Writer Tech: A Short Autobiography in Writing Tools

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Current writing notebook with its higher-tech friends at the Tuesday write-in (Your Mom’s Basement, White Bear Lake MN)

Notebook and pen. I started writing in pen long before they officially let us handle that deadliest of weapons, so most of my juvenilia are written in ball-point pen in composition books. This is old school, and it’s also evergreen. My colleague Becca Patterson is currently supporting her writing practice in short story by use of a school notebook that goes with her everywhere.

  • Advantages: it doesn’t need to be plugged in, has just about zero startup cost, and can be used many places where a laptop, tablet, and/or dedicated keyboard would be conspicuous or inappropriate. It lets you do first draft longhand, and then revise as you transcribe. The electronic copies of Becca’s “first draft” short stories come out more like draft 1.5-2.
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Disadvantages: writer’s cramp. Also, they pile up if you’re archiving them.

Electric typewriter. I don’t have a picture of mine, but I got it for Christmas 1978 and it was the platform upon which I wrote many novels, term papers, student newspaper articles, and other works.

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Advantages: fast, way fast, compared to writing by hand or the manual typewriter. In 2000, I acquired a manual typewriter of the ‘portable’ variety, an item I’d coveted since age 12 in nostalgic remembrance of WWII correspondents typing out their dispatches in blackout. I remembered all over again why my keyboard technique is so heavy-handed. On the other hand, improperly flexed wrists are nearly impossible, because you have to keep your wrist in neutral position to generate the force necessary to make a mark with the keys.
  • Disadvantages: Compared to modern electronics, they’re heavy. Really heavy even for the portables. Even heavier were the classic 1920s desktop manuals upon which I plied my trade as a student journalist (typing final version two hours before deadline on the Royals in the journalism workroom). For electric typewriter, it must find itself an outlet or it doesn’t run. Unlike laptops, there’s no such thing as battery power.
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Here’s a kitchen counter-top workstation I set up in my former apartment. Note the use of the clip by way of copy stand.

Bluetooth keyboard (ThinkOutside Sierra) and Palm Tungsten E-2. No, my Palm did not talk to the internet, by my choice. I could have bought a model that prefigured today’s smartphones, back in 2006. I bought my handheld purely as a back end to a keyboard that folded and fit in my pocket.

  • Advantages: the keyboard folded up to fit in my pocket, just like the car in The Jetsons. This was high tech to me, and weirdly enough it got me all kinds of inquiries in meetings and writing bouts, from folks with tech far fancier than mine. I used a traveling bookstand for the Palm, and pretty much any flat skidproof surface for a lapdesk to sit the keyboard on, and lo and behold: ergonomic workstation.
 Screen and keyboard separated, which meant I had ultimate freedom for setting each at optimal height. ! Very low tech, very adaptable.
 The keyboard was hinged, which was both a strength and a weakness. I dropped it back in 2008 and it’s never quite slid together properly since. Still works, unlike some more recent models (this one I’ve had three of, and they died like flies, with the ‘b’ and ‘n’ keys going first).
  • Disadvantages: The Palm had battery power, but had to be recharged daily. Pretty much like a cell phone, in fact.
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On the road with me on 2009 trip to Texas on Amtrak.

Laptop: I didn’t own a computer of my own until 2008, the golden year when I also acquired my first mobile phone and internet accesss at home for the first time. Before that, I piggybacked on the machines several employers let us use after hours. I kept all my files on a SD card and later a flash drive. It wasn’t until I started doing digital photography that I contemplated a machine of my own.

What I bought was this engineering workstation (Dell): one step down from the very top of their line in 2008. I wasn’t doing video editing or animation, so I didn’t need the ultimate powerhouse. It was heavy and only nominally portable, but I got a good life out of it (several million words, not including code) from April 2008 to October 2011, when it was decommissioned in favor of a Macbook Air, of which more later. It weighed a freaking ton and was portable only in the most generous possible sense of the word.

This machine was custom-built using Dell’s web site, so I crammed it with as much RAM and processor speed as could be managed at the time. I continued to use the Bluetooth keyboard as an auxiliary keyboard, though in December 2009, it was superseded for that purpose by my Alphasmart Neo.

wpid-20150314_215617.jpgAlphasmart Neo: bought this in December 2009, on advice from NaNoWriMo buddies. It’s basic, really basic, and at the time cost less than $200. (They’re no longer manufactured in the USA but can be obtained on eBay). This is pretty much a dedicated keyboard, built for use by school children learning keyboard use for the first time. Power source is three AA batteries or a rechargeable battery pack. Time between replacement/recharge is approximately 700 hours of active use or (for me) about six months. 
Compare that to an eight-hour battery charge for most laptops, and you know why I use it. It has eight dedicated internal memory slots which collectively can hold a full-length novel, and via USB cable you can download text to the word processor of your choice, on nearly any operating system. Pretty much you need a USB port and you’re good to go.

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Advantages: Super-portable, damn near bulletproof (even for me, notorious for destroying equipment without even trying). Tolerates my jackhammer touch (trained on manual typewriter) and provides zero distraction. It  does not talk to the internet. It does not do anything but happily receive your keystrokes, and the text screen is small enough that you don’t see but a few lines of text at once. The low-tech liquid crystal display is such that most folks can’t even read over your shoulder.
 Ideal machine, machine of my dreams. A little bulky but fits nicely in most backpacks, courier bags, etc. Oh yes, and cables to a laptop via USB to serve as an auxiliary keyboard.
  • Disadvantages: optimal for first-draft but does not provide much of an interface for editing or real project management.

But oh, what a wonderful machine for banging out a heap of words. I now own four of them, which I loan out to protégé(e)s for distraction-free first draft writing.

20150223_165600Macbook Air, 2011. Bought this, again under influence of NaNoWriMo, as a platform for the Scrivener software. At that time, this super light weight machine drew my attention for its solid state drive (more temperature and impact resistant than the optical drive on my Dell). Nonetheless I bought it a ton of shock absorbing jackets, a la northern hemisphere toddler bundled for arctic chill.

  • Advantages: ooh! Scrivener! High level project management/planning for novels, Research folder for the several thousand pages of research I amassed in advance of NaNo 2011. I could finally stop carrying all those giant manila folders full of printed out research materials.
  • Disadvantages: there were other apps on it. Lots of other apps. And wireless internet. And other voices of the devil. What’s more yours truly the inveterate power user found ways to do all kinds of other things on there, including graphic design and 3D renders. 
2/25/2014 4:31 pm
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Photo credit: Brian Zárate


Smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S4) and bluetooth keyboard (Logitech K810). This extremely portable writing kit brings us full circle to where I began in the electronic age: handheld screen and separate keyboard.

  • Advantages: see entry on Palm, less the part about distraction. On the other hand, this does allow me to walk on the treadmill and do twitter or email correspondence, a plus (exercise and business in the same pass) or get caught up on reading.
  • Disadvantages: tiny screen. I have to be super careful to keep it at eye level lest I develop the C-shaped body posture of the inveterate laptop user.
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One Response to Writer Tech: A Short Autobiography in Writing Tools

  1. historysleuth1 says:

    I had to laugh t this. You remind me of me and all the gadgets I’ve gone through. I even have a Jornada 720, an early handheld device. I could hook to email with a wifi card to transfer text. Love the long battery life.

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