergonomics. That e-ink screen right by the keyboard is its only display. Could I use it for several hours on my lap? In bed? The jury is out, but it doesn’t look comfortable.

Get more writing out of $500 (or even for free)

So before spending $500 on a tool that you think will help you write, but which won’t actually write your novel (or whatever) for you, here are some alternative ideas to improve your writing for $500 or less.

  1. Spend a weekend writing offline. You can literally pay for a whole weekend at a hotel or Airbnb, all by yourself, without internet, for less than $500. It doesn’t have to be a fancy writer’s retreat. It doesn’t have to be anywhere glamorous. You can probably even pay for two weekends with $500, depending on how much you spend on a room, food, and transportation, and get some real writing accomplished.
  2. Take a writing workshop. If you’re not sure what you want to write, or you feel the need to hone your craft, invest in a class or workshop where you’ll get assignments (with deadlines!), someone to read your work, and relatively unbiased critique. Ideally, these courses will be taught by real writers. You can find some good ones online if that’s more convenient, or if it’s more your style, find something in person through your local public schools, Meetup.com, or another community calendar.
  3. Take a day off. What’s really missing from your writing? Maybe you need some downtime. Did you know that the most creative people spend a lot of time just thinking? Take the day off to roam around somewhere, left to your own devices. You may find yourself energized to get some writing done in a way that buying a gadget can’t do.
  4. Reconfigure your tools. What’s really so distracting about the computer? Would writing longhand on a legal pad work better? Or could you leave your phone in another room and disconnect the wifi while you work?
  5. If you must buy something, how about a very simple separate computer just for your writing projects that stays logged out of Facebook, Twitter, and everything else permanently? You can set up tools like StayFocusd to protect yourself from too much web surfing, while keeping access to your favorite word processing software.
  6. Consider a portable alternative. If you desperately want to minimize your writing experience with a new gadget, how about getting a Bluetooth keyboard for your phone? Writing with Google Drive or Microsoft Word is seamless on most smartphones, and offers better editing capabilities than would be available on a word processing device like Freewrite.
  7. Or buy an AlphaSmart. This an easy-to-find standalone word processor, and you can get your own used version for cheap. It may not sync with the cloud, but it probably comes with more storage space than the Freewrite, has more mature software, and is definitely less expensive.
  8. Or even a typewriter. If what you love about Freewrite is its typewriter-ishness, then what about going straight to the source? Typewriters still exist, and they are beautiful. You can find compact and portable models. And you can scan your typewritten pages into a computer using a scanner or camera.

But obviously, it’s up to you. If you spend $500 on this thing and you get some real writing accomplished, and you still love it after owning it for a few months, I’m very happy for you.

For the rest of you, I hope I talked you off that ledge. Happy writing!

Christiann MacAuley is a cartoonist, user experience strategist, and co-host of a weekly writing meetup in the DC area.

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