Writing Methods

Many years ago I remember chatting with David Hewson about writing tools. Indeed, it was David who persuaded me that it would be a good idea for me to ditch Word and instead start to write using Scrivener. I have never regretted that move.

However other approaches always fascinate me. David at the time told me that he would experiment and try out as many different devices as possible, because if one saved him five percent of his working time, it was a worthwhile investment.

In those far-off days I had only recently migrated to a shiny new iMac, and I had reached the dizzying heights of efficiency, I reckoned.

Since then I have tried many other devices and tools for writing. I still love writing with fountain pens, and although I cannot justify the time involved in writing complete novels in pen, I do tend to write my longer drafts and synopses in pen and ink. It works well like that.

However, as soon as I have a major piece of work to write, I will revert to a keyboard. But which sort?

I love my iMac. It is huge, it is gleaming (just) and it has a brilliant screen. But it’s often a distraction. Just as I start typing, I get a notification that an email has arrived, or someone’s tweeted my name, or Facebook has an urgent need to have me consider advertising with them … these all need to be turned off, but it’s a pain having to think of admin like that when all I want to do is type!

Software like Scrivener is fabulous, especially the distraction-free typing environment they call the “composition mode”, but I’ll often revert to this: IA Writer Classic, as a clutter free place to type up shorter pieces like this – yes, I’m typing this in IA Writer. I love the simplicity of such a cut-back piece of software. Still, there could be improvements, no doubt.

Recently I was made aware of the FreeWrite device. In essence, it is a gorgeously manufactured retrograde device. It is a kind of typewriter, with old-fashioned keys from the 1980s; it has a small screen that is e-ink, and only the same size as a Kindle’s; the memory is brilliant, but there is no plug attachment to send your work to your computer, only a wifi up-link to the cloud. You cannot even retrieve work to edit from the cloud once you have sent it off! And what is this? There’s not even a set of arrow keys. If you make an error – guess what? You’ll have to backspace, deleting everything as you go, in order to be able to amend that misspelled work.

Sounds terrible.

And strangely attractive.

Thanks to Adam Leeb and Astrohaus for the photo

I really like the sound of a machine that is there solely to allow me, as a professional writer, the opportunity of typing at speed on a really high-quality keyboard. That is the first crucial aspect. And then there is the notion that an author really craves peace and quiet to be able to type without thinking of the possible alterations to the existing work, but forever moving onwards, setting down the story. Yes, I do! And later, when it’s done, the book can be pulled back to my iMac and sucked into Scrivener, ready to be sternly knocked into shape.

The screen size is irrelevant to me for typing purposes. Most of the time (like now), I am more likely to be staring out through the window than glancing at the screen guessing what to put in next. But I am convinced that a nice, clacketty old keyboard would be a significant advantage over this (admittedly beautiful, minimalist) Apple wireless keyboard with keys that move only 1/16 of an inch, balanced on a sheet of silicon to give them their springiness.


Because if you type a lot, keys that have real ‘feel’ and move are much more comfortable to use. I’m a touch typist, but keys that move as little as my Apple ones are not as comfortable over time. Which is why I always used to replace my Apple keyboards with good, well-designed ones after two years or so, because by then the Apple keyboard was usually worn out, the key caps obliterated after being bashed so often. So I’m used to checking into better, more ergonomic keyboards. I really like the Kinesis keyboards (which use the same keys as the Freewrite). You know what? They cost some $350 each – so the Freewrite, at £384 currently, looks to be good value, I reckon. Yes, I used to be a salesman – I can convince myself into buying anything!

Some hate the idea. There’s a Mashable article that derides the whole concept. The authors (who appear never to have actually tested one of the Freewrites – perhaps their piece was written with their noses out of joint?) said that it was a pointless piece of kit because, like, it’s as expensive as a mobile phone, right? The article was written as a conversation between two millennials. They disliked the idea of the weight. They would prefer an iPad. Seriously? Anyone who thinks that an iPad is a good main drafting tool really is not a serious writer. The Mashable piece was not written by an author or someone who uses keyboards and computers for bashing out words day in, day out. Again, they never tried the device, so their ‘review’ was based on their subjective attitudes. If they were serious writers who regularly put down 5,000 words a day, they might find themselves more convinced. Interestingly, almost all the professional writers (journalists and novelists who earn their living by writing) seem to love the Freewrite. Not everyone, no. There is a review by a computer analyst who cannot comprehend the logic of restricted communications and is anxious about the risk of too many drafts leading to writing on the wrong version. Some people think that screen refresh is too slow, and … well, there are others who have reservations. One author, L Penelope, said that she just found it uncomfortable compared with her really cheap AlphaSmart Neo. But when you look at the majority of authors who have tested the Freewrite for extended periods, by which I mean, those who have drafted books on their own device, most sing its praises. It’s not, I imagine, a device for those who type 100-200 words a day. This is a serious tool for those who need to sit down and concentrate.

For me, if the keys work as well as an old Wang word processor, a Wordplex 80-series or a Displaywriter, I’d be all for it. If it tempts me to write more and faster, so much the better. Yup, I think it’ll be worth trying.

I have put in a request to the owners of Freewrite for a review model. Hopefully in six weeks or so I’ll know whether I can get my hands on one – and whether or not I’ll want to buy one too! If you’re interested, there’s a good little video here about them.

Meanwhile, here I am typing again. Today, as you can see from the picture, I had a brilliant quote from the Historical Novels Society: “A Murder Too Soon is pure entertainment. The novel is a fun and enjoyable romp, and I look forward to seeing what mishap next awaits the unlikely hero of Jack Blackjack.”

You know what that means, don’t you? Now I have to crack on with a decent synopsis for book 3!


8 Responses to “Writing Methods”
  1. Old Trooper says:

    Totally concur with the Historical Novels Society’s observation. This new series is ‘fun reading!’


  2. Interesting device… never heard of it before now. What I am waiting for is someone to manufacture a device for writers which is essentially a Kindle paperweight screen with a keyboard . I want to be able to use my device outside and I can’t do that on my laptop. As far as I know there is no such thing in existence. Or at least nothing reasonably priced.


    • Speech to text made that say paperweight when I meant paper white!


    • This certainly seems to be the nearest thing to what you’re looking for, but, it’s for drafting only. You type the first version on this, then suck it down to your Apple or Windows machine for editing. I was thinking it looked expensive, until I thought about a new keyboard and saw the prices for good models. Suddenly this device looked quite reasonable!


  3. glenheadland says:

    5000 words a day? All hail Mr Jecks!


  4. arsenios says:

    What I am waiting for is person to manufacturing a gimmick for writers which is essentially a Kindle paperweight silver screen with a keyboard . I was thinking it looked expensive, until I persuasion about a newfangled keyboard and byword the prices for well(p) models.


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