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The Freewrite Typewriter

About a week ago, Facebook decided that I really needed to learn about the Freewrite Typewriter. I kept getting ads in the middle of my feed [1]. I guess, given that I post an essay each day, Facebook figured out that I’m some kind of writer.

Now, unlike my wonderful wife, I’m actually not that much of a technology geek. I don’t generally buy the latest fancy device or most up-to-date computer [2]. I’ll probably never own an Apple watch. My not-so-smart phone is a few generations old, as is my laptop.

However, the Freewrite seemed interesting to me. I like the idea of being without distractions when I write. I like that it has a mechanical keyboard, although just for aesthetic reasons [3]. The whole retro feel of the thing (including the really small screen) also appeals to me. And so I took a deeper look.

I think it took me five minutes to discover that the Freewrite is not the right device for me. Why? Well, I’m a writer who edits while he writes. I realize that that’s the wrong approach for many writers. But my essays don’t proceed from my mind, step-by-step from beginning to end. I’ll often write something, and then realize that I should have put something earlier to prepare for that thing. For example, I ended up reversing and revising those previous two sentences after writing the first versions of them. While I’m perfectly happy to leave some dross in place while I go on to other ideas, I do like to go back and clean up things fairly regularly. In fact, I think it sometimes helps me get my thoughts in order.

But the designers of Freewrite are clearly purists. As you can see if you read their FAQ page on editing, the focus of the Freewrite is really on generation [4].

Friction in the writing process takes many forms but one of the biggest problems is ourselves. We are our own worst enemies by constantly second guessing every word and sentence. To maximize writing productivity and minimize writer’s block, that type of scrutiny should come after, not during the drafting process. As it comes, the Freewrite’s editing functionality is limited to using the [backspace] key only. You can review what was written before using the [pg up] and [pg dn] keys but there is no way to move the cursor into the document or copy/paste.

Do I believe that approach works for most writers? I’m not sure. I’ve written that way at times, but it’s never worked out well for me. When I write, I think, and when I think, I think about structure. I worry that I would lose information about desired revisions to structure if I couldn’t go back and edit. However, I’m not writing the great American novel. I’m writing essays and tutorials and such. Maybe I’m just assuming that I’ll do less post-editing of my writings than others. As I contrast, I have a memory of reading something by Borges in which he notes that he makes sure that each sentence is perfect before going on to the next one [5]. That approach fits neither the freewriting model nor my edit while writing model. There must be hundreds more.

So, now that I know that the Freewrite is really for freewriting, and doesn’t support editing, I’m pretty confident that it’s not the device for me.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other reasons that it’s the wrong device. I need references when I write. For example, while writing this, I tried to look up the Borges approach that I mentioned above. I suppose that I could have done so later, but it strikes me as more work, rather than less, to have to go back and clean things up, rather than to get them right in the first place. Maybe it’s my background in mathematics: If the first part of your proof is incorrect, then it’s pointless to have the rest of the proof. Maybe it’s my background in CS: I tend to keep lots of parts of the program in my head (or in notes), and then work on the part that seems most appropriate at the time. I work forward, then backward, then forward again. It makes sense to me to work that way in text, too.

Now, I realize that there are other dangerous distractions of looking things up on the Interweb. One can enter way too many rabbit holes of related information. But I actually find that useful for my broader writing process. Side-trips during writing often end up being essays of their own. Certainly, the essay on mondegreens was inspired by some series of Web explorations.

Is it worth writing differently? In the past, I have noted that I generally find my writing workmanlike rather than elegant. Perhaps if I focused more on the freewrite-then-edit model, I might produce better prose during the editing, since editing would become a requirement, rather than an option. However, I have certainly gone back and edited many of these essays (particularly the profiles) after the original write-plus-edit phase, and, while that subsequent editing improves my writing, it doesn’t bring it beyond workmanlike.

Maybe, given my awesomely large readership, Freewrite will send me a demo model, and I’ll be forced to try a different mode of writing. But the chances of that are pretty slim. I’ll think about trying a different mode of writing when I get beyond the technical essays, which, because they include code, really do require more than just a text editor.

[1] Okay, everyone gets ads in the middle of their feed, unless they are smarter than I am about configuring Facebook. I’m just noting that I was getting a lot of ads for Freewrite.

[2] I did recently realize that skimping on RAM in my laptops has cost me way too much time; I won’t make that mistake again.

[3] In not-so-well controlled experiments, it seems that I type at about the same speed on mechanical keyboards and my MacBook Pro’s membrane keyboard.

[4] This kind of generation is often called freewriting in the traditional parlance. I tend to call it spewing, although I don’t quite mean to attach the negative connotation.

[5] I can’t find anything related to that claim on the Interweb, so maybe I’m wrong.

Version 1.0 of 2017-01-08.